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Education Organizations & Institutions

Course Correction

A Map for the Distracted University

by (author) Paul W. Gooch

University of Toronto Press
Initial publish date
Mar 2019
Organizations & Institutions, General, General
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Course Correction engages in deliberation about what the twenty-first-century university needs to do in order to re-find its focus as a protected place for unfettered commitment to knowledge, not just as a space for creating employment or economic prosperity. The university’s business, Paul W. Gooch writes, is to generate and critique knowledge claims, and to transmit and certify the acquisition of knowledge. In order to achieve this, a university must have a reputation for integrity and trustworthiness, and this, in turn, requires a diligent and respectful level of autonomy from state, religion, and other powerful influences. It also requires embracing the challenges of academic freedom and the effective governance of an academic community.


Course Correction raises three important questions about the twenty-first-century university. In discussing the dominant attention to student experience, the book asks, "Is it now all about students?" Secondly, in questioning "What knowledge should undergraduates gain?" it provides a critique of undergraduate experience, advocating a Socratic approach to education as interrogative conversation. Finally, by asking "What and where are well-placed universities?" the book makes the case against placeless education offered in the digital world, in favour of education that takes account of its place in time and space.

About the author

Paul W. Gooch is President Emeritus and Professor of Philosophy at Victoria University in the University of Toronto.

Paul W. Gooch's profile page

Excerpt: Course Correction: A Map for the Distracted University (by (author) Paul W. Gooch)



Perhaps, like me, you remember the first time you visited a university with the thought that you might study there. I was near the end of high school, on a road trip through parts of the province of Quebec. As we drove through one town a small university came into view, the summer sun on its buildings, promising the prospect of an undergraduate education that might be had at some fabled Oxbridge college. Prominent were the Gothic chapel and the adjoining hall with academic offices. Classrooms and laboratories, residence halls, and the library completed the main quadrangle. A few months later I sent in my application, applying as well to the university in my home city. When comparable offers came for admission to the large urban university and to this little collegiate place, I chose the small. Partly I wanted to leave home for my university years; but the collegiate architecture also played its part in my decision. I wanted to live and study in a place that looked and felt like a university. I didn’t realize then that I’d spend my whole life in universities. I moved from study at the small collegiate undergraduate place to graduate work at the large urban university, then taught at a newly established college on the outskirts of the city before moving back to the urban campus of the largest university in the country, ending up at a smaller federated university.


Over the course of my academic career, there have been large changes in the look and life of universities – not just in their size and number, but also in what’s expected of them, with attendant changes that can affect the core of the institution. The university hopes to remain true to its calling, while having to listen to competing and countermanding voices that distract, threaten, and sometimes entice in other directions. I’ll say more about these distractions in the Introduction, but let me prepare the way for what follows by offering a short account of what I’m up to.


When you’re distracted, something unimportant (or worse, harmful) has captured your attention. You’re thrown off course. To regain focus, you need to remember what’s central to your enterprise and very existence. What’s been happening with the university over the past four or five decades has sometimes clouded that focus, so I want to recall the university to its fundamental vocation. That means exploring the nature and functions of the university, along with the requisite values and commitments for doing well what it is supposed to do. I’m interested in explaining how the university should go about its business, the reasons it acts the way it does, and the sense of place in which it should operate. And I’ll examine some of the twenty-first-century challenges to the university’s identity, life, and work. I’ll say a little more shortly about the approach I take in this book, but first let me point out what I don’t do.


You won’t find much of a historical perspective here. I don’t explain how universities got to be, or how they have developed over the centuries, or what they have contributed to society. Other people have done that well. Nor is there a broad global perspective, comparing what universities are like in Europe with North American institutions, or with universities in China or India or the global South or Africa. For a time in my administrative career I belonged to an international association of university presidents, and there’s much to be done in this area. But I don’t do it. Instead my experience is largely, though not narrowly, Canadian. I do, however, draw on material from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Europe. We’re fortunate in the quality of the Canadian university system, but although good practice has been a valuable teacher, we are not immune to our own illuminating distractions.


Several eloquent voices have been raised in defence of liberal education, as universities struggle to meet the expectations of society and students for more technical training. Although I do comment on the kind of knowledge that should form an undergraduate education, the main focus of the book is more generally about the university and knowledge – not just the knowledge that might make up the content of a liberal education.
Other advocates for universities have written about funding, often making government the object of their concern. They argue persuasively about the benefits of supporting universities, and engage in critiques about the lack of understanding of the academy among politicians. There is much to what they say, but it doesn’t turn up often in this book.


Those looking for brand-new ideas about universities will be disappointed if they keep reading past this Preface. I don’t think I ever use the word “disruptive” (I just mentioned it here, but didn’t use it). In periods of accelerated social and technological change, things get broken apart, and that can be cause for excitement and celebration in the hope that something fresh and new will emerge. But one has to be a peculiar sort of prophet to predict what new thing will work and what won’t – prophets typically discern the seeds of disaster rather than of hope. I mention as an example without comment the optimism about efficiency and efficacy that initially surrounded massively open online courses. I have no prophetic qualifications, and do not set out a vision for the university of the future that should or will emerge from the present.


What, then, is this book? It’s an attempt at explanation. To explain is to describe, but also to provide reasons for, the way something is or the kind of thing it is. If we don’t fully appreciate the why, we can end up messing about with something, misunderstanding or devaluing it. Explanation demands attentiveness and patience. It isn’t served by snap judgments, platitudes, or witty comments. The book arises out of the conviction that the university does need explanation these days. Or, rather, we need to understand again what the university is – what it’s for, how it works, and why it works the way it does. And in a world so altered by technology, we need to figure the place of the university, both in geographical and in human terms.


But “the” university? Shouldn’t one really speak of universities in the plural instead of using the grand singular? After all, they come in so many different shapes and sizes, under significantly different kinds of governments, and with widely different educational missions. Well, sometimes I do use the plural, for substantive as well as stylistic reasons. But my interest is indeed an institution called the university. What I want to explain is that institution – what all things that are properly called by that name have, or should have, as distinguishing features. Even if it’s not fashionable to assume that objects have fixed essences, the university is a human construct, created by society, and we can indeed ask whether a particular institution shares sufficiently in the features that mark off a university from other institutions.


In one way, then, asking the question I raise is like asking a question about comparative anatomy. There are many different-looking bodies of primates and members of homo sapiens. But they have in common brains, spinal columns, eyes, hearts, and so on. We can describe how their organs function and what they are for, and come up with an account of the basic features of a primate body. It’s not quite the same, however, with universities: we aren’t trying to classify objects in the world, but societal organizations. So, by thinking of the intended purposes for and the functioning of these institutions, we should be able to arrive at a decent description of their defining features. How we decide exactly what those features are is not a matter of authoritative stipulation. The decision arises from deliberation among those who are interested, knowledgeable, and committed to good reasoning. In other words, an entity can’t simply declare, properly, that it is a “university” just because it wants the label. Nor can a political or religious authority properly dub something it creates a “university” if it doesn’t have the features a university should have. Conversely, changing or denying the name doesn’t erase the features of a properly constructed university. Of course, words can be pressed unwittingly into the purpose that their users want to accomplish; many entities call themselves universities without any warrant at all. You can find on Wikipedia a long, long list of such places under “unaccredited institutions.”


Another way of stating the aim of this book, then, is to offer an account of what makes an institution a proper university, undistracted by the demands of myriad voices. It’s an offering, not a pronouncement, and the issues it raises are open to debate by those with an interest in universities – politicians, policy makers, parents, board members, faculty, administrators, students, and, again, that fabled general public. The kind of deliberation invited here is an instance of what has come to be known as public philosophy. Public philosophy can be characterized in two ways, either as concerned with a particular set of questions or as a way of doing some thinking. The set of questions has to do with issues of public significance because they affect everyone or because they have been overlooked by those who decide what’s important. To do public philosophy as a way of thinking is to engage in discussion and debate in order to clarify positions, understand objections, and advance good thinking. That way of thinking is, broadly speaking, philosophizing, even if it’s not done by people with degrees in philosophy. In fact, professional philosophers can find their work improved by such interactions.


That the nature and function of the university has great public significance needs no further argument, I take it, for anyone who has read this far. To describe and justify the functions of the university, then, requires clarity of thought and argument – the kind of philosophizing that may be carried on by anyone with the patience and attention to follow and assess an explanation.


This book is an invitation to that exercise.