We are all affected in one way or another by what goes on at universities across Canada, but those most specifically affected are the young. And among them there is some fashionable thinking: universities are irrelevant. Avoid them. Those who are in fact attending — as well as their paying parents — feel an unease they very often can’t comprehend. Graffiti above campus urinals, besides singing the praises of that ubiquitous male dream called Karen who makes free house calls, rages 'at what a mindscrew university really is. These things are reflections of the present great confusion the whole university community is suffering. But there is a revolution upon us, and there is hope.
What’s happening is hard to express neatly in one clear proposition. In an intricate culture — and especially inside the university, which is one of its most complex centres of influence — pat explanations serve only to remind us that the original human sin is not biting apples but taking wooden nickels. In short, credulousness. Octavio Paz, the great Mexican poet and essayist, has said that it is naïve of us “to think that a book can teach you to copulate better. It is an example of North American idealism and optimism — it’s blind faith in education.” Paz’ insight gathers up something obvious about us that produces a shudder of recognition even as we go out to buy the How-to book, the How4o course or the Howto degree that will change our lives. On campus, the meaningful upset that’s occurring now stems from our
losing faith in the doctrine of How-to.
It’s a different kind of disturbance than occurred during the dramatic upheavals in the 1960s, which for all their sound and fury changed very little that wasn’t ready to be changed. The unrest today is quieter, deeper and the result of a visceral understanding that a familar way of doing things is dying and something else has been conceived which is going to be born whether we like it or not.
In fact, the university is living through a very peculiar moment in its history. Like the rest of us, it has for the past while enjoyed an economy that, if it hasn’t been wildly expansive, has been at least deliciously tumescent. Now it has wakened suddenly to find itself in the vanguard of the New Reality. Its resources — students — are drying up, and with them a great deal of its money as well as its old smiling tolerance for nearly everything. A chorus of governments cries Cut back, Cut back. There are generalized threats and outbreaks of anger as the cold winds of mortality blow down the necks of deans and administrators: “I’ve got 5% more input (students) this year than you have, so I’ll have 5% of your funds, and don’t talk to me about output and the quality of life in Canada. This is serious ...” The public couldn’t care less (being largely uninformed), except that the university should be ready at the proper moment to confer a useful degree such as marine biology on their personal Susans or Johns.
Yet, despite these clashes of the armies of the status quo, there is a fundamental change in direction painfully and confusedly coming about. It may be happening for two basic reasons. The first is that How-to hasn’t saved us. The second is that our century of devotion to How-to has provided us with enough slave technology to allow us to stop wasting energy simply ordering facts and to start trying to order the mind so that we may by our own will endure rather than perish. A heady but necessary thought, this. For how long have we been reminded — and refused to listen — that the great questions are all, in the end, religious ones? They should be contemplated sometime during the day by all of us, just as everyone must dream at night or go mad. For a century and more our dominant intellects have contemplated these larger questions less and less. They have concerned themselves with great forces instead: nature, accident,
Robert Harlow is head of the creative writing department at the University of British Columbia.
artifice. They have assumed that if they could dominate nature, prove, as for instance Marx and Freud thought, that there really are no accidents, and at the same time achieve those two goals through technological artifice, then they would have progressed a long way toward perfection. What has resulted, as we can see, is prodigious in the material sense. But we have also managed, in our passion for analysis, to split everything off from everything else. Decades of finer and finer splitting-off have produced an alienated, narrow, issue-oriented society.
The changes imminent on our campuses — perhaps another Canadian quiet revolution — are signs of a world slowly turning over. The process has been going on for some time and is further advanced than many think. We can be sure now, at any rate, that it isn’t going to stop. The necessity is apparent that one must deal with human viewpoint rather than simple method; there is already some agreement that universities stop being super trade schools serving bigger business and more intrusive government in favor of becoming part of the larger community; there is pressure now to serve the student rather than simply a discipline or a professor’s personal area of research; the urge is there to break free of the old compulsive academic list making and hysterical scrambling and renaming of parts; and if we need further motivation to draw together rather than split off there is looming close the very real threat of Apocalypse. The university has served popes, princes and progress in the past, and so now it should not seem unnatural — indeed, it should seem exciting — if it moves in a new and necessary direction to try to serve all facets of our survival.
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