The Importance of Colleges

I began my career as a teacher in a two year college in Montreal. Vanier College was the second English language institution created as part of the CEGEP system in Quebec after Dawson College. (CEGEP means, College of General & Vocational Education or Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel) I consider those early years to have been among the best, at least at the level of learning both for myself and for my students. Recent tragic events at Dawson College have reminded me of the richness of my experiences and the need to understand the importance of the colleges to the educational system in Canada.

Colleges (particularly two-year institutions) are generally looked down upon by universities for reasons that have little to do with their importance, indeed the centrality of colleges to a variety of communities. Here in British Columbia, colleges are crucial to so many communities that I often wonder (perhaps I am being naïve) why they are not celebrated not only for their histories, but for their achievements. College teachers have larger workloads and are not expected to do research, although it is impossible to teach without staying current within your field. Most post-secondary educational systems are characterized by tremendous diversity, in large measure because colleges respond in a more direct way to the needs of their constituents. It is a difficult balancing act — be responsive and yet provide contexts for learning that enhance and enrich not only the lives of learners, but allow them to develop the skills to go to university or into a profession.

I mention all of this because of a wonderful column by T. F. RIGELHOF entitled How we'll heal in the Saturday, September 16, 2006 edition of the Globe and Mail newspaper about the Dawson shootings. Unfortunately, the article is not available on the web. In the piece, Rigelhof celebrates the love that he has for the college and for its students. And for me, this is about the wonder that he feels at the engagement that is required to teach and learn.

In an earlier piece of mine, I wrote the following: "Ignorance is about resistance. It is about the desire to think and act in certain ways, most of which are rooted in a conscious refusal to engage with processes of inner reflection. The problem is that some pedagogical strategies try to anticipate what students need to know, as if teachers have already solved their own contradictory relationship with learning. The result is that teachers create (if not imagine) an ideal student and then make judgements about the students who are unable to attain the standards set by their instructional methods. If there is to be some equality of exchange here, then the teacher has to be learning nearly all of the time. This can then set the stage for some linkage and visibility between the foundational assumptions of the instructor and her own past, as well as her own history of learning. This may then return the teacher to a closer understanding of what it means to be a student."

I still stand by what I said and Rigelhof exemplifies why a strong emphasis on students changes not only their lives, but the lives of those who teach.