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A Certain Degree of Difference (New Maritimes, 1995)

“What is it that you teach, Professor Cameron?” said the young Irishman, helping me tote my luggage to a room in the Belfast inn.

“I started as an English professor,” I said, “but now I teach something called Problem Centred Studies.”

“And what would that be, now?”

“Well, it involves research and analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking — ”

“Ah,” said the young man, opening the door to my room. “There’d be a great market for that, I fancy.”

Yes, indeed: those are precisely the qualities which education in the 1990s is supposed to foster. Problem Centred Studies is the core of the Bachelor of Arts Community Studies, offered only at the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney. The BACS, says one professor who teaches in the program, is “a working person’s degree” — unpretentious, practical, co-operative, even sociable. There is nothing else like it anywhere in Canada. And yet, although UCCB has been offering the degree for many years, it remains almost a secret.

The BACS degree was created by canny Cape Bretoners intent on undermining mainland hostility to the repellent idea of a degree-granting university on the island. There were — and are — a dozen degree-granting institutions on the mainland, including six in Halifax; there were none in Cape Breton, the second-largest urban area in the province.

The conspirators formed the College of Cape Breton in 1974 by merging two very different institutions: Xavier College, a junior campus of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish; and Nova Scotia Eastern Institute of Technology, a vocational and technical college. To neutralize some of the mainland opposition, CCB set out to develop programs which would not duplicate mainland offerings, programs characterized by “uniqueness and innovation.”

The BACS degree — the College’s first — was all of that. It was rooted in the educational thought of John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead and especially Paulo Friere as developed at the University of Utrecht, says David White, former Dean of the program and now Dean of Student Services. Its pedagogy assumes, White explains, “that there are no experts and there is no profession of teachers, but rather there is a community of scholars or learners.” As it happened, the Utrecht model was also adopted, quite independently, by the McMaster University medical school; neither school was aware of the other’s activities until years later.

The model was brought to Cape Breton by the first Dean of the BACS program, George O.M. Leith. It enrolled its first class in 1975, and produced its first graduates in 1978, when UCCB degrees were still formally conferred by St. Francis Xavier. In 1982 the College became the University College of Cape Breton — Cape Breton’s own institution, fully independent from St. FX. at last.

The University College was conceived from the start as a community-based institution. It would be accessible, affordable, and flexible — an instrument of personal, social and economic development which would offer college-level vocational programs as well as purely academic university programs. Merging the two streams, wrote Dr. Donald Campbell, the founding President, meant that UCCB “could extend in imaginative ways the services to community which had already been demonstrated at Xavier College.” The new college also “contained the potential for undergraduate curricula that should unite the humanities and technology in new ways.”

The latter goal — a synergistic fusion of its two very different antecedents — proved as elusive as cold fusion. For twenty years, UCCB was divided into two faculties. Arts and Science was really Xavier College in camouflage, while Trades and Technology was NSEIT travelling incognito. Internal transfers were difficult at best, and often impossible. The programs were different, the course numberings were different, the timetables were different. The faculty worked under two different unions, and still does; the university professors belong to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the trades and technology instructors to the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union.

But the vision of an education which combines liberal and vocational knowledge remained a powerful one, unorthodox though it was. The view that liberal and vocational learning are polar opposites goes back at least to Cardinal Newman. A liberal education, said Newman in The Idea of a University, is “the cultivation of the intellect as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.” As the prime purpose of a university, liberal education stands in sharp contrast to vocational learning, which is undertaken in expectation of a tangible result.

What Newman’s many followers overlooked, however, is Newman’s further argument that “the most ordinary pursuits” may have the character of liberal education “if they are self-sufficient and complete.” Conversely, the most rarefied intellectual pursuits lose that character “when they minister to something beyond them.” An academic dissertation, pursued with a faculty job in view, is thus not liberal education but vocational training, while a basement woodwork project, undertaken for the joy of the work and the mastery of the craft, is liberal study.

Even for Newman, in short, it is attitude and expectations, not subject matter, which determine whether a particular study is “liberal knowledge.” But the two forms of learning are not so tidily separable as Newman thought, either. Labour, for instance, may be an occasion of liberal education. Buddhism, notes E.F. Schumacher, “takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.” There is a deep goodness about this conception of work, with its frank recognition that although liberal and vocational activities may be separate conceptually, they are inextricably intertwined in our lives.

What kind of education would accord with Schumacher’s view of work? Clearly, Schumacher’s formulation implies a curriculum which recognizes that man (or woman) does not live by bread alone — but does not live very well without bread, either. It implies a curriculum which includes work, and which is frankly social in nature. Ultimately, Schumacher’s view calls for an education which confers a blend of skills and understanding, an education which asserts and exemplifies both the unity of knowledge and the dignity of work.

To a considerable extent, that was UCCB’s vision, however inchoate and unrealized, and it was simply ahead of its time. Indeed, the vision was not universally accepted within UCCB itself. Asking the faculty of a small, under-funded and remote institution to pursue a novel and dissident model of education is asking a lot. Just as Canadian aloofness erodes Maritime self-esteem, so Nova Scotian disdain erodes Cape Breton’s self-confidence. It is hard to believe you are doing something innovative and excellent when the environment is continually telling you that your community is backward, dim-witted and irrelevant — and you are too, simply because you live there.

The BACS degree, however, does flow from the UCCB vision. It is rooted in community, in the unity of knowledge and in the dignity of work. Because it was designed to “unite the humanities and technology in new ways,” it welcomes transfer students not only from UCCB’s own varied diploma programs, but also from the Nova Scotia Teachers College, from Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, and from Westviking College in western Newfoundland.

All students in the BACS degree program draw up graduation plans for themselves when they enter. Each plan involves extensive individual counselling, and is based on the student’s career goals. The degree itself — which takes three academic years to complete — requires seven core courses in Problem Centred Studies, four academic courses in one discipline, four career-related courses in two other subject areas (or five courses in the Sport Option), and two free electives.

A student intending to go on for a law degree, for example, might plan four courses in English, two in business, two in political science, one in psychology and one in communication. Someone aiming for the parks service could choose an array of courses covering public administration, sociology, biology and environmental technology. The graduation plan is flexible, but it ensures that however eclectic the student’s program may be, it will also be relevant and coherent.

Four of the required courses in Problem Centred Studies are individualized essay courses and work placements; the remaining three courses — PCS 100, 200 and 300 — all take place in small groups of six to eight students, each with a faculty advisor. Because the pedagogy of PCS is “process education,” these courses have no content in the ordinary sense; they are about the process of identifying, analyzing and resolving social problems which the groups themselves identify and pursue.

So PCS 100 centres on critical thinking and analysis, the development of problem-solving strategies, basic secondary research techniques — library research, for example — and decision-making. In PCS 200 the groups turn their attention to primary research techniques such as surveys, and apply their skills to the analysis of specific community problems. PCS 300 groups must plan and implement an “intervention” designed to resolve or alleviate such a problem.

PCS interventions are as varied as the students’ interests. One group noted the fact that only 60% of Cape Breton parents use appropriate child restraints in their cars; they developed a whole promotional program around child safety, and presented it to several parents’ groups. A second group developed a drama program at a youth club in working-class Whitney Pier. A third group organized a Seniors Expo, designed to show senior citizens the services and opportunities available to them. Some years ago, a PCS 300 team established one of the first post-polio support groups in eastern Canada.

In both PCS 200 and 300, the groups present proposals before undertaking their projects, and the projects conclude with oral presentations attended and graded by all the faculty members in the department. In the second and third year students also do 160 hours of community volunteer work in a placement related to their career objectives. They maintain logs and journals during the placement, and must also write two extensive career-related reflective essays each year.

The degree also offers several specialized options — sport management, community studies (which is really pre-social work), and a particularly interesting combined program in community business development which allows students to earn both a BACS and a BBA in four years.

About 40% of BACS students plan to enter social service work, and the degree is often assumed to be a preparation for such careers — which of course it is. Among other things. It is also a fine preparation for other forms of public service, for graduate study and for the professions. Its fundamental attraction is that it can be shaped to provide both academic understanding and real experience tailored to almost any kind of career ambition.

It seems to me, for example, that the BACS would be ideal for a young writer, with its emphasis on analysis, research, work experience, oral presentation and extensive writing. If I were young again — sigh — I would take a BACS degree with four courses in English, and two each in communication, politics and business. I might hang around for another year to do UCCB’s postgraduate professional writing certificate, which will be launched in 1996, and then I would sally forth with a fair degree of confidence that I knew not only how to survive, but also how to seek excellence in this enthralling but precarious profession.

Since PCS courses shape themselves to the diverse needs of individual students, the program requires a wide range of interests and expertise in the faculty. The PCS department currently includes faculty trained in politics, history, social work, business, fine art, literature, administration, sociology and folklore. What they share — with one another, and with their students — is not a discipline but a pedagogy, which ultimately creates a distinctive corporate culture. Students have always shared in the department’s decision-making apparatus as well, sitting as voting members on department committees (including curriculum and hiring committees) and taking part in recruiting students for the program.

“Before I did this course, I was actually quite shy,” says Jackie Pritchett, a BACS student from Gambo, Newfoundland. “I probably wouldn’t have been caught dead talking to you before. But the group work really helps. You learn well from one another. And you’re going to have to work with other people in the work force, so this is really good experience.”

Pritchett, who transferred to UCCB from Westviking, is preparing for a career in the correctional service. Jean-Frederic Beauchesne (universally known as “J-F”) is less certain of his future, but thinks it will be in the field of human rights. A Montrealer who spent his high-school years at an exclusive US prep school, J-F dropped out of Carleton University and spent a couple of years working and travelling before deciding that unskilled jobs would never add up to a career worth pursuing. He went looking for a small university to attend, and chose UCCB specifically for the BACS program.

“I didn’t know where Cape Breton was,” he smiles. “I thought it was off the coast of Newfoundland. I knew about The Rankin Family winning the Juno Award, and the UCCB basketball team was in the national finals. And then I looked at the BACS. Nobody else had that, and it was such a good idea. The student-teacher ratio is very good — education isn’t sitting in an auditorium with 300 people in it — and the work placement is a great idea, like a trial of possibilities.”

The program has evolved considerably over the years, and it has had its failures as well as its successes. No doubt the same could be said of all programs, and yet the BACS remains oddly beleaguered within UCCB itself. The whole concept of process education strikes some as bogus, trendy, somehow lacking in rigour. When a student in another program does something foolish, it is taken as a reflection on the student; when a PCS student does something foolish, it becomes a reflection on the program. Many PCS faculty are obsessively interested in teaching and far less interested in research, an outlook which runs against the normal grain of academic life.

Whatever its problems, however, BACS is still a distinctive program which embodies something unique and essential about the institution.

“In every university, there’s a group of students who stand out from the others,” says UCCB President Jacquelyn Scott. “Often it’s the business students, because of the way they dress and so forth. Here it’s the BACS students. I can walk into the cafeteria and pick out the tables of BACS students right away. They’re self-possessed and intent, very vocal, and they’re comfortable together. You can spot ’em instantly.”

In 1994, Dr. Scott engineered a revolution at UCCB. When she took office in 1993, the institution was in disarray, to put it mildly. Chronically underfunded, it had run up a $3.5 million debt. It ranked dead last in the annual Maclean’s survey of Canadian universities. It had cycled and recycled five presidents (two of them “Acting”) in three years. One president had begun the process of reform by shuffling the departments into four Schools — but without abolishing the two faculties. The result was chaos, gloom and paralysis.

Dr. Scott is a clear-sighted and decisive person, but it took all her formidable strength and determination — and the support of many others, from the Board on down — to clear the terrain and reconstruct the institutional structure. When the sawdust and paint fumes had cleared, the old Faculties and Schools had been replaced by four new Schools: Arts and Letters, Science and Technology, Business, and Community Studies. The new Schools included components from both the academic and vocational streams, and PCS (which had previously been the only department in a School of Applied Arts and Development Studies) now found itself housed in the School of Community Studies with four other departments.

Two of these departments represent familiar disciplines: Politics, Government and Public Adminstration, and Social Science and Practice, which is primarily sociology and anthropology. Two are more unusual. Communication, especially with an interpersonal and oral emphasis, is a rare discipline in Canada. The Department of Culture, Heritage and Leisure Studies encompasses such established fields as folklore, sports and recreation — but it also offers Celtic studies and Mi’kmaq studies.

Among UCCB’s proudest achievements is the relationship it has built with the Mi’kmaq nation. UCCB boasts 180 Mi’kmaq students and an array of 15 courses in Mi’kmaq history, government and language. Last spring, 14 Mi’kmaqs received degrees from UCCB, by far the largest group of native graduates in the Maritimes. The Mi’kmaq are among the most gregarious and sociable of the First Nations, and one of the most distinctive sights at UCCB is a group of Mi’kmaqs of varying ages drifting along the hall, laughing and chatting in Mi’kmaq. Their presence has enriched the university with a philosophy, a view of individual and society – even an etiquette — which flow from a unique non-Western vision of the world.

The new School of Community Studies also had a new Dean: me. And if that was a surprise to others, it was almost as great a surprise to me.

But during more than two decades as a freelance writer, I had been sinking my roots deep into rural Cape Breton and specifically into Isle Madame. With the collapse of the fishery, coastal communities such as Isle Madame were in deep trouble. Isle Madame itself faced the loss of 500 jobs in a workforce of 1500, and consultants’ reports predicted terrible social stress and out-migration of 50% of the population within 10 years unless the communities took their own destinies in their own hands.

A group on Isle Madame formed a committee and undertook the reconstruction of the island’s economy. The more we researched the possibilities, the more we saw that almost every alternative involved education. If we were to do eco-tourism, we needed to know about ecology. If we were going to sell craft items, we would have to learn marketing. If our people were moving into aquaculture, they needed to understand biology, business and bureaucracy. In a worldwide information economy where knowledge was the real currency, our community had no future without a powerful knowledge engine.

That engine could only be the University College of Cape Breton. I had already served as writer-in-residence at UCCB between 1978 and 1980. I understood and cherished the UCCB vision. It was time to dust off my PhD and do my bit to make it work.

The university I joined in 1994 had changed greatly since 1980. It had grown to become the province’s third-largest university (or fourth-largest, depending how you measure), with more than 3800 students packed into buildings designed for 1200. John deMont of Maclean’s cruelly but accurately described the campus as having “all the charm of an industrial park,” but a $15-million building now under construction will alleviate the space problem, and federal funding has spruced up the existing campus. The new stone wall along the highway is indelibly “the Dingwall.” Well yes, the minister is an alumnus.

As I re-acquainted myself with UCCB, I found a CAD-CAM Centre, a Geographical Information Systems Centre, a Virtual Reality Lab and a Chair in the Management of Technological Change. UCCB now offered the BA, BSc and BBA degrees as well as the BACS, not to mention the only Bachelor of Technology east of Toronto. In partnership with St. Mary’s University, UCCB delivers the MBA in Sydney. With Dalhousie, it is currently offering the MSW, and it is negotiating to provide a BSW. Some features of the new structure reflect the BACS experience: 25% of the seats on all School and department committees are allocated to students, for instance, and all but one of UCCB’S programs now includes a co-op or work placement component — including the regular BA. UCCB is beginning to live its unique vision.

Meanwhile, UCCB is paying off its debt at the rate of $600,000 per year. Don’t think that doesn’t hurt. According to Maclean’s, UCCB remains the worst-funded institution in Canada at $2930 per student vs. $4024 at Brock, the second-lowest. If it were funded at the Canadian average, its budget would double.

And yet when Maclean’s assessed “value-added” — the benefits which universities actually confer on their students — UCCB led the nation. In October, 1994, a month after I joined UCCB, the Government of Nova Scotia issued a Green Paper on Higher Education. Echoing contemporary thinking world-wide, the government called on universities to provide financial sustainability and community involvement, more applied research and better dissemination of research results to the community. The university of the future, it said, would offer more opportunities for students to gain work experience, more innovation and flexibility in teaching, more co-operative learning. It would support convenient transfers of students between programs and institutions, and would offer better access for under-represented groups and mature students.

Well, yes. Yes indeed. There’d be a great market for that, I fancy.