The language with which the media have characterized the Quebec student strike, now in its 14th week (and perhaps on its last breath if Jean Charest goes through with legislation that would "suspend" it until late summer), is strikingly lacking. The most often used terms -- "student protest" and "tuition hike" -- ignore what is at the centre of strike. What is missing is the word "university" -- these are after all university students protesting university tuition hikes. The university part is in fact the key to the whole thing.
University students are weird specimens. They're old enough that we consider them adults but they are still, basically, kids. One minute we've got them imprisoned in a strictly regimented life of school and family and friends, and the next they're out on their own at institutions that are pretty much the antithesis of real life, and that have virtually no rules. And the only other people around them are thousands and thousands of more kids. It's crazy when you stop and think about it.
Going to university is like hitting the snooze button on life: you do whatever you want whenever you want, and there are no consequences (or at least there's no one there to call your attention to them). It's a vacation that lasts four years -- or more if you manage to wrangle an invitation to the grad school after-party.
And there's also learning to be done.
If you had to boil down what universities teach to two words, they'd be "critical thinking" -- a loaded term to be sure, but which, at its most basic level, means questioning everything. University students just eat this up: for many, this is their first time away from home, their community, their comfort zone. They are being taught to be critical of everything by professors who are critical of everything. You can smell the scent of rebellion (mixed with stale beer and pot smoke) from a mile away.
This is all well and good (broadening your horizons and such) but there's a flaw in the brand of critical thinking universities teach. On the first day of Critical Thinking 101 elbow-patched profs exhort students to challenge everything they've ever been taught before. This is music to the ears of the typical freshman -- an invitation to mutinee. And from there it's but an easy step to embracing ideological formulations -- in the current age, postmodernism and its various philosophical offspring -- that are pretty much the direct opposite of what regular people think and do.
The problem is that the critical thinking being taught is not self-perpetuating -- that is, no one tells university students to think critically about critical thinking. Students get so caught up in the inherent sexiness of doing everything they haven't been doing until now that they fail to recognize the academic world is as rigid and exclusionary as the real world.
You need to get out of university to learn that lesson.
And that's the good news -- that the malady is only temporary. It takes leaving university and entering true adulthood to recognize -- and it doesn't happen overnight -- that scholars are as blinkered and priggish as everyone else. Slowly, as the fog of university is replaced by real life, one begins to realize there's a lot of good in the regular ways most people live. Rebellion, it turns out, isn't a very functional credo, more the kind of thing you indulge in on summer long weekends.
Most of the kids -- and it's important to remember that we're talking about kids here -- on strike in Quebec, demonstrating in the streets, wearing their little red thingies, are going to turn out just fine. They'll be perfectly normal citizens who work hard to make an honest living, and they'll be wiser for the university experience too, because when you set aside the ideological pretentiousness, universities do teach a lot of useful stuff, and foster personal growth that serves young people well as they enter the job market and seek out suitable mates.
Sure, a few of these protesters will never grow out of the university faze. They'll keep railing against "the man" and "the system" until they're blue in the face. Or, if they're really crazy, they'll become the next generation of professors and academics. Either way, they'll be perfectly harmless. They'll serve as a constant reminder to the rest of us of the good times we once had in university, and the even better times we have after it's over.