As yet another academic year begins at the University of Saskatchewan, the Sheaf has put together three unique perspectives on the fundamental question that many individuals on campus may be asking themselves: why are we here?
Because students deserve proper guidance
It is once again the beginning of the school year and before diving into work it is important to reflect on why we are here and what it is most fundamentally important to be doing.
As a university professor I face tasks, expectations and demands coming from many directions — there is always more work than there is ever time to accomplish: administrative, collegial and professional requirements, unfolding research projects, and the day-to-day of teaching and student relations.
Recently, the aims of universities have grown more complicated. We are entering a period in which the priorities of universities are increasingly determined by Tri-Council funding and Industry Canada’s research objectives. But it’s important we remember another priority: undergradute teaching. After all it is our undergraduate students who will, in the long run, determine the cultural life in which we live.
This focus seems all the more important given the woeful preparation for the university experience our students receive from high school and the culture of immaturity in which they are immersed. It is undergraduate teaching which is for me, at least, the centrally important activity at university. So how is one to teach well and responsibly?
By “teaching” I do not, of course, mean the delivery of a product for students to consume on their way to a buying a ticket into a job.
It is true that an important part of it is offering training in a set of skills and a body of knowledge. Possessing these skills can aid students entry into professions as chemists or historians or philosophers. And there is no doubt that it is very satisfying, indeed quite wonderful, to be able to help a student who is filled with a passion for a subject; to mould him or herself into a master of the discipline. But such cases are easy pleasures. These students have already made the choices to follow that discipline and acquire allegiance to it.
Indeed, the heart of teaching lies deeper than passing on a skill-set. Our more fundamental task is to open up a space in which the life-structuring choices which our students will make about what to become can be made freely, passionately and intelligently. University, ideally, is a protected space of freedom, a place for discovery and the self-construction of identity, unconstrained by the external world. In short, it is a place where students can explore their inner talents and desires and become more authentically themselves through free self-making.
All very grand, I admit. But also ordinary and hard, for teaching often involves dealing with students, perhaps the majority of them, who are less than free and lacking many of the intellectual, moral, and characterological skills they will need. They can still become the people they want to be in the future if only they are able to imagine themselves more authentically.
As teachers, we cannot dismiss our (admittedly partial but ongoing) responsibility for whatever minor effects we may have on the life structuring choices our students make. Indeed, facing our responcibility is neither a trivial matter nor an easy one. But there is at least this much truth to this image of the university: that it can become a larger, freer and more authentic space for self-creation if we give our heart to the task and do our best to help to make it so.
Eric Dayton is a philosophy professor and head of the Department of Philosophy
Because the alternatives are terrifying
ISHMAEL N. DARO
Think of yourself the day after you graduated from high school. You likely thought you had finally reached adulthood and that you were ready to take on the world.
How wrong you were. How wrong we all were.
The truth is that 17- and 18-year-olds don’t know much about anything, and the fact they don’t know how much they don’t know should keep us all awake at night. We should all constantly be in fear of how little everyone knows about the world, including ourselves.
Some say that money is the root of all evil; others say it is religion; a tiny minority say it is rock ‘n’ roll music and the way Elvis shook his hips on TV.
But the true root of all evil is ignorance.
Just imagine how senseless and cruel the world is when you have no concept of germs and disease. Your friends and loved ones die for seemingly no reason, and the only consolation you can draw is by burning a witch at the stake.
But introduce the germ theory of disease, and witch burnings lose their appeal. Learn about biology and evolution, and hatred of skin-deep differences ceases to make any sense. Learn about the cosmos, and there is no longer any need to fear the dark.
Even today’s great challenges — from hunger to disease to war — are ultimately a result of people not knowing better. The solution to all these problems exists, but we have yet to discover them.
And how do the ignorant seek shelter from their own evil? The most effective way we have yet found is through education, and the more education you can get, the better. Hence, why we are all here at the University of Saskatchewan — some for the first time and others returning to the halls of this fine institution.
There are, of course, numerous problems with the way higher education is structured, not least of which is the prohibitive cost for many in society who would most benefit from further education. Those of us who are lucky or indebted enough to enjoy the fruits of knowledge have an obligation to make the most of it.
University is more than just a degree mill. It is a chance to learn and to grow, and by doing so, contribute to the advancement of humanity. There is a world of people, ideas and mistakes awaiting us inside these halls, each one more valuable than the last. As long as we are open-minded and willing to change our beliefs based on evidence and experience, these four (or five, or seven) years of university will not have been a waste.
University is ultimately a chance to learn just how ignorant we are, and to never forget it. Because only once we realize our own limitations can we go beyond them.
Ishmael N. Daro is the editor-in-chief of the Sheaf.
Because it’s a place of learning
As one of the many slogans of the university points out, this is a place “where great minds meet.” It is a place where many of the brightest academics in any given ï¬eld come to pass on their knowledge to us, the next generation. (Anyone get the Star Trek joke? Anyone?)
On campus, students learn about the world from people who have lived through more world events than us. Our professors are people who understand why things work the way they do. They can analyze them with clarity and precision. We as students need their perspectives because — to put it bluntly — a lot of shit is fucked up. And it is up to us to change it.
But before we can change things, we must ï¬rst understand them. In essence, that is what we are here to do.
We are here to better understand the inner workings of our societies and the human condition, so that we can know what brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
We are here to learn what works and what doesn’t; we are here to learn about ourselves and others; and we are here to change everything around us for the better — so that future generations won’t have to.
Campuses like ours allow us to study things we can’t neccessarily study on our own. Here, we can study soil development. We can create strains of crops that will not only grow anywhere, but actually enhance the fertility of the native soil. These strains are imperative to mitigating the effects of famine in places like the Horn of Africa
Basically, we are here to better understand everything about everything, not just for the sake of knowledge in and of itself. We are also here to apply our knowledge to the real world and make it a better place.
Scott Hitchings is the president of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union
photo: Raisa Pezderic