School too cheap and easy: historians

In Arts & Life /

By David Dias

The next time you walk into a classroom, look at some of the students. Do they look inquisitive, brimming over with a need to learn? Or are their eyes glazed over with thoughts of last night’s episode of Friends?

And while you’re monitoring your fellow students, take a look at the professors. Do they care that their students are playing hangman in the back of the classroom?

If your classes seem less than effective, you might ask yourself, “Why should I pay so much money to sit in a room full of dullards, with a teacher who reads from the text?”

You shouldn’t, according to historians David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell, and J. L. Granastein. Their book, Petrified Campus, depicts a Canadian postsecondary educational system gone awry. They outline historical events that turned a system based on academic excellence into one based on accessibility — which, they say, has resulted in substandard students.

The authors have many complaints about the Canadian university system: grade inflation and mediocre universities have lowered educational standards; tenure is being used to protect incompetent professors; political correctness is forcing teachers to walk on eggshells.

Although the author’s ravenous attacks on universities can be amusing, reader be warned: their ultraconservative, bottom-line philosophy can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Petrified Campus recommends the creation of an elitist university system, in which students pay higher tuition for higher prospected earnings and professors are not protected by tenure.

It’s common knowledge among university professionals that “grade inflation” has lowered the value of university marks. The authors offer compelling evidence: “In 1996, only 3 per cent of Ontario high school students had averages above 80 per cent and were awarded Ontario Scholarships. By 1992, this figure had soared to 44.3 per cent … In effect, either the students have become smarter or, much more likely, their teachers have become more lenient.”

This inflation of grades, the authors say, allows mediocre students to infiltrate universities, making classes easier as professors try to compensate for their students’ ineptitude. Although there is little hard evidence to prove that students have gotten dumber, the authors offer their decades of experience as professors as authority.

To solve grade inflation, the authors suggest standardizing university entrance grades with tests similar to U.S. Standard Aptitude Tests (SATs). Universities should then raise standards to get rid of incompetent students, which they say will save taxpayers money wasted on lesser quality students. “What Canada needs is a small number of first-class universities that will cater to the best students, attract the ablest faculty and receive greater government funding than the lower-quality universities.”

Ryerson registrar Keith Alnwick says he finds that elitist philosophy repugnant.

“What they want is a situation where there’s winner you, and loser you, and run-of-the-mill you,” he says. “I’d like to understand the value of that. This school of thought is, ‘Well, we’d prefer not to give you a place in university at all. But the next best thing is to give you a place in an inferior university which gets less money.”

Although Canada has no schools like Harvard or Yale, Alnwick says that the more accessible Canadian postsecondary system fares well against its U.S. counterpart.

According to Alnwick, most research indicates that accessible universities make society better educated. “I think that the education system in Canada has served us pretty well, and I think that our awareness of the world around us is greater on average than in the U.S.”

Apart from making universities more elite, and generally more American, the authors of Petrified Campus also suggests tenure be eliminated, which they claim protects the jobs of incompetent professors.

Although faculty union contracts allow for the removal of incompetent professors, the authors say this rarely happens. “There were more than 27,000 university professors in 1994, but our best guestimate is that no more than 15 tenured faculty have been fired over the years 1984-94, a number that surely underestimates the number of incompetents in any group of that size.”

Excellent young professors are often the first victims of staff cuts, say the authors, while incompetent old professors are protected by tenure.

Patrick O’Neil is chairman of the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). He challenges the statistics offered by the authors of Petrified Campus, saying that the same statistic could indicate that the right people are getting tenure. CAUT argues that the purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom. “A person who had unpopular opinions, studies politically incorrect hypotheses, or criticizes either the university or society in general, can always be fired for other reasons in the absence of the security provided by tenure.”

But the authors say tenure can no longer protect university teachers from the wrath of an oversensitive, politically correct student body. The chapter “Separating the Sheep from the Goats: Politically Incorrect Thoughts” rejects the notion of systemic racism or sexism, and attempts to show that political correctness has undermined free thought in university.

The authors support this controversial claim by citing another controversy: the case of professor J. Philippe Rushton at the University of Western Ontario, who studied racial differences in the late eighties. His unpalatable conclusions were deemed “racialist pseudoscience” by many, and the academic freedom provided by tenure could not save him from his forced resignation.

Readers will find plenty of controversy between the pages of Petrified Campus. The authors want an elite postsecondary system which benefits the best students and the best faculty, but screws everyone else. Although the authors point to clear problems in the education system, their solutions stem from a right-wing philosophy which may be too much for some to handle.

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