UBC students heckle prime minister

Pearson speech from 1965 shows how much the issues facing higher education have changed and how much they've stayed the same

Aaron Wherry linked to a particularly interesting speech today, given by then prime minister Lester B. Pearson at the University of British Columbia in 1965.

As Wherry points out, there are some big differences between Pearson’s speech and the speeches we hear politicians giving nowadays. Pearson is subject to boos and a lot of heckling from students who didn’t agree with his stance on nuclear disarmament and felt his government was moving too slowly on student aid. At the time, The Saskatoon Star Phoenix described the heckling as “good-natured needling,” something I wouldn’t expect to see if our current prime minister was heckled in a similar way.

Quite simply, politicians don’t make speeches like this anymore, Pearson spoke to 4,000 students, the night before he spoke to 2,900 members of the general public. As Wherry says, “few leaders now ever put themselves in front of crowds that aren’t controlled or selected.”

But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Early in the talk he says, “I know there is one subject in which you are particularly interested and that is higher education, the place of universities in our society, the obligation of governments to higher education and the obligations of those who receive higher education to their society and to their country.”

Pearson also wonders whether “the emphasis on wise and unhurried teaching and research be replaced by the demands and dimensions of a knowledge factory?”

The speech comes at an interesting time, Canada student loans had only been introduced the year before and universities were asking for–and getting a lot more money from Ottawa than they ever had before.

While Pearson says that all those who can qualify for university should be able to attend, regardless of finances, he believes that in exchange for government support of universities all graduates should have a “priority to service to their country over advantage to themselves.” A sentiment we don’t hear that much these days.

Interestingly, Pearson says that he thinks university education will eventually be like high school and become free.

Of course, some of the issues facing universities in 1965 are very different from those today, Pearson talks about the possibility of nuclear war which could make survival a more important priority for the government than post secondary education.

But some of it is the man more than the times. He suggests that those who question what Canada has done to ensure world peace and avoid World War III should go down to the United Nations and ask the other delegations what they think.

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