Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Nov. 6: read todays Times and Transcript in 4 to 5 minutes...

Worth a read - Alec Bruce column, David Suzuki column, letters to the editor (some very good ones today.)
That' s pretty much it. Most of the news is either trivial or uninformative.

Norbert Cunningham column is a good story for ranting grouches in bed with a tummy ache. This is is about civil servants who live high on the taxpayers' dime. (Where does he think Mr. Irving gets his dimes from? Where does he think CEOs on million dollar salaries get their dimes from? Do theirs come from people who don't pay taxes?)

Their is nothing ( again) on Mr. Northrup's investigation into SWN (which long ago admitted it broke the law when it began exploration for shale gas in Sussex.) The TandT has paid more attention to some person who's been stealing sex toys than it has to this abusive behaviour by a corporation.

So - this is a good day to to start a promised look at school rankings - a practice now all the rage in Canada and the US. We'll start with the granfaher of school rankings in Canada, the MacLean's annual rankings of universities.

For a start, there is no such thing as a best university. As teaching institutions, all Canadian universities are much the same. For a start, almost all university teachers in the US and Canada have exactly the same training in teaching. That is - they have none.

They are trained in their subjects. They are not trained in how to teach them. To know how to teach is kind of important. But, generally, across Canada and the US, few universities have the faintest idea what teaching means. They should, one would think, be teaching students how think for themselves, how to express themselves, how to make judgements. But, for the most part, they don't. And it has never occured to them to even think of how it could be done.

All the typical history teacher knows, for example, is to is how to recite  historical "facts"  to be memorized for an exam. It's a waste of time. Six months after the exam, the students, having no use for the "facts", will have forgotten most of them.

That's why The Canadian Council on Learning (a federal body) just weeks ago reported that Candian universities are "dysfunctional".

So far as most undergraduates are concerned, there is no significant difference between any two Canadian universities.

However, if you are going for a master's degree or, especially, a doctorate, then it pays to go to a university with a big name. It's not that it will be any better than another. But the snobbery of the academic world (and of the business world) will make your degree more admired.

So how can magazine editors become the experts who decide which is the best university? Simple. All they do is copy the educational ignorance and the snobbery of the academic world. So a good university has lots of research grants. What good that is to most students is not clear. But it is something you can measure.

Something else you can measure is the size of the library. The best university has the biggest library. In fifty years of being a student and then a professor, I spent my life in libraries with hundreds of thousands of books.  (Never did get around to all of them.)

Yes, of course, you want a library with a good selection - of the books you need.  The average undergraduate does not need hundreds of thousands of books.

Another thing you can measure is class size. So MacLean's looks for small classes as a measure of quality. Look - a class whether small, medium or big - will be good if it is taught by a good teacher. I have been in large classes taught by good teachers - and they were worthwhile. I have been in small classes taught by bad teachers (one, at the doctoral level, was a top expert in his field) - and they were a waste of time.

Then, there is another problem. All students have different needs. A university whose snobbery is inspiring to one student will be distasteful to others.

The MacLean's survey looks for, as it must, things it can measure. Alas! Most of the things one can measure have nothing to do with whether a university is the best one for you or for anybody.

But the impact of the MacLean's survey on universities has been strong and destructive.

In their scramble to do well in the survey, and so to draw more students,  universities scamper to design their education systems the way magazine editors, of all people, tell them they should be designed.

They demand ever more research from their professors, for example, which results in thousands of articles that have to be published in subsidized journals because few will read them. Why should they? Many of them are research for the sake of research, and have no value whatever. But publications are something MacLean's can measure - the heat is on profs to publish - publish anything. But publish.

As result, teaching - never a strong point in our universities - has sunk to abysmal levels (without ever being half-decent to start with.)

Historically, universityies were a last fling at childhood (irresponsibility with beer thrown in) for rich kids. Professors and the few serious students went about  their studies wtihout paying much attention to the party kids.

That changed about 1950 as our society required more highly trained people. And so the universities became really an extension of public schooling. The professors couldn't just stand there reciting facts. They had to learn how to teach.

But they didn't. The old snobbery and egoism of research ignored the need for teaching. The MacLean's pseudo-scientific surverys have made it far, far worse. We are spending a lot of money on universities - for pretty meagre returns.

Meanwhile, if you're going to university, forget the MacLean's survey. Pick the one you think will suit you.

Just don't expect great teaching, no matter which one you choose.

On the next slack day, we'll look at the drive for school ratings of public schools, the greedy reasons behind it, and the damage it has done to our schools.

1 comment:

  1. > The Canadian Council on Learning

    The Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) was actually formed by the provicial governments, through the Canadian Ministers of Education Council (CMEC). It ran for about five years and was closed down this year.