College Quarterly
Fall 2003 - Volume 6 Number 1

Intellectual and Utilitarian Identities

by William Humber, B.A., M.E.S.

Canadian colleges confront a changing landscape in which their identity as places offering practical, and in many cases technical, education is evolving.

Seneca College’s challenge is to identify and create a role that recognizes that an applied or technical school identity is not separate from an intellectual dimension. Abstract thinking, meaning, and the complex roles graduates will assume require attributes associated with both the traditional university and the college program base.

Colleges have been successful in addressing their utilitarian operation consisting of industry-driven curriculum, recruitment, registration, scheduling, and graduate placement. They have historically been less involved with the broader issues of meaning, civic engagement, and questioning the nature of external change and the status quo. Such a stance becomes less tenable in a rapidly changing world.

The way ahead however is less clear. Some might prefer a path towards university status but it is unclear whether public funding and the research capacity exist for colleges to be more than a poor cousin to established institutions. Even if they could would it be appropriate for them to attempt to duplicate the kinds of work universities do?

The other direction acknowledges the evolved role of the college as a provider of practical education but adds to it an intellectual dimension attuned to the peculiar nature of colleges themselves and the kinds of roles their graduates will assume.

An intellectual identity emerges from the college’s ability to question its role in relation to the nature of the given and emerging world in which it operates. It provides its graduates and programs with an appropriate place in those discussions and actions related to this emerging world. It supports an intellectual examination, which includes research, practical application, and policy development that is defined by the program identity of colleges.

As noted we have successfully addressed our utilitarian operation. In economics, utility is defined as the capacity of a commodity or service to satisfy some human want. We have done so through industry-driven curriculum, aggressive recruitment, model registration systems, sophisticated scheduling programs, an emphasis on in-class teaching, and exemplary graduate placement.

We have been arguably less successful in creating an intellectual identity for colleges. As far back as 1907, and long before the current college system appeared, Robert Falconer, at his installation as President of the University of Toronto, responded to those arguing for a more practical education by reminding his listeners that his institution was "not a technical school". Research and graduate work were to be its hallmark.

Colleges have an intellectual dimension. It is after all the foundation on which any program of study can be mounted. Its bedrock is what Thomas Kuhn in the "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" described as the paradigm of belief that provides a rational underpinning for a body of knowledge.

Our intellectual failure however is often a reluctance or even awareness that we need to make explicit the paradigms on which we base our programs. As a result we adopt a faith in the status quo which both ill-prepares us for change but at the same time is false in its lack of regard for the organic nature of knowledge and the changing world in which our students live.

It could be said that our utilitarian success serves us well by allowing us to match our delivery to the standards and expectations of the outside world. We reject an explicit acknowledgement of the intellectual perhaps because we associate it with the effete, the pretentious, elitism, and academic overreach. Our internal models of academic organization marginalize intellectual investigation to the narrow realm of general education and generic skills. Our industry-model of labour relations suppresses intellectual enquiry in favour of the piecework allocation of time for preparation, in-class teaching, and evaluation.

As a result the universities look upon as less than full academic partners. The public sees colleges as very successful providers of employable skills but not as places from which tomorrow’s leaders will emerge - witness Macleans magazine’s latest list of 25 promising young people. Not one had a college pedigree.

The danger, one might argue, is that in attempting to make explicit our intellectual identity through the development of applied degrees, applied research, and the increasing academic qualifications required of our staff, we will abandon not only that which has made us successful but also assume either a second-rate status vis a vis universities or simply parrot some of their increasingly questionable features. Writing in the National Post (14 September 2002), Robert Fulford, in reference to the book "No place to learn: Why universities aren’t working" (Pocklington and Tupper), concluded by noting, "...the [university] system may be beyond fixing. Tenure, entrenched labour unions, rampant careerism, uncomprehending politicians, narrow-minded university governors: the obstacles to reform are so intimidating that the possibilities of change appear to be, at this stage, no better than marginal". (A18)

We need to confront the nature of our intellectual identity and build one that respects the peculiar program focus of colleges while heralding a new and more engaged role for our faculty, students, and graduates in the challenges of the outside world. The following are some questions we might ask of our programs.

  1. Paradigmatic – what are the operative paradigms in our examined academic programs? In Civil Technology for instance our models are post-war suburban development characterized by single use, low-density subdivisions, on cul-de-sac, wide streets. Within this context we teach the elements of road design, centralized hard servicing, and surface sealing of the landscape. Our students learn technique but not the ability to question or imagine other infrastructure opportunities from hybrid, on-site service models to narrow streets, and alternatives to pavement. In each academic area we could possibly also list taken-for-granted assumptions about the world that in turn shape our curriculum, but which eliminate other options.

  2. Cultural – what are the belief systems and practices that shape the professions our students enter? Firefighters responded to the World Trade Centre catastrophe in ways different from police officers. The latter, a para-military operation evacuated buildings on given an order. The former who culturally view themselves as, at least partially, heroes, stayed to get as many people out as possible. The result was many firefighter deaths, and far fewer police officer casualties.

  3. Engagement - why do issues oriented panels focus on the top of a profession’s hierarchy rather than involve a range of professional participants? In the sustainable development field the tendency is to focus training, and organizational expertise around the architecture and professional engineering professions, thus ignoring the other tiers of technicians, technologists etc. Such bias probably infiltrates every field from medicine to law etc. and is hardly noticed because of its ubiquity. We see it in the way public and private agencies turn to the universities when they need research often forgetting that the colleges could be a more relevant source of enquiry.

The intellectual challenge is to examine the above tendencies, learn from them, and develop strategies for more effective analysis of our respective fields.

William Humber, B.A.(honours), M.E.S. is the Chair, Centre for the Built Environment, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineeering Technology at Seneca College. He may be contacted at (416) 491-5050 Ext. 2500 or


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2003 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology