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Environment

Advice for the Class of 2024: Be High-Maintenance!

Teachers did a good job with your predecessors. Now, we have a lot to learn from you.

Crawford Kilian 3 Sep 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

OK, everyone, settle down. Welcome to the orientation session for the class of ’24.

And welcome to one of the most conservative cultures on the planet, North American post-secondary education. Canada’s greatest scholar, Northrop Frye himself (Google him, after I’m finished!), once wrote to me saying nothing had indeed changed in education since at least the 1950s, and he wasn’t happy about it.

Bear in mind that post-secondary is conservative, because for centuries it was a reliable launch pad for the socially mobile. Graduates predictably made more, and therefore got to consume more, than if they’d gone into the workforce after high school. No one wanted to mess with success.

Post-secondary is still seen as a worthwhile gamble for those hoping for a job higher up the class ladder. My college education, 1958-62, bought me a pretty good 41-year teaching career. Now that we’re in the gig economy, your education will buy you a lottery ticket for such a career. If you win, cool. If not, tough luck.

Less predictably, graduates before you (including me) have merrily consumed the planet’s resources while defining our consumption levels as normal for a civilized life. You’ve arrived at the party just as the caterers are clearing away the empty plates and glasses. Good luck finding a drink.

Well, as long as you’re here, you might as well make the most of it. What you learn in college or university really is relevant to a future few educators have ever imagined.

Actually, some of us did imagine it, even in the 1960s: we realized we were screwing up our environment, and the evil Reds were screwing up theirs even worse. Then we realized it wasn’t just litter and smog and fewer whales; we were screwing up the climate itself.

But we teachers did what we’d been told to do: train more people for more jobs that would make them bigger consumers. And if I do say so myself, we did a good job over the last half-century with your parents and grandparents.

But the party’s over, and if you’re planning to major in High-Income, High-Prestige, High-Consumption Careers, make an appointment with Advising right away. Those jobs are going the way of keypunch operation and typewriter repair.

If my colleagues in Advising know their stuff, here’s what they’ll tell you: Go into the sciences, engineering, the humanities, and the trades.

You need the sciences because your life will depend on knowing the facts of your situation. A bunch of rich old farts are trying to poison you into a stupor with lies about climate change and vaccination and how other countries’ problems have nothing to do with you. Science is your antidote.

You need engineering, because you will have to build whole new technologies based on renewable energy and new scientific findings. For generations, universities have been told to “do more with less.” That’s now the task of the engineers.

You need the humanities because that’s where you find out where we’ve succeeded and failed before — as individuals and as societies. Athens has a great reputation as the birthplace of democracy, but the Athenians democratically condemned Socrates to death just for asking questions. If something went wrong in Athens, it could go wrong in Vancouver or Ottawa. Better find out what it was, before someone makes you order a hemlock double-double.

The humanities also include philosophy, which will help you understand how language can free or enslave you and equip you to think really critically. Literature will show you your problems aren’t new or personal, but old and universal. History will teach you that you won’t solve them on your own; you’ll need a lot of friends and allies, an arrangement also known as politics.

As for the trades, they’re overdue for a boost in income and social prestige. When the toilet’s plugged, a plumber’s ticket outranks an executive MBA every time. Machinists will build the robots that will build the next generation of electric vehicles. As today’s carpenters and electricians retire, their successors will be able to name their price.

Whatever field you choose, be a high-maintenance student. My teaching colleagues used to moan about them as pests; I rejoiced in them. They were the ones who asked questions in class: “I didn’t get that. Can you explain?” They camped out waiting for my office hours, demanding line-by-line analysis of the mistakes in their last assignment and sharing their anxieties about the course and their own failures.

Most students, equally anxious, treated their education like a bad cold. They just shut up, hunkered down and hoped to pass the damn course whether they learned something or not. The high-maintenance students told me what I was doing wrong and right, whether my gags were funny or offensive, and that the girl in the front row was deaf and had to read my lips, so would I please stop roaming around the classroom where she couldn’t see me?

High-maintenance students train high-performance teachers, and most teachers are grateful for the feedback. No colleague or administrator will be as tough as an honest student who wants to learn or push us harder to improve.

Hang on, people, we’ll have a break in minute. I know you’re dying for a pee and a minute to check your messages. But this is important: whatever you study, and whatever you do with your hard-won learning, when you graduate in 2024, be a high-maintenance citizen.

Your job prospects may be unclear, but you are the heirs of a functioning democracy that can be improved just like your teachers. You are Canada’s citizen-proprietors, and as the owners you hire and fire the managers.

So pester them the way you pestered your teachers, only this time you’re telling them what’s going to be on the final exam. What’s this policy supposed to do? What do I get out of it? Where does it leave us by the time my kids are grown up in the 2040s? Why do those pancakes you’re flipping smell like cow pies?

And if their answers are as bullshit as their pancakes, flunk their asses. You’re the owners. If we’ve taught you properly, and you’ve pestered us properly, you’ll know what you want in their replacements — and how to get it.

OK, take a 10-minute break, then get back here and be ready to push us twice as hard as we should be pushing you.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Environment

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