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College Quarterly
Winter 1995 - Volume 3 Number 2
The Nice work of Reconciling the University with the Community College
by Erika Gottlieb

Malca Litovitz's article (in CQ, Fall 1995) examined the connection between the university and the community college in Ontario by concentrating on the predicament of the student who, after years of a mind-opening but “impractical” university education, decides to enroll in a community college for the “practical” reason of acquiring a diploma that will lead to a lucrative job right after graduation. I would like to look at the same connection from another perspective: What happens to the students who, during or after their community college “training”, make the decision to partake of a mind-opening university “education”?

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley presented us with the threats to sanity of his world of 1931. He focused on the split between the Humanities and Science, between the creative and the mechanical, between the goals and the means of our education. The tragic consequence of this split is the ultimate sacrifice of freedom, imagination, and individuality at the altar of stability and expediency in order to keep the machine of technology, the machinery essential for a centralized, totalitarian state, in perpetual motion.

In the name of expediency are we not, in effect, asking our community college students to become such “machine operators” in our society today? That the original mandate of the community colleges was not to reproduce such an educational split is quite certain; that no university professor or community college administrator would openly admit that this split has become acceptable, is also quite likely. Nevertheless, in Ontario, there has developed a great divide between the two major models of post-secondary education, and this schism, I believe, has long-range intellectual and political-social implications.

To understand the issues represented by this division, let me turn to another work of utopian-dystopian inspiration, David Lodge's popular novel Nice Work, a gentle satire of the shortcomings of democracy in the England of the late 1980's presented through the failure of its post-secondary education. In this novel the government has suddenly recognized the disastrous consequences of the separation of theory and practice. To correct the problem, the government takes an innovative position: let the university professor act, for an entire semester, as the “shadow” to an executive in business or industry; in turn, let the executive act as the “shadow” of the professor in the next semester. Such an arrangement is intended to make the professor and the executive truly acquainted with each other's spheres and to engender an intellectual cross-fertilization between two kinds of creativity in the interest of a healthier society.

Of course, the comic potential of the situation becomes virtually inexhaustible when the authorities appoint Robyn, an attractive, idealistic young female professor to “shadow” middle aged, pragmatic, disillusioned, but romantically still quite vulnerable Victor in his daily round of business deals, strike prevention, and corporate intrigue.

Still, we should not forget that in Nice Work David Lodge presents us with an amusing solution to a very serious dilemma: the fulfilment of the utopian dream in the wedding of individual and social fulfilment, theory and practice, the intellectual flights of the university and the solid ground of commerce and industry. In Nice Work, Lodge makes it clear that in the 80s such a wedding is still only “a consummation devoutly to be wished”, because the split between the two spheres is too large.

The potentially disastrous results of such a sharp segregation of the university-calibre student from the community college student have possibly even more severe repercussions in Canada, specifically in Ontario. In spite of the fact that Ontario spends more per student on education than any other North American jurisdiction, many educators worry that the educational system is facing disaster. I suggest that many of our community college students would benefit from the boosting of standards and, consequently, from the possibility of regarding the years spent in community college not only as years of training but also as years of education, possibly even as preparation for university. I would like to examine this suggestion from the point of view of the community college student, the community college teacher, and from the wider perspective of a democratic society.

The students whom I meet in my English courses are from programs as divergent as Computer Studies, Fashion Merchandising, International Business and Library Techniques. I have found many who clearly possess the intellectual potential and ambition to be successful university students in the Humanities. Some of these students were interested enough to interrupt their community college studies and ask me for a letter of recommendation to be admitted to one of our universities. Others - the majority - made up their minds to complete their diploma but go on with the Humanities on the side - either to register in part-time courses at the university or simply to go on reading fiction, history, philosophy or psychology on their own. They all discovered a strong need for the Humanities, for learning, as part of their personal fulfilment and their development as responsible citizens in a democracy.

I have received extremely positive responses from my students in Computer Science, for example, when they were asked to explain how courses dealing with drama and literature contributed to their “education” at our community college. At the same time, for each community college student who acknowledges the importance of hard work and high achievement in the arts, there are others who simply feel unable or unwilling to invest time and energy into these courses. “Of course, the course is great, but there is too much reading. I'm busy with my ‘professional subjects’ - they must take priority. And I also work forty hours a week in order to support myself”. This is the familiar position of the underachiever, the student who could and would do a great deal more, had the community college attached prestige to Literature and the Humanities, that is, to General Education, and had our society offered higher esteem to the community college credit in avocational subjects. What's more, I am convinced that should we have the courage to raise the standards of our courses and assure the continuation of community college studies at the university, we would also find a remarkable change in the attitude of the relatively weak, uninitiated student. Such a student would benefit by seeing that the best students are putting in hard work, that it is worthwhile to put effort into developing reading and thinking skills. Opening the gates of the university for the truly best achievers at community college would benefit all the students; it would change the atmosphere in the classroom, it would earn respect for literacy, learning, the excellence of teaching and for the demands set by a rigorous, intellectually challenging education.

As for community college teachers, why pretend that they will suddenly become happy “machine operators” by taking on heavy course loads, enormous class sizes, onerous student evaluations while being denied a serious further connection to the university? In my experience teaching at McGill, Concordia, and Loyola—three universities in Montreal—and in the community college systems in Montreal and Toronto, I have found that my colleagues maintain the same intellectual interests, the same readiness to do research, and go to conferences to keep in touch with new ideas in their fields. In fact, I have often discussed with my colleagues the need to teach in order to test the ideas one happens to be working on in a scholarly work, and the equally strong need to be engaged in writing and scholarly work in order to enrich, enliven, and renew one's teaching. This need for the interaction between personal growth and good teaching is clear to any experienced teacher, even if the community college does not encourage, support, or reward research and publication. If the community college barely tolerates, or is simply indifferent to its faculty's academic achievement or if the university looks down on the community college teacher, who is to blame? Who is to judge graduate students who take menial employment on the off-chance of finding a university appointment, because once they accept a community college teaching assignment, they would never be considered for a university job again. Such people are probably right, though they may be underemployed or unemployed for years.

Removing the barrier between community college and university for the student would also enhance the potential for teaching excellence both at the community college and at the university level. Downgrading the community college teacher will simply perpetuate the problem: the teacher who feels hampered in personal, intellectual, and professional fulfilment, is unlikely to become a role model for students aiming for their own growth and fulfilment. We should never forget John Dewey's pronouncement that “the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life. Every teacher should realize the dignity of his [or her] calling; that he [or she] is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the security of the right social growth” (Dewey, 1954, p. 638).

So to return to the theme of David Lodge's Nice Work, we must reconcile our divided selves and our divisive institutions: universities are the cathedrals of the modern age. They shouldn't have to justify their existence by utilitarian criteria. They ought to be swarming with local people doing part-time courses - using the library, using the laboratories, going to lectures, going to concerts, using the Sports Centre - everything. Lodge writes “She threw her arms in an expansive gesture, flushed and excited by her own vision: ‘we ought to get rid of the security men and the barriers at the gates and let the people in!’” (Lodge, 1988, p. 170). The university as the cathedral of the modern age - the campus as the home ground of the people. It is, indeed, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” And in this vision of democracy, maybe the community college will also find its proper place, respected as an institution of higher learning, allowing the community to participate more and more in the blessings of higher education, on a campus inhabited by all those who have come to realize that, in the words of John Dewey, “education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” (Dewey, 1954, p. 631).


Dewey, J. (1954) “My Pedagogic Creed”. Three Thousand Years of Educational Wisdom: Selections from Great Documents. Ed. Robert Ulich. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 629-638

Huxley, A. (1955) Brave New World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Lodge, D. (1988) Nice Work. London: Secker & Warburg.

Erika Gottlieb teaches in the School of English Studies at Seneca College in Toronto, Ontario.