The dean of students at leafy Victoria College says universities are caught in an identity crisis — trying to be job factories more than think tanks, with students more keen on filling their resumes than filling their minds.
It seems to be all about getting marks, not making a mark.
So feisty Kelley Castle is fighting back by launching a fistful of unusual courses with no marks, no exams, no prerequisites, no credit and no charge, just the chance to kick around big ideas.
At a recent orientation rally, she urged students to make time for at least one of the six free courses she has planned, some at noon, some in the evening, some this fall, some next spring, most with award-winning guest lecturers, some that involve acting out parts of plays from Rent to Plato’s Republic and all with free food thrown in.
The first 12-week course called Humanities for Humanity, a sampler of the big names of western thought, started earlier this month.
To keep it real, the outspoken University of Toronto academic and former community activist has invited members of the public facing hardship — poverty, disability — to join in several of the discussion-based courses on heady topics in science, culture, religion, theatre, the humanities and politics, all part of a post-secondary experiment Castle calls Ideas for the World.
“For too long we’ve created classrooms where students aren’t interested in deep learning; they’re so worried about upsetting their professor, they’re afraid to take a risk,” warned Castle.
“But I really believe university should leave you stirred — and shaken.”
She watched this happen when MP Bob Rae gave a talk last year for Humanities for Humanity on whether attaining peace is worth giving up freedom, and a homeless man in the program told Rae: “F— you! I’ve been disenfranchised all my life and you don’t know how that feels — I would never give up freedom.”’
“But another guy disagreed and said, ‘You’re crazy; I’m from a war zone and if you knew what that was like, you’d give up anything for peace.”’
It was an intensity of debate all too rare in the Ivory Tower, noted Castle, who designed the humanities course four years ago with her husband, ethics professor John Duncan of Trinity College.
Welcome to one of the hottest feuds in higher education: gaining employment credentials versus a grounding in handling ideas — yet universities can and should do both, says Harvey Weingarten, head of Ontario’s advisory group on post-secondary learning.
“Just because 70 per cent of all new jobs will require some sort of post-secondary credential doesn’t mean employers don’t also want students who are interested in critical thinking on how to deal with poverty, homelessness, the environment and even how to think about the upcoming provincial election,” said Weingarten, president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
Sarah Didora has been on welfare since multiple sclerosis forced her to quit studying and working. But when her social worker referred her to Humanities for Humanity last year, it reawakened her love for the world of ideas.
“It changed every part of me; I read all the time now — I feel so uplifted and smart and capable. I’m like, ‘Wow, I forgot I like doing this kind of stuff!’ ” said the 26-year-old, who especially liked reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
She hopes to take several of the Ideas for the World courses this year.
Fourth-year Vic student Christopher Mastropietro took Humanities for Humanity last year and said it renewed his interest in learning for the sake of it.
“Take away the formal mechanics of how university works — the evaluation, the prerequisites — and you’re forced to consider the material beyond just ‘What does this mean to my GPA (grade point average)?’ ” he said, noting it’s “profoundly true” many students study only what they need to get a job.
“High school conditions us to think of university as job preparation and universities even market some courses by promoting their employability, so something like this really renews an interest in learning,” said the 22-year-old communications major.
Victoria president Paul Gooch contends students should not try to choose their career before they start university.
“What people do these days is about five or six different jobs over their lifetime. Look at Carole Taylor, who graduated from Vic with a degree in English and went on to become the finance minister of British Columbia,” said Gooch.
“When you get to university, you begin to understand the wonder of the world and see other paths.”