Are Students the Canaries in Our Coal Mines?

Over the last few decades, universities — or, at least, many university administrators, working in tandem with ministries of education —  have increasingly embraced the idea that the role of the university is to prepare students for jobs that already exist in the marketplace. This has left many traditional university disciplines in an odd situation: their purpose is to advance knowledge, to teach students to think clearly and critically, to give a context for the ideas that shape our culture, and to provide an education that sometimes must challenge the prevailing ideas of our time, including the idea that universities exist primarily to prepare students for the job market.

Canary. (Photo by Juan Emilio [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

Canary. (Photo by Juan Emilio, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

This is not only the case with seemingly esoteric disciplines like philosophy or classics, but is true of disciplines in the sciences and social sciences as well: while those of us who teach these subjects seek to provide students with skills that can be applied in the world of work, it is not our primary purpose. The result is that universities in North America today are in a strange and uneasy period of transition: not quite the same institutions they once were, not simply places designed to prepare students for the work world, but somewhere in between.

Students, unsurprisingly, are caught in the middle — told their whole lives they need to go to university to get a better job; encouraged, when they finally arrive, to take courses that will be “useful” in terms of their job prospects; many of them want more from their university education than work skills. They want what university students have traditionally wanted, to be in a space that exposes them to a multiplicity of ideas, and which allows them to figure out who they are and what they really want to do with their lives. And, it seems to me, this older purpose is more important than it has ever been, because the vestiges of the older model that can still be found in our contemporary universities offer one of the only places in our culture where this kind of exploration can still be done.

As regular readers of this column will have gleaned, I am a university professor. More specifically, I am a philosophy professor who specializes in ethics, and who teaches in a small college (the University of Sudbury) attached to a larger institution (Laurentian University). Laurentian University has other federated colleges as well, namely, Huntington and Thorneloe.

As is typical in many universities, these colleges were originally founded by religious denominations: Huntington University by the United Church, Thorneloe by the Anglican church, the University of Sudbury by the Catholic church (and, for most of its history, run by the Jesuits). While the founding churches still play a peripheral role (the University of Sudbury, for example, still has a Jesuit chaplain and an active chapel), these institutions are now essentially secular. This means that these particular universities offer a particularly acute example of the problem discussed above.

These colleges are run by administrators who want them to fall in line with current trends in education, staffed by faculty who have dedicated much of their lives to meeting the traditional goals of the university, and home to students who are caught in the middle: they take philosophy courses, for example, because they want to learn how to think and how to understand themselves better, but many (if not most) worry, as they do so, that they might be wasting time and money taking classes that have no clear and direct applications to the workplace.


This background is important in understanding the issue I want to consider this month, as well as the way I want to approach it. My colleagues and I, both at the University of Sudbury and at other similar universities with which I am familiar, have noticed increasing rates of anxiety in our students, coupled with an almost obsessive focus on marks. This anxiety can be so crippling that some students will avoid completing assignments for fear of doing badly. Of course, failure to do the work required to complete the course becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you don’t hand in any work, the mark you eventually receive in the course will not be good!

Photo by Sahar Atbaei via Facebook

Dalhousie University students faced with realities of climate change urge the school to divest its endowment fund from the fossil fuel industry. (Photo by Sahar Atbaei via Facebook)

Students who do manage to get the work done, and who often do quite well, seem to approach their studies with a kind of utilitarian joylessness which I don’t think my friends and I felt when we were university students 30 years ago.

And there is a third group, the one I find most mysterious of all: students who sign up for my courses but seldom come to class, don’t hand in work but seem unconcerned about the effect this will have on their grade, and appear confused when I ask them what other courses they are taking. They are, in short, strangely indifferent to their studies.

Many university students today, then, seem to feel that going to university is a necessary requirement for future success (that is to say, the key to a better job), but that the requirements placed on them by their professors are onerous and burdensome. My colleagues and I, who enjoyed our studies (which is why, of course, we ended up as university professors!), and who remain excited by our disciplines, are often at a loss to know how to respond to the quite genuine suffering many of our students seem to be experiencing.

It is commonplace, now to describe higher education in North America as being in crisis: tuition fees are higher than most students can comfortably afford, the humanities are under attack because they don’t lead in any clear and straightforward way to jobs, more and more of the teaching is being done by exploited sessionals, governments are increasingly interfering with programming and the ranks of administrators balloon while the numbers of teaching faculty shrink. All of these concerns are real and important, but it seems to me that the condition of our students is perhaps the greatest concern: how can we help them, and what might their anxieties tell us about our society and the world we have created for them?


It was in light of this concern that I read with interest an article passed on to me by one of the retired Jesuits who used to work at the University of Sudbury — “Reading Ignatius in Dystopia,” by Michael C. McCarthy. McCarthy, a Jesuit and a classics professor, has noticed many of the same trends in universities that I have, and has a similar concern with the well-being of his students. His claims are, I think, relevant to all of us, not only to those who teach and study in universities, because they try to get at larger trends in the culture which are transforming our previously optimistic hopes about how the world works and how our lives might go into fearful expectations that everything is only going to get worse. We are, McCarthy argues, living in a time which is best captured by dystopian literature, literature that imagines futures in which our deepest fears have come true, and that this is something that we need to take seriously when it comes to thinking about the point and purpose of universities.

As McCarthy puts it, in words that reflect my own experience:

In recent years, I have been surprised by how fearful and suspicious many college undergraduates have become. As generous and hard-working as they are, there is a deep vulnerability and a habitual distrust in the values and authorities that provided previous generations with confidence and direction –- a sense of citizenship and of religious commitment, to name only two. As one colleague has pointed out, regarding those who have grown up in the age of social media, ‘their nose for bulls—t has become more keen than their expectation of truth.’

Moreover, he notes, there is more than anecdotal evidence to support the claim that students seem more fearful and anxious than they used to:

In 2016… the National College Health Assessment reported that nearly two-thirds of students surveyed complained of feeling overwhelming anxiety or hopelessness in the previous 12 months. That number was up 50 percent from what it was five years before.

McCarthy argues that the current state of students, and the way in which that state is a response to a larger cultural context in which our leaders have betrayed us and our institutions are failing us, makes Jesuit education –- an education focused on the convictions that “a human being is fundamentally a living, incarnate, and unrepeatable mystery,” and that its purpose goes far beyond merely preparing students for the workplace but must also help them develop into “whole persons.”

Sign at the March for Science 2017 in Washington, DC. scattered1 from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

Sign at the March for Science 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by scattered1 from USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

What this means, he argues, is that Jesuit colleges and universities must “renew an academic vision that speaks to our times, even as it insists on values that will not pass away.” What this looks like in detail will, of course, vary from discipline to discipline, but in all instances will require a discussion of character formation and the relationship of the individual to the community.

Of course, in the case of explicitly Jesuit education, this focus on character development and community is formed by, and therefore reflects, a belief in God. What does this focus mean in a secular institution, with respect to students who come from diverse religious backgrounds or who have no belief in God at all, and who are taught by professors with no overarching shared commitments? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I am very fortunate in that I teach philosophy, a discipline which takes seriously questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives, and of what it might mean to well or to live badly. These are questions I can easily explore with my students with the help of thinkers like Socrates, Kant and Mill.

But McCarthy’s article points, I think, to a larger cultural problem as well, one which afflicts all of us to varying degrees. Our culture is making more and more of us, on the one hand, increasingly anxious, and, on the other, strangely indifferent to what is going on around us, choosing instead of paying attention, to focus on entertainment and the accumulation of material possessions.

Social media, for example, encourage us to be acutely aware of ourselves and of how other people respond to us, our privacy is constantly under threat, we have good reason to be concerned about climate change but we are relatively powerless as individuals to do anything to slow it down and our politicians seem both self-serving and inept — who wouldn’t be anxious or want to avoid thinking about these problems altogether? We are living in trying times, and it is not clear what remedies there are for our condition. In my bleaker moments, I sometimes think of both my anxious and my strangely passive students as being akin to the proverbial canaries in a coal mine: it’s not that they are persons with overly delicate sensibilities who cannot cope with the ordinary stresses of life; it is, rather, that they are simply among the first to be affected by the dangers that all of us are now facing.

Featured image: Canary. Photo by Juan Emilio, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.





Hey, while we’ve got you here, can we just say thanks for reading the Spectator? We’re always glad to see you.

That said, if you wanted to make us dance a (virtual) jig of joy, please consider subscribing. You can find out more about what we’re all about here, before cruising on over to the Subscriptions Page, where you can choose from a fine selection of possibilities — including a joint subscription with the Halifax Examiner. And right now, if you take out a regular, annual subscription to the Spectator ($100) or a joint annual Spectator/Examiner subscription ($160), you’ll get a free gift — yes, you read that correctly, the Spectator’s got swag!

Prefer to monitor the situation awhile longer? Not quite ready to commit? Why not sign up for our weekly newsletter to find out what’s been newly released from behind the paywall (and give us a chance to win you over)?

Thanks for listening! We now return you to your regularly scheduled web browsing…