Shapeshifting education

It wasn’t finance, it was the sharing of music, storytelling and craft that allowed slaves of the American south to hold on to a semblance of identity despite their suffering; and the survival and legacy of those arts has embedded itself into our contemporary culture with immeasurable richness, from the music of Paul Robeson, John Coltrane and Queen Latifah to the Quilts of Gee’s Bend and stories of Br’er Rabbit.

The experiences of our indigenous brothers and sisters show us daily how easily language and cultural knowledge can be lost within the span of even one generation, and the negative impact that occurs when the culture of a community (or a nation) begins to unravel.

It seems impossible that in mainstream Canada we could suffer a similar fate. We live in a free country. We are educated and have the power of choice, don’t we? Yet as corporate media controls our content, cuts are made to cultural resources, and we are bombarded with the sophisticated marketing of a mono-culture, those choices are literally being dismembered even as I write this.

Here in Peterborough our Trent University is unique: a small rural institution in the heart of an indigenous community, well-respected for decades for its cultural and political studies, an excellent breeding ground for creative, independent thinkers – not to mention the campus designed by Ron Thom which some regard as an architectural masterpiece. I think of Trent as ours – part of Peterborough – despite its disengagement from the larger community, something Founding President Professor Tom Symons says “… needs rebuilding as it’s been neglected for many years.” I didn’t attend Trent myself, but somehow have a slew of smart, free-thinking friends who did, and I know that the Peterborough is enriched by the many Trent graduates who choose to stay on and live in the community.

Undoubtedly financial dilemmas and low enrollment are part of the rationale behind Trent’s decision to make substantial cuts to its cultural studies program, even though the program has successfully spawned many of the creative institutions and individuals who thrive in and contribute much to our city. It is beyond the scope of this article to conjecture on what are probably many legitimate reasons for these actions. We know that the internet has profoundly changed the nature of education; and that young people are desperate for an education that will lead to secure employment, even as it tethers them to debt that may take a lifetime to repay. Surely the sheer price of an education may be in part responsible for low enrollment. I question why it would it make sense to cut arts programming whenthe arts sector employs as many people as the combined sectors of agriculture, forestry, mining, fishing, oil, gas and utilities … generating $9 billion in GDP. The arts could be giving Fort McMurray a run for its money, if our economics were based on fact and not perception, habit and greed. And might it not be the very lack of choice in curriculum that makes Trent less attractive in the long run? We know how important diversity is in nature – shouldn’t that principle hold weight in education? Sometimes I fear graduate studies have become merely a holding tank for the unemployed, at least until a generation of boomers exits the stage in the next decade or two.

To my mind, the dream of a restored status quo economy is unattainable. Can we allow our universities to become a juggernaut for a dying economic system? A university is not the same as a trade school after all – it should be a place where more than anything we learn how to think. In many ways it was designed to enable the gestation and evolution of our culture. How can we ensure our halls of learning remain vehicles and safe harbours for debate, reason, reflection, research and experimentation, outside the reach of the corporate machine?

Consider the possibility of continuous learning as the future of universities. We know that learning is good for us – learning an instrument, picking up a paintbrush or a language at any age is great for our brains, not to mention our souls. Can we instil a love of learning for its own sake into everyone, so that we all partake of its nectar throughout our lives instead of cramming it all in before we even become adults? Art and culture should never be considered merely hobby or entertainment – they profoundly inform our way of life, our perception of our world and ourselves.

Artist Jimson Bowler commented recently that it would not surprise him if “Peterborough’s destiny is to be a gathering place for learning.”  The nearby Petroglyphs are called “teaching rocks;” there is a historical precedent and the continuity of living cultures that have existed on these Otonabee shores for centuries.

We forget that the relatively egalitarian education system that we know today, originally aimed at training youth for the work force, is only about 150 years old and that humankind has found ways to pass on knowledge long before. A Peterborough without Trent University would be sadly diminished. Yet if our education system fails us, we must remember that there are those among us who continue to pass on the torch of knowledge, in new and old ways, within and without such institutions, before our memory of choice is lost. But never should we take a broad and unbiased education for granted.

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