Print Edition: October 22, 2014
“The Cascade, I think, illustrates two fundamental problems with the debate about skills and liberal education. One is that liberal education’s defenders are often ignorant about the applied origins and nature of a liberal education, and the other is that both liberal education’s defenders and liberal educators are profoundly — are sometimes profoundly ignorant about the nature of trades, and trades education. The truth is that tradespeople and trades educators and students can be just as, if not more creative than, say, a fine arts student.”
— Eric Davis, UFV provost and vice-president, academic
Davis held up Issue 24 of The Cascade, describing the cover for those in the back of the room who might not be able to see it. Above are some of his opening comments from the Provosts’ Forum on Skills and Liberal Education held on the Abbotsford campus on October 15.
According to a description of the forum sent out two weeks prior to the event, the goal was to “engage with this debate [over the wisdom or folly of a sharp turn from ‘liberal’ to ‘applied’ education] not on terms set by others, but on terms that make sense to UFV and its students.”
One marker of a good opinion piece is that it provokes thought and debate. As the author of the editorial which spurred the above comments (“A university in name only: the re-engineering of BC education poses a significant threat to scholarship”), I was prepared for members of the UFV community to disagree with my stance, and was glad when a student and a faculty member wrote in letters, and more participated in comments online or by email. I also had a good discussion with a welding instructor via email about education, its purpose, and the value of trades training.
However, Davis’ words do not participate in a thoughtful debate. Nor does standing in front of more than 80 faculty, administration, and alumni to belittle a student.
Before accusing The Cascade and anyone who shares its stance of “profound ignorance,” Davis shared his first reaction to the cover and its headline.
“When I saw the cover, I thought, ‘I don’t think the writers meant to be insulting to trades students and trades faculty,’ but it actually is insulting … it suggests they aren’t creative,” he said. He then went on to pick out a line from the editorial and make a wry aside to the audience. “Then an article inside the paper [the editorial] complains that the government is, quote, ‘funding training at the expense of learning,’ unquote. So it might come as a shock to trades students that they aren’t actually learning.”
Incidentally, I was specifically invited to the forum by Davis’ secretary — albeit the night before, via a third party. If I wasn’t going to get a warning or an opportunity to defend myself, I suppose I should at least be grateful I was there.
Davis’ initial thought on seeing the paper was correct. Our purpose in selecting the language we did for the cover was to wake people up to the fact that, no matter what any of us thinks about the values of liberal arts or trades education, the province’s vision for post-secondary education is short-sighted, ill-informed, and leads down a dangerous path. The syntax in “trading creativity for carpentry” (the cover headline) implies that someone is trading one for the other. Reading the featured article (“Trading priorities: Job-specific training grows while academic programs endure cuts”) makes it clear that someone is the provincial government.
The forum itself reiterated the need for liberal arts, with panelists noting the gap in literacy and other liberal arts skills in trades graduates. Furthermore, representatives of the trades industry at the event were arguably successful in their vocations by virtue of combining trades and liberal arts education.
The goal of the Skills for Jobs Blueprint is not to foster creative spirit or to applaud students for innovation and design; it’s to train pipefitters.
You are, of course, welcome to disagree. But it’s not respectful or acceptable to single out any student at a public forum and declare his or her contribution to a debate ignorant and invalid. It’s not behaviour we would accept from a professor, and it’s certainly not acceptable from our provost.
If UFV is really interested in “engag[ing] with the debate … on terms that make sense to UFV and its students,” this was not a good way to start.