Quest toward a new kind of university

"Squamish Chief" by Flickr user BigA888

I’m not going to lie, I originally signed up for an autumn weekend in Squamish, B.C. because, well … have you ever seen  pictures of Squamish, B.C.? It’s I-must-be-hallucinating stunning out there.

But scenery aside, the real point is that a small group of Green College residents (myself included) will venture up to Squamish on October 1st to meet Quest University‘s first graduating class.

In case your eyebrow just shot up, no worries, I had never heard of Quest University before today. More importantly, I’d never heard of a Canadian post-secondary school like Quest either.

Turns out it’s Canada’s very first independent, not-for-profit, nonsectarian university of the liberal arts and sciences.

It offers only one degree, a Bachelors of Arts and Sciences, and has been specifically designed to challenge the mass model (or diploma factory) style that many universities employ. (And the only kind I’ve ever attended, by the by.)

Quest undergrad students have had 20 person classes for their entire post-secondary career. I didn’t have classes that small in my fourth year seminars at York University. They also focus on one topic area at a time instead of balancing five different courses every semester.

We’re going to talk to Quest students about “interdisciplinary pathways inside and outside the academy,” as Green College principal Mark Vessey so eloquently put it. We’re also going to eat, hike and hang with them. I kind of wonder what the catch is, seriously.

“Quest U is a radical experiment in post-secondary education, not without affinities with Green College,” Vessey explained in an email invite. It was founded in 2002 by former University of British Columbia president Dr. David Strangway, who was also one of the founders of Green College.

As a member of the mass-educated crew, I’m excited to spend some time with students who have never made “just a number” jokes or devoted expletive-laden Facebook groups to hating their school.

Are they mountain-top flower children or trail-blazing academics? Stay tuned…

Check out the comments below for a bit of nuance!

Schooling Ignatieff on talking to University Students

Image from Michael Ignatieff's Flickr photostream

Before I say anything about Michael Ignatieff, I should mention that I’m not a Liberal. Neither do I shroud myself in Conservative blue, NDP orange, or Green–uh–green.

(This doesn’t mean that I don’t have political opinions, but more on that later.)

Still, when Mr. Ignatieff comes to UBC campus on January 15, I’m willing to head to the Norm Theatre to hear the man out.

Young people don’t exactly vote in droves, and some say it’s a risk to focus on us, since “a tour such as this one might not be as prominent or as interesting to the media” (see Rebooting Michael Ignatieff). And, I admit: I find it interesting that Iggy is about to tour the country to talk to students, specifically, and that he’s targeting campuses at this crucial time.)

Those born after 1979 are probably used to being called cynical, apathetic, disaffected or simply too self-absorbed to follow federal politics and periodically make our way to a ballot box. But I think we deserve a bit more credit than that. If we had a Facebook relationship status with Canadian politics, I’m sure it’d be set to “it’s complicated.”

Anecdotally, I feel that the vast majority of my peers do care about several, though often specific, issues…but I do wonder why relatively few of us take active interest in the feds and their antics,… err, actions.

In an attempt to make sense of this disconnect, I’ve read through a report by the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN).

Are today’s youth indifferent or just different?

Some friends get playful with protest signs. I believe I took this picture in 2007.

The report addresses the question: are today’s youth indifferent or just different? They make a strong case for the latter.

According to CPRN, we are largely indifferent to formal (or big “P”) political institutions and practices because they do not speak to our interests as young people.

Instead, we get involved with various small “p” political initiatives that seem to better reflect our concerns for different local, national and global issues. Compared to previous generation, we’re less likely to be card-carrying partisans and more likely to get civically and politically involved through NGOs or specific causes. Many of our actions are individually based, as opposed to institutionally based.

Unfortunately, our avenues of involvement are barely recognized by traditional research methods and academic discourses, which mostly use traditional definitions of political participation, like voting in Federal elections. The result: we are broadly labelled apathetic, and even we ourselves don’t always identify our choices–like buying fair trade coffee or partying at a gay bar–as political decisions. The CPRN report features this bold statement in their conclusion:

“Youth are not disconnected from politics; it is political institutions, practice and culture that are disconnected from youth.”

But wait, before we congratulate ourselves for doing our own thang, we can’t forget that the big P-people make immense decisions that affect our lives, our nation and our planet. Maybe we don’t engage them because  we’re more accustomed to what Journalist Michael Valpy called a Catch 22 situation:

“… the political parties don’t pay much attention to young people and their concerns because so few of them vote, and possibly one of the reasons why so few young people vote is because the political parties don’t pay much attention to them.”

So, during this tour, will Ignatieff set out to pay attention to us or just to try to get attention from us? We’ll probably know within the first ten minutes of his speech. By the time he gets here, UBC students should expect to see him at his best. (He’ll have plenty of stops along the way to make mistakes.)

Either way, this tour will be an important one for Iggy: monumental for his party if he gets it right, disastrous if he doesn’t. I’m not making any predictions yet, but I do think he needs to start by getting genuinely interested in this generation and seeing us as more than potential Liberals.

So far, I’ve seen him quoted in a Toronto Star article as saying it’s important to “preach to the unconverted” and adding that “University students are the future of Canadian politics and we have to get to them.”

We’re not just the future, Iggy. We’re the present. And if you want us kids to take you seriously, you’d better leave words like “preach” and “get to them” in the past.

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Related: Prorogation Provokes Online Uprising
Full story in The Tyee

I think the following except further illustrates the point I tried to make above. The person quoted is Christopher White, a 25-year-old grad student and creator of the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament.

“I am not a card-carrying member of any political party… I have never volunteered for a candidate or party,” White said in an e-mail. “The last rally I went to was five years ago during my undergraduate degree to protest tuition increases.”

He was, however, profoundly frustrated when he learned that Harper had prorogued Parliament for the second time in two years.

“To me, prorogation was indicative of a much larger issue in Canada — of how disconnected many of us are from politics, and how our elected leaders use that to their advantage,” he explained.