Highsmith on Education


By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

This has been a disruptive year at the university on many fronts: pedagogically, economically, emotionally.  We have struggled to meet the needs of our students in ways that are respectful of the strains and pressures they face but without diminishing the value and integrity of our academic offerings and pastoral care.  I believe we have acquitted ourselves well given the whirligig of challenges we, along with every other post-secondary institution in the land, have faced over these our nasty plague years.

It is now a cliché to say that our collective COVID experience—clearly not over yet—has allowed us to consider different ways of doing the things we had hitherto considered codified, sacred and immutable, but I think we can all agree that such an observation is empirically true.  We can see it in the astonishing fact that many people are re-evaluating their career decisions, assessing anew the balance of their professional with their personal lives, establishing afresh the priorities and hopes that define their values.

So what about the current state of tertiary-level education in Canada?  Is it all it can be?  Is there need for change?

If we look at what it is like to be an undergraduate now and compare it with, say, the 1950s, can we honestly say that we have drunk generously from the chalice of progress?

I was struck recently by the following passage to be found in the diaries of American novelist Patricia Highsmith (“A Straight Line in the Darkness,” The New Yorker, October 4, 2021, p.52) where she speaks of education in terms that are arresting:

1/25/50: Education.  How we should love those years of formal education, especially in the university.  To the reflective person, it is the last time he[she] will remember that the world made sense, the world promised to continue to make sense.  It is the only time when all he is filled and concerned with really concerns life.  No wonder he is happy!  No wonder each day is heroic adventure! No wonder he doesn’t want to go to bed at night!

There may be various reasons why an undergraduate would not want to go to bed at night, but one of them should be the consequence of intellectual curiosity, the excitement that comes from new ideas, the rich interchange that comes from time spent thinking novel things.

In a society where utilitarianism reigns uncontested, time spent out of the lecture hall or lab is time spent earning money to keep debt load manageable, where is the happiness in learning, where is the undiminished wonder?

In a time of post-pandemic recovery, I think we should consider this a top priority: making the lives of our students a daily heroic adventure—intellectual and spiritual.


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