A Few Thoughts About University
Kenneth A. McClelland
I must admit to a certain fascination when I recall those exemplary
(or is it scholarly?) teachers who managed for whatever reason
to have an impact on my life and my thinking. But the fascination
rests not only in what these exemplary individuals taught me,
that is, the content of their lectures, but also, and perhaps
more importantly, from the fact that I even remember them at all.
Now certainly the content of their lectures cannot be severed
from my general recollection, but it is not primarily that content
that feeds my memory. Rather my recollections retain something
of their qualities as teachers their unique styles. I recall,
along the timeline of my life, certain poignant moments of quality
(can I call it wisdom?) in which relationships were formed, in
which important meanings evolved. I'll describe them, then, as
moments of transformation, transformation being a suitable enough
descriptor for what occurred.
In his essay, "Context and Thought" John Dewey makes
some intriguing observations about the strange relevance of the
background in a picture or a painting.
That which is looked into, consciously scrutinized, has, like
a picture, a foreground, middle distance, and a background
and as in some paintings the latter shades off into unlimited
.The contextual setting is vague, but it is no mere
fringe. It has a solidity and stability not found in the focal
material of thinking. The latter denotes the part of the road
upon which the spotlight is thrown. The spatial context is the
ground through which the road runs and for the sake of which the
Every situation has a subconscious intelligibility, a pervasive
quality. Perhaps that is what feeds my memory of those exemplary
teachers. You see it is hard for me to put this quality into exact
words. I think my actions now speak louder than the words I'm
struggling to find. But how would you explain my actions? Precise
explanation takes precise tools, but the painter's brush paints
the background and elicits its overarching vague relevance and
perhaps the vagueness is just the thing it is and is the thing
it should be. Reading John Ralston Saul I convey to you his suggestion
to perform a kind of meta-cognitive exercise try to remember
important people you've forgotten. Why have you forgotten them?
Is there something wrong with your memory? Or is it, perhaps,
that their importance is ill-conceived, eliciting a kind of forgetfulness?
Saul asks us to name a manager or an administrator from the Renaissance?
There were many. Why do we all know Leonardo da Vinci then? It
cannot simply be publicity or celebrity. Well-paid CEOs seem to
find the public eye far more readily than artists, but in time
we seem to have a memory for the important artist. "It seems
that memory does work. It retains what is central and filters
out what is tertiary or marginal. Leonardo remains because he
is an expression of our shared knowledge. The manager does not.
He has a role but remains marginal to society's sense of itself,
even to the manger's sense of himself."2 To return
to those exemplary teachers in my life, then, what were they
managers or artists? I think I'm beginning to find my focus.
So, what makes for a scholarly teacher? Perhaps it is that the
scholarly teacher reflects about those finer-grained details that
compose the artfulness of exemplary teaching. This is the kind
of reflection that transforms one, and even transforms future
modes of contact with students. But to reflect is always also
to situate oneself in that larger context that taken-for-granted
whole, the `ground through which the road runs [or teacher teaches]
and for the sake of which the road [or teacher] exists.' So let
us consider the teacher as researcher.
I've never liked the pure separation of teaching from research.
The poet Wallace Stevens said:
Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined
On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come.
Music falls on the silence like a sense,
A passion that we feel, not understand.
Morning and afternoon are clasped together
And North and South are an intrinsic couple
And sun and rain a plural, like two lovers
That walk away as one in the greenest body.3
There is inter-dependence here `cold copulars embrace'
teacherresearcher! Yet, what a measurable history the researcher
has, what an amassing of measurable (and fundable) accomplishments.
But this is a particular kind of research is it not? It meets
the dictates of an ever- changing society. Yet, surely
there is much research that defies easy quantification. Be it
measurable or immeasurable, measurable and immeasurable both,
it can lead to an exemplary teacher. It is the content that fills
out the canvass of a good teacher's artful expression. Whether
the content comes from publishable research or perishable research,
I cannot imagine a scholarly teacher who has done no research.
And yes, transformation will occur. On that we can rest assured.
But what kind of transformation, and transformation for what,
and how to measure such transformation there's the rub.
Perhaps outside of the teaching act itself (but never really outside),
scholarship is measured by long hours of disciplined study and
thought. If this difficult rigor is an utter joy for the individual
it forms part of a scholarly life. If it is drudgery then perhaps
scholarship is not of the essence. I suppose there are many different
reasons one would endure it. But for the individual to actually
love it, love the labor of it, and for the individual to feel
part of a community of others who also love it, that seems to
me scholarly. You cannot pretend such a labor of love, or its
communal resonance. It is a life-work. However, I am convinced
that quality (scholarly) transformation will somehow escape absolute
measurement (do I need to provide measurable evidence for this?).
What kinds of students we choose to transform makes a huge difference.
Is the teacher a teacher of undergraduate students or graduate
students? Should there be a distinction in how we approach each
group? I think, surely there must be. Just what is beginning for
the undergraduate student? A career? Well, perhaps, but surely
a career is a kind of end, and its beginning, if it is to result
in a productive end, must be potted in something more generally
nourishing. There is ample time in graduate school for fine-tuning
the end, that measurable outcome (or product) of a supposedly
good education that career! But up front, it is a kind
of death of the spirit, is it not? Ends do not always mean justified
means and different ends call for different means. Bruce Wilshire
said: "One may know how to make money, transform the earth
and ourselves in indefinite numbers of ways, and not know how
to live."4 Transformation is a weighty concept
indeed! And it seems there is (or should be) a reciprocal element
as well. Teachers act on their students, to be sure, but students
also act on their teachers reciprocal transformations,
vital community. It seems to me that undergraduate education must
be of paramount importance, and the entrenched expert or specialist
must reopen themselves to the imaginative energy of youth. Education
is most enlivened then. The eventual background `through which
the [career] runs and for the sake of which the [career] exists'
is vaguely but powerfully conceived if all goes well. Alfred North
Whitehead said many years ago:
Youth is imaginative, and if imagination be strengthened by discipline
this energy of imagination can in great measure be preserved throughout
life. The tragedy of the world is that those who are imaginative
have but slight experience, and those who are experienced have
feeble imaginations. Fools act on imagination without knowledge;
pedants act on knowledge without imagination. The task of the
university is to weld together imagination and experience.5
To be a graduate student and a teacher of graduate students,
then, is to be, in a way, already in a career. My sense is that
part of determining whether or not the career is dead-end depends
on the nature of the transactions that occur along the way, what
happened when the graduate was an undergraduate and the graduate
teacher a teacher of undergraduates. For putting our undergraduates
on the fast track of graduate school or into early career mode
is, as I see it, a kind of spiritual robbery. It is the tail wagging
the dog. The Cartesian split sees its contemporary expression
within the university, as the graduate faculty mind split off
from the undergraduate student body. As Wilshire says, "to
be cut off from others, especially those whom we generate, our
[undergraduates,] is to be cut off from ourselves as adults and
teachers, and from a possibility of our own regeneration."6
Clearly the implications for transformative learning (for both
teacher and student) are enormous. We must be cognizant of what
begins at the undergraduate level and feeds into the quality at
the graduate level. Perhaps, after all, it is not the destination,
but rather the journey, not the formed, but rather the forming.
A healthy university, then, embodies a healthy democracy
reciprocal transformations, vital community.
1 J. Dewey, "Context and Thought," in
R.J. Bernstein, John Dewey. Atascadero: Ridgeview Publishing
Company. (1966). p. 4.
2 J.R. Saul, On Equilibrium. Toronto, Canada:
Penguin Books Canada (2001). p. 41.
3 W. Stevens, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,"
in H. Stevens (ed.) Wallace Stevens: The Palm at the End
of the Mind. New York: Random House, Inc. (1972). p. 218.
4 B. Wilshire, The Moral Collapse of the University,
cited in W. Cude The Ph.D. Trap Revisited. Toronto: The
Dundurn Group (2001). p. 84.
5 A.N. Whitehead (1955), The Aims of Education.
New York: Mentor Books (1929) p. 98.
6 B. Wilshire, cited in W. Cude, 84
Kenneth A. McClelland is a Ph.D. candidate at Brock University
and co-editor of Professing Education. He is active
in Philosophy of Education and his scholarly interests include
the Classical Pragmatism of John Dewey and the Neo Pragmatism
of Richard Rorty.