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The fox and the hedgehog: Political science professor Ron Dart talks university, politics, and mountaineering

Ron Dart is a political science professor at UFV who has done work with Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations.



Image: Ron Dart

By Megan Lambert (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: March 4, 2015

Image: Ron Dart

Ron Dart climbs mountains when he’s not teaching political science at UFV.

Prof Talk is The Cascade’s oral history series, featuring interviews with the people best qualified to talk about what UFV has been like over the course of its first few decades: its professors. Each week we interview a professor from a different department, asking them what UFV was like before it was a university, and how they predict things will continue to change here.

Ron Dart is a political science professor at UFV who has done work with Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations. He also wrote a chapter outlining UFV’s history in an upcoming book titled The History of Abbotsford.

What brought you to UFV?

I was on staff with Amnesty International in the 1980s and had done a lot of work on international relations and human rights. Work at Amnesty was very busy: travelling around and having to go to embassies and general offices. I had two young kids at the time and I had moved out here, and I was asked to come lecture on Amnesty International in Scott Fast’s international relations course.

This would have been spring of 1990, and [when he became head of the department] he asked, “Would you be able to teach my courses in international relations and philosophy of law in the autumn?”

I said, “Well, I’ll try to balance dashing about with Amnesty” — then I was directing the Western region — “and two courses.” So I did it. Quite demanding, quite tiring, and after I did that for a year or two they asked if I would come on full-time in the political science department.

How would you describe the culture or feeling of UFV when you first got here?

Fraser Valley College was smaller; it was only a few buildings. It was much more collegial. We knew one another as faculty and staff. We worked a lot closer with the students. [There were] not as many demands on us in terms of responsibilities. As we moved from a small college to a university college to a university, demands grow and grow, and become greater and greater, so our time is increasingly insulated.

What kind of courses did you start out teaching?

My first semester was international relations. It was a natural hand-in-glove fit for the work I was doing. I also taught philosophy of law — a lot of criminology students.

As an amusing sidebar, a lot of students did their degrees in criminology, then they’d be at the border here, so when I would go mountain climbing at Mount Baker and other places, I’d often find I’d get them and they’d revert to a student role and shuttle me through very quickly.

What kind of changes have you made in your teaching approaches or methods?

There are two different extremes. One: I’m the sage of the stage, you’ve got all these little birds with their beaks open and I drop the worms in. That’s the one tradition. The other is the conversational tradition, where people just sit around and talk about reading and there’s not a lot of teacher input, other than being a facilitator or midwife.

I’ve always seen teaching not as delivering facts, statistics, information. It’s more about, at its best, listening or evoking wisdom in terms of what is important in life in the soul, our growth, our life, and understanding as a human being. We can get computers to deliver information and facts. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to do that.

But to help a person to come to understand who they are, their life’s journey, what’s meaningful, what’s silly, what’s worth living for. That’s more about education’s wisdom. “Education” comes from Latin educar, to draw forth. A good teacher draws forth the potential of their students in terms of what they might be.

What other projects or research have you been working on?

Oh, lots. I was what they call a ski bum; I travelled with my skis on my back and I went mountaineering and just a couple years ago I did a 30,000 foot descent down Mount Everest. So, that whole mountaineering side, I’ve written books on mountaineering and humanity and beats of the northern Cascades.

I’ve done work on red Tory tradition, an old form of conservatism in Canada, so I’ve done four books. I’ve spent time at the homes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, some of the leading European intellectuals of the 20th century.

I have an interest in many things. Isaiah Berlin wrote a book called The Fox and the Hedgehog, and he compared two types of people: the fox, who romps across the terrain, a brain of varied and diverse interests, and the hedgehog, who just burrows into a narrow inlet. So I have the hedgehog side, with certain interests I just burrow deeper into, and then also I have a wide range of interests. Like the fox and the hedgehog.

While we often talk about UFV as a single entity, each student or prof brings something different to the table and takes something away. How would you describe what you’ve taken out of UFV?

My three major areas of university life: humanities [and] social sciences, sciences, [and] the business side. My interest is the humanities, what makes us human in a thoughtful and significant way. The humanities are a bit of an endangered species. They’re not going to immediately hit you with a job.

The danger of a place like this is that it can shrink to a Shire; it’s a bit like The Hobbit. There’s the Shire but then there’s the big world. I’d like to think I bring the bigger world to the Shire.

A university teaches, at its best, to think not just globally in terms of business or getting jobs, but educating in the best sense of educating souls and minds and imaginations to live in a more meaningful manner. There’s a tendency now to think the university is just a job training centre, and really, it’s just trades we’re getting people involved in. The older, classical tradition is a deeper, contemplative way.

That gets lost in the hurly burly and the demands of the university as a business, like any other business, that sells information like apples and oranges. A university can lose its soul when that happens.

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