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Scholarship or Sink

On April 24, 1997, the City of Belleville's flaghip paper, The Intelligencer, ascended the editorial podium to endorse a message delivered by Mr. Ian Jukes of the Thornburg Centre for Professional Development in San Carlos, California. Mr Jukes had traveled a wonderful distance to admonish students at our local community college that they must become "technologically literate and technologically fluent" -- or face a lifetime of marginal employment.

According to our editor, this signaled a long-overdue renaissance in educational thinking -- a movement away from the fatuous indulgence of a liberal arts education. What students should have been doing all along -- something the current jobless figures is making painfully clear -- is developing marketable skills, so they could be of some use to employers in the 'New World Order' economy.

By way of corroboration, the Intelligencer quoted Ms. Angela Carmichael, a young woman apparently reaping the whirlwind of a bad decision. She is the ambivalent possessor of a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Ottawa ... which "hasn't prepared me for the workforce."

There is no doubt that people are having a hard time finding employment; and there is no doubt that most significant jobs today require sophisticated skills. However, there are worrisome things about carte blanche endorsements of technical training that we should pay attention to. First of all, it is a sad comment that the only way the young can hope to 'get a life' is to relinquish any significant exposure to the accomplishments of humankind.

The life that they will live, if they so proceed, may not be nasty, brutish and short, but it will be superficial, unleavened and almost certainly foolish. What of the music, the literature, the plays, the poetry? Are all of these riches to be abandoned because politicians have been pandering to corporate agendas? Of course not. The children of the wealthy will continue to have these opportunities. However, they apparently must be abandoned by the hoi polloi.

There is an anti-democratic dimension to this proposed pedagogy. The advice proffered by by Mr. Jukes, and seconded by the Intelligencer, is to be a specialist instead of a generalist. Yet we profess to be living in a democracy -- something about ordinary people making decisions about the way their society and economy will operate. The problem is, if educational efforts must now be harnessed to the production of specialists, what are the chances that the resulting voters will have sufficient sense of the world, never mind of history, to make thoughtful choices? Does it not seem likely that dubious agendas will rush into this vacuum?

Indeed, should they somehow become engaged and informed, Mr Jukes' truncated students will be so dependent upon the status quo that it seems unlikely that they would ever be able to say anything save Yes! Yes! ... More! More!

Surely, even if we are willing to give up the world's cultural repository in favour of jobs jobs jobs ... , we should still question whether present trajectories and hegemonies are such that we are willing to commit all of our prospects to them.

Make no mistake about it -- this is what abandoning generalist educations amounts to.

A more immediate objection might be raised. By Mr Jukes' own argument, the world is changing rapidly. Does it not follow that the sensible stance is to be as generalist as possible, on the premise that any specialism is likely to be soon obsolete? Educate the young so that they can read and write fluently, do research, think critically, assimilate information autonomously ... in other words, to have exactly Ms. Carmichael's background. Whether she recognizes it or not, this young woman is well positioned. All that she has to do is put her generalist resources to some specific assimilation (perhaps at a community college!) and then present herself to employers as a well-rounded person, able to grow with the job. Any employer one would want to work for would be glad to have an employee who would not have to be sent back to the factory every six months for upgrading!

Finally, there is 'the moral thing': I was a little surprised that the Intelligencer proffered editorial sanction to Mr. Jukes, given that, on the same page, there was a cartoon by Corrigan (from the previous week's Toronto Star.) The left half depicted the Canadian beaver holding up placards objecting to human rights abuses in Nigeria, Haiti, Burma and S. Africa ... all places of ill-repute wherein (it turns out) Canada has little to gain economically. The remainder was devoted to the same beaver, now seated, contemplating the profit possibilities attaching to the Canadian - Chinese connection, a country wherein human abuse is equally a matter of public record.

What is being depicted is the moral turpitude of a society of specialists.