Like an “exclusive enclave of ravine lots” marketed by a builder to home-buyers desperate to feel special and unique, the prestige of the university experience was a myth I happily gobbled up when first served to me in high school.
When I (successfully) applied to U of T, my guidance counselor strongly encouraged me to choose Vic or Trinity as my preferred colleges, because of their long, rich history and beautiful, traditional architecture. I complied, and was quickly drawn to my new “home away from home” – Burwash Hall looked so prestigious, so steeped in tradition, it must be a good place to be. And I, I must also be special, since I had been carefully selected from many applicants to be part of this fine tradition!
Although a piece of me is still very much attracted to the snobbery of the academia and the false sense of self worth so easily acquired by relatively intelligent people who are (un?)lucky enough to experience the university life for an undergraduate degree or more, age and life experience have worked hard to encourage the evolution of my perspective on “intelligence”.
My own grandmother, who never set foot in an ivy-covered building, but rather, had to drop out of school and work at an upholstery shop by age 12 in order to support her family in Germany was *far* better read than I ever was – in her late 70s, she was still quoting Goethe, Heine, Tolstoy and others whose work I had barely scratched the surface of, despite being a Lit. major in University!
How about Marina Nemat, “Prisoner of Tehran”, a simple waitress at Swiss Chalet, who had, hidden under her bed, a literary treasure that chronicled the astonishing tale of her captors and saviors, and her reflections on that experience, in a country far, far away?
And what of the Chinese women practising Tai Chi in Queens Park, a stone’s throw from where I type these lines? Is their body wisdom – passed down through generations teaching generations – not far greater than the few feeble scraps of knowledge I could spout from my undergrad years?
Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets about attending University in my 20s; both my undergrad degree and my Masters served me well in terms of opening my mind to new ideas and exposing me to ways of thinking – primarily thanks to my peers in various courses – that were considerably different from those I had walked through the door with. And the skills I developed in my “extra-curricular degree” at Hart House while at school are skills I have built on over the years and that I draw on in my profession every day.
Nevertheless, I am cognizant of an interesting voice inside me that whispers “someone who lives in the world of the ivy-covered building and hard-wood floors, who breathes the perfume of the world through the privileged lens of those who happened to have enough money, power or other influence to formally educate their family, who says the right things in the right tone of voice to the right people at the right time… that someone is better, more valuable, really, than the someone who just happens to serve coffee at Tim Hortons or clean toilets in an office building”. And I don't like it.
Where does this voice come from?
My mother, a manager with Revenue Canada and a post-war immigrant from Germany, always made it very clear that I would be going to University, despite the fact that she had never had the opportunity to do so herself, nor was that the tradition in her family. She spoke four languages, and was so disgusted with the fact that all I was learning in school was Canadian History, she bought a world history book when I was in grade 9, which I was forced to read from and discuss with her for 15 minutes at breakfast every morning before she ran off to work and I to school. She undoubtedly valued knowledge and formal education. But she also valued hard work, life experience and just humanity itself. Carola Teschow was on a first name basis with every cleaning lady in her Mississauga office, and could tell you about their countries of origin and in many cases, their immigration stories, in great detail. When she was working in the Toronto office, my mother always stopped to say hello to the guy at the GO Train ticket booth. She also could tell you a bit about every homeless person in the park between her subway stop and the downtown office. Although I knew, growing up, that a university degree was expected of me, I never had the sense that those who didn’t have one were valued any less by my mother.
My eclectic peer group at U of T, many of them older, senior members of Hart House were certainly “university types”. They had “succeeded”, were well-respected members of their communities, had large homes or condos downtown. A lot of them, anyway. And more than one degree was the norm among this set.
The missionaries I have met doing ministry work amongst refugees with whom I have volunteered over the years were educated to varying degrees, but most of them valued the diversity of experience amongst God’s people from around the globe and across socioeconomic boundaries far above anyone’s level of formal education.
The teachers I work with range from “not sure how they even got a high school diploma never mind their teaching degree” to exceptionally brilliant and insightful.
In various facets of my life, I have met people with a range of perspectives on the ivy-covered building. Perhaps my inner struggle underlines a lack of clarity in my own personal beliefs. Work ethic, for example, is something that I value. But I am often tempted to dismiss it when it appears to come too easily (can it really be considered “hard work” for a white guy who speaks the majority language and was raised in the majority culture, and who was born into a family that could afford to send him to university, and had the wherewithal to support him through various degrees to “succeed”?)
My first principal used to say I was “racist against white people” because I wanted to work with the population I perceived as the underdog at the time, and they were not “the white people”.
I think that over the years, I have become more open minded. I think I value an ever-broadening spectrum of contributers to society. At the very least, I am open to admitting the error of my ways when I am dismissive or too quick to judge. But I must say I am surprised at myself when I walk down university and feel a lump of pride in my throat upon passing an ivy-covered building, as though my body were responding to an implied superiority of what such a place represents.
Shame on me!