It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
Charles Dickens (1859)
A Tale of Two Cities is the classic adaptation of events that took place around the time of the French Revolution. It is also, coincidently, set at the same time that North America’s first ‘public’ university was established at the University of North Carolina*. Although the two sets of events in 1789 are very different, one could argue that the North American educational revolution was equally as important as what was occurring at Versailles.
Standing the Test of Time
Post-secondary education has survived recessions and civil wars; industrial revolutions and depressions. It is important to remember this when critics raise their voices. The reality is that higher education has stood the test of time. In fact, of the sixty-six institutions that have been in continuous operation since the mid 1500s, sixty-two are colleges and universities (Note: one is the other four includes the Roman Catholic).
Certainly, those of us who are committed to higher education believe that there is room for improvement. However, this commitment to continuous improvement is just one reason why the OECD has once again ranked the Canadian post-secondary education system as the most effective system in the world in terms of producing graduates as a percent of the population. (Note: the United States has recently slipped to 12th which is one of the reasons President Obama and Secretary Duncan have set and are investing heavily in achieving aggressive 2020 graduation targets).
The Changing Classroom
There are many changes occurring in higher education, and anyone who believes that college classrooms look like they did 100 years ago – really needs to revisit a classroom. Certainly, I would welcome anyone to visit a classroom that is occupied by an Algonquin College professor. As a visitor or a student, you would see 100s of smart classrooms and applied learning labs, supported by advanced technologies and simulation tools and software. Most impressively, you will observe highly experienced and qualified faculty members who can make their lessons and learning come alive.
We are living in a new ‘age of wisdom’ and as an optimist, I would concur with Dickens. That is, these days can indeed be described as the best of times for higher education and the coming years will only be better.
A note on history: Private higher education started over 150 years earlier with the opening of what would become two of the eight Ivy League universities. 1). The first college was established in Boston in 1636 (eventually becoming Harvard University). 2). The first actual university was established in 1740 in Philadelphia (eventually becoming the University of Pennsylvania).
In Canada, identifying (defining) the first university always brings debate, however it appears the first institution was founded in Fredericton in 1785 (eventually becoming the University of New Brunswick). Alternatively, Kings College in Halifax was founded in 1789 and McGill in Montreal in 1821.