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Rethinking thinking
February 8, 2012 - 3:02pm

Over at the Chronicle, Scott Carlson had a really good article a couple of days back.  Based on the observations of a number of faculty members on different campuses, he suggests that our education system tends to segregate us from how the physical objects we deal with really work, get made, could be improved.  Without being quite so impolitic as to say so, he implies that the concept of America as a hub of innovation while at the same time a mass of mindless consumption is a symptom of national craniorectosis.  And he correlates this to our inability to think clearly about sustainability.

Carlson ascribes value to both technical training and liberal education, but concludes that neither is, by itself, adequate.  He refers to the German educational system as one which does a good job of imparting both kinds of knowledge, but those of us in the Northeast have a nearer example.  Indeed, two.

The educational systems of both Ontario and Quebec do a better job than their southern neighbors of combining intellectual and (broadly defined) technical learning.  Part of what distinguishes both systems from the situation in the USA is that the terms "university" and "college" are more clearly defined.  In fact, most Canadian citizens seem befuddled by the fact that folks in the USA use the terms more or less interchangeably.

I'll probably get it wrong, but let me try to sketch things out.

Of the two provincial systems, I'm more familiar with the one in Ontario.  (Probably because my French is so poor.  Sigh.)  The province has 21 universities, all public, all in what US admissions folks would consider a moderate range of student selectivity.  Different universities have different strengths, but they seem to compete as much on the basis of locational convenience as institutional identity (with a few exceptions like Queen's).  University curriculum is comprehensive but only softly focused, comparable to what you'll find in many four-year US schools.    By contrast, Ontario colleges teach (often highly technical) job skills.  And many Ontario university graduates follow their bachelor's with a year of college to improve their employment prospects.

In Quebec, of course, they do it differently.  College and university are still clearly differentiated, but students have to go through college to get to university.  Eleven years of public education, followed by two years of college, then (for some) three years of university.  Again, university is about learning how to think, but college (CEGEP) is a mix of "how to think" with "how to do".

I see strengths in both models, but I think I prefer the one from Ontario.  For folks who learn best by doing, going straight into college (one, two or three years following high school) often leads to a good job and a solid middle-class lifestyle.  Others, perhaps of a more intellectual bent, go straight to university and may (or may not) add a year of college.  But both kinds of learning are valued and both systems are respected.  (Although, of course, Canadian provinces are under similar financial pressures to their US neighbors and the implications are being felt on campuses of both sorts.)

The statistics tell me that Canada has a higher rate of post-secondary educational achievement than the USA.  My personal observation is that Canadian society is at least somewhat less disconnected from physical reality than we are here.  Post-secondary education seems more intentional, better articulated, more transparent.  And I can't help but believe this all correlates to the fact that Canadian citizens seem to respect science (including, but not limited to climate science) on a more pragmatic level than we do, here in the States.

(Not necessarily including Albertans, of course.)


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