The Public/Private Debate

Having grown up in Canada, I didn’t trust private education

I’m glad to see that Annie’s post post has sparked a substantive debate, not only about the merits of undergraduate-focused education, but also about the complexity of applying a public/private distinction to Canadian universities. However, there are a few assertions which ought to be challenged, and others that require further clarification.

Like Annie, I too was initially hesitant to pursue my career in a private university. Having grown up in Canada, I had what might be called an inculturated distrust of private education. Prior to joining Quest, my teaching and research career had been primarily restricted to public Canadian universities: McMaster University, York University, Wilfrid Laurier University, and the University of Toronto. These are all good universities, though of course each has its strengths and weaknesses, largely as a result of their choice of focus. Nonetheless, my experience as a Fellow of a Cambridge college and my teaching for the Law Faculty at Cambridge University persuaded me that collegiate universities have significant benefits for undergraduate education. When Quest advertised for a philosopher, I was eager for the position for two reasons: it is a small collegiate institution, and it had a pedagogical approach wholly different from the Canadian universities where I had taught earlier.

As has already been pointed out, many others see the virtues of a collegiate institutional structure and an intimate educational community, and it is indeed the case that a very few Canadian public universities pay more than lip service to those notions. Supporters of small-scale undergraduate education are, it seems to me, to be praised, regardless of whether they work in public or private universities.

However, I’m not convinced that King’s College (Halifax) is or aims to be the same kind of educational environment as Quest. A Foundation Year, while laudable, is but a year. And a Great Books Program, also laudable, is interdisciplinary only by the anemic standards of interdisciplinarity generally espoused in North America. The point of the curriculum at Quest is to integrate the Arts and Sciences as much as possible rather than to offer some interdisciplinary courses (or even an entire interdisciplinary year). Students working within a truly integrative curriculum approach problems using the tools of many disciplines: they take, for instance, a course on ecology wherein they consider particular problems using philosophical, historical, sociological, and scientific modes of inquiry. That kind of integration is not merely interdisciplinary in that they see how the different disciplines can work together; it is interdisciplinary in that they must apply all the primary modes of inquiry which are relevant to the problem at hand.

None of the foregoing is meant to diminish the value of the interdisciplinary work that is being done or, in particular, the value of a Great Books program. Indeed, at Quest students undergo something very much like a Great Books program–my class has recently been reading the Iliad, Plato’s dialogues, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, and comedies by Aristophanes. Nor are my remarks meant in any way to diminish the value of something like King’s alternative Foundation Year Program in science. My point is that integrated courses are not the same as an interdisciplinary program as it is usually understood.

It is also the case that Quest’s pedagogical approach is rather different and more innovate than even the most interdisciplinary programs available in Canada, and for the simple reason that there are no lectures. I myself am not wholly opposed to lecturing as a means of instruction. Indeed, lectures can be done well and they have the great virtue of efficiency. But lectures ought to at least be supplemented by small group learning, such as tutorials. Better still, in my opinion, and on the same grounds for adding small-group sections to larger lecture courses, are courses where no lecturing is done at all, but instead students do all of their learning in small seminar groups. That system, so far as I know, is only done in Canada at Quest, where lecturing is not viewed as an appropriate pedagogical method given that small class sizes allow for better methods.

So far I hope I’ve made it clear that small-scale, collegiate undergraduate education is available in Canada beyond the confines of Quest. I trust that I’ve also made it clear that the curriculum at Quest is fundamentally different in that integrated courses are not the same as interdisciplinary courses, though the former are one form of the latter. And it should also be obvious by now that I, like most if not all Tutors at Quest, have similar aims as those who offer Great Books programs, though we feel it necessary to go further in order to achieve integration rather than just interdisciplinarity.

Note that nothing of what I’ve said suggests that only private universities can engage in the kind of project we have at Quest. Were public universities in Canada to do the same thing, I would be equally supportive of their goals. Indeed, the poll question appended to Annie’s original post is misleading insofar as it forces an expression of preference for either public or private universities, when in fact a system of public and private universities is equally possible.

There are a few assumptions and assertions that should be challenged or clarified. One of these is the assumption that the faculty at Quest are not highly qualified. I know of no polite way to respond to that other than to say that it is a grossly mistaken assumption, as anyone who examines our actual CVs can readily ascertain. More interesting to me is the invisible basis for the assumption. Why, I ask, would anyone assume that faculty at Quest are more likely to be less qualified than faculty at other Canadian universities? Certainly that is not the case in the United States, where it is clear that very good faculty can be found in both private and public universities. Perhaps the assumption rests on the fact that those who have become faculty at Quest are joining a very new university whose academic reputation is not yet established. But a moment’s consideration surely suggests that many highly qualified scholars would jump at the chance to help found a new university, to design the courses they themselves will teach (rather than be constrained by ossified course descriptions set down long ago), and to shape a novel curriculum.

Another assumption which doesn’t hold up — assumptions rarely do — is that small library holdings correlate to bad learning environments. The claim doesn’t hold up with regard to undergraduate education, at least, where students of course need access to a good library, but need not make use of the byzantine holdings of a giant research university. Very large libraries are wonderful things, but their importance to undergraduate education is overstated, for in that realm a good library need not be a giant library. Even if that argument doesn’t hold up, it is the case that Quest, like other smaller Canadian universities and colleges, can make extensive use of the interlibrary loan system as well as reciprocal borrowing privileges at nearby institutions. As time goes on, university and college libraries have become rather more like a giant dispersed library than isolated islands of books.

I suspect that a more substantial assumption that does merit consideration is the link between research facilities and the quality of a university. But I need not rehearse the controversy in this regard, other than to point out that the link between research productivity and superior undergraduate education is tenuous. Undoubtedly it is important that teachers of students be engaged with their fellow scholars, that they keep abreast of developments in their field(s), and so forth. But for many subjects engagement need not entail having ready access to, say, a particle accelerator. Nor does success in applying for research grants necessarily correlate with better teaching. Indeed, my own experience evinces the contrary: applying for research funds is time-consuming and can take away from the time needed to actually engage in research or teach students. And, as a practical matter, my very generous (by Canadian standards at least) travel and professional development allowance at Quest allows me to participate in more conferences and meet more often with more of my national and international colleagues than would be possible if, for instance, I were at York or even the University of Toronto.

Finally, we need not equate private universities with for-profit universities. Quest is a not-for-profit university. Of course, that does not change the fact that tuition at Quest is higher than, say, UBC. But neither does it make it the case that Quest’s focus is on making money rather than carrying out its true, laudable goals. And we sincerely hope that as time goes on we might amass a sufficient endowment to make scholarships available to those that require them, or even, like Harvard, to forgo charging tuition at all.

The controversy started by Annie’s post does elucidate some important themes in the public/private debate. For one, there is a general distrust of private universities in Canada, a distrust I myself held until fairly recently. But private not-for-profit universities need not be distrusted on the grounds that they are more concerned with making money than with students, for in fact they are not. Another worthy theme is the question of why innovation is rightly or wrongly associated with private rather than public institutions. As has been pointed out by the many commentators, this is simply not true, for innovation has and does occur in public universities (though, as I have argued, Quest is innovate in a way that a Great Books program is not).