whitehorse a university town

There is a move afoot to place a university in Whitehorse. Doing this is a good idea only if one clearly understands what formal education,…

There is a move afoot to place a university in Whitehorse.

Doing this is a good idea only if one clearly understands what formal education, particularly at the higher stages, is all about.

While we may rush to trumpet the economic benefits of a university approach to formal education — and there clearly are many — we should keep in mind something educational guru David Orr once observed:

“Formal education is a not altogether workable solution to a not altogether solvable problem.”

Orr, the Paul Sears distinguished professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College has made a career out of investigating what formal education is (living as lifelong learners), what drives it (the industrial economy), what is wrong with it (almost everything) and why we cannot do without it (maybe).

If the goal of having a university in Whitehorse is purely economic, much better to invite yet another Wal-Mart or fully fund the cultural economy or do away with environmental safeguards and open the place to full bore resource extraction.

Universities often become little more than poorly run bureaucracies that can only make a go of it by sucking up large amounts of federal, territorial/provincial, municipal and corporate cash.

In doing so, they, in turn, slowly distance themselves from what formal education should be.

If not careful, Whitehorse could well end up with a fractured economy and a middle-of-the-road system of higher education.

The problems as I see it (and Orr has helped shape much of my thinking here) is that many, if not most universities quickly become dependent on outside political and economic forces.

As these forces pull away at the mainstay of higher education (the art of becoming less dumb), real learning falls by the wayside.

A university’s dependence on outside forces may be particularly troublesome here in the Yukon.

Often the economic and political needs of a university are at odds with other sectors of the local economy and with the overall health of the local environment.

Because universities require large amounts of cash, they must divert government monies from existing services, draw down new funding or turn to the private sector.

Almost without exception, it is this latter source that seems most palatable to the system of higher education. And it is this sector that often fails to comprehend the nuances of the surrounding local environment.

Corporations do not pump money into education without some expectation of payback.

The incentives given to large corporations to give to higher education — rebates and tax incentives — often run counter to the needs of the local economy, or more disturbing, to the health and well-being of the students themselves.

One has only to look closely at the University of Colorado’s cozy relationship with Coors Brewery (its newly renovated Coors Field Athletic Stadium) and the staggering rise of alcohol abuse in the student population.

Money flowing into universities almost always favours technological sciences and research over arts and humanities.

This competition for funds isolates and segments disciplines into highly specialized fields.

And it leads to a scholarship and a citizenship that is narrow just at a time when we need to be turning out learners with a broad field of vision.

One thing a university can ill afford to be is timid in the face of the crucial issues facing cities and towns today.

There is an obligation, it seems to me, to produce learners that are well equipped to feed into and support the local economy.

Historically, smaller community colleges and trade schools have been better at meeting this demand.

On the other hand, universities have an obligation to certify learners as competent in understanding global concerns, the complex and controversial issues of multiculturalism, war and peace and the environment.

As a way of preparing students to question and observe, professors often see their role as provocateurs of differing social and political ideologies.

Some smaller communities are ill prepared to “put up with” this.

Often it is difficult to turn out students with open minds without running the risk of rankling the accepted social fabric of a smaller community.

If Whitehorse decides to get into the business of university education, it must find an acceptable venue in which the community as a whole has the opportunity to participate in a serious discussion on all aspects of education, not just the economic spin-offs.

This, of course, is more easily said than done. Few communities have undertaken the challenge successfully. Whitehorse is small enough, I believe, to allow this to happen.

Only when we know as a community what we want to educate for, and what the educational pitfalls are to avoid, can we justify going into the education business.

Orr reminds us of the following educational dangers:

“That formal education will cause students to worry about how to make a living before they know who they are; that it will render students narrow technicians who are morally sterile, and that it will deaden their sense of wonder for the created world.

If we can avoid these dangers and remain open to community change, I believe Whitehorse might just be the place for a sound northern university.