Since their conception in the Middle Ages, universities have been to the benefit of a particularly fortunate — and therefore limited — group. It’s time to reconsider the potential of postsecondary institutions in keeping our broader society well-informed.
As a student in Arts and Science, graduate school can be seen as inevitable rather than an option. The biggest problem with this line of thinking is that the ideas and skills we learn at university often don’t escape the echo chamber of the system where they were born.
While literacy rates in Canada are estimated by The Globe and Mail to be around 97 per cent, only 47 per cent of Canadians have a postsecondary degree. Though more people are able to read than ever before, educational resources have continued to remain with the few.
The idea of research lying mostly idle can be discomforting to academics as well. Although there’s value in being approved and recognized by your fellow scholars, gratification can also come from communicating concepts in a more open and accessible way and as a result seeing your work active in the world.
Taking a first-year class at university can debase a lifetime of popularized misconceptions. Education won’t dictate the opinions you have, but it gives you the tools to think critically about them and ground them in fact.
Initiatives like the Public Knowledge Project started by UBC and Project Gutenberg — which has a Canadian branch — aim to make public the traditionally limited resources and work of university researchers by having them freely downloadable on the internet.
This is a great first step, but we also need to acknowledge that the average reader isn’t familiar with academic writing. There are still many more avenues publicizing university knowledge can take, particularly in converting academic language to something more digestible by the majority.
There’s power in being able to access knowledge directly from specialists in the field in order to inform yourself, instead of relying on politically-biased commentators on TV or hearsay from your friends and family.
The value that academic research provides is limited to a small number of people able and willing to pay attention. As a result, there’s an ever-widening disparity between academics and the majority. Universities should start taking more responsibility in the education of not just their own students, but society as a whole.
Julia is The Journal’s Photo Editor. She’s a fourth-year History Major.
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