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Baumel Joseph: We need to reorient education for a new generation

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Students stroll through the University of Toronto campus. (Nayuki/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

As a society, we have come to accept the notion that physical activity is healthy. Exercise is good for the body, so we demand that our schools have physical education. As adults, we push ourselves to workout. All of this is done in the name of good health. This intense focus on the physical body might be taken as a sign of our individual self-absorption. We spend so much time and money on our bodies that a rational evaluation could declare this behaviour a sign of national narcissism.

On the other hand, our focus on education in schools, which is surely a good thing, can also be seen as a form of self-centred conceit. We focus on ourselves, on our bodies and our minds, to such an incredible degree that we become the centre of our own worlds. Perhaps we need to broaden our worldview and shift some of our priorities.

I may sound irrational, especially since I work in the educational system. But I have seen first hand that there are too many people in school – people who could, and often should, be doing other things. Too much is spent on the body and there is too much focus on “my mind.” A liberal arts education is a good thing, to a point. But there is more out there to focus on for the future of our children and our planet.

Regrettably, more and more students want – nay, demand – the “right” to get an advanced degree. In my last column, I noted that less than 10 per cent of current doctoral candidates will get jobs as academics. One reader censured me for not retiring so the students could get jobs. Honestly, I would quit if my administration would replace me. But they won’t. There are no jobs. I know. I look at university postings worldwide and there are very few tenure-track teaching positions anywhere, especially in my field. Electrical engineering, yes. Religion and culture, no way.

Public universities are not putting many resources into such fields, but are, at the same time, encouraging high levels of enrolment. There are too many students who think they have the right to earn a PhD in these fields. Some are gifted and will make important contributions to the field and be great teachers. But many will never get jobs and a lot of them will fail. Disappointingly, universities encourage enrolment, as they are paid by the number of students registered. Recruit and fill the classroom – that is what they’re pressured to do. The cycle returns students to larger classrooms, and industries, that have no future.

READ: BAUMEL JOSEPH: RETIREMENT IS FOR THE BIRDS

I remember my long years of doctoral research and writing. They were painful and hard, but in a strange way, they were also my most selfish moments. At the time, I was a mother of four and the wife of a rabbi. I had many obligations, which is why my degree took so long. But when I worked on my thesis, no one existed but my own thoughts, my own analysis, my own writing. Just as with physical exercise, mental work of this type is all about the individual and his or her thinking. This is not socially beneficial.

There are now movements that are determined to oust this educational narcissism. For example, Careerwise Colorado has created a high school traineeship program that offers an educational path for students that precludes college. The students begin to study and work at a designated career target while they’re still in high school. Instead of spending long amounts of time in institutional forums getting degree after useless degree, this process uses the ancient system of apprenticeship. And it seems to be working.

I am not disowning education, just trying to reorient it for us.