12/17/2012 12:22 EST | Updated 02/16/2013 05:12 EST

Want to Quell Student Stress? Don't Take Wente's Advice

Margaret Wente argued that Canadian universities were guilty of "infantilizing," rather than "challenging" students. Ken Coates said universities should function as a "proving ground." But universities were never meant to function as a sorting mechanism for the job market. We should devote the effort and resources necessary to change university education to better serve all students. University shouldn't be more demanding, it should be more engaging.

A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.

As thousands of university students across the country cram for December exams, a number of articles have appeared detailing efforts to ease finals-related stress. Concerned administrators and campus organizations are offering programs ranging from free yoga classes, to "dog therapy" sessions, all with the goal of ensuring students' mental well-being.

Not everyone is pleased with this trend. Writing in the Globe and Mail on December 6, in a column titled "University's not meant to be easy," Margaret Wente argued that Canadian universities were guilty of "infantilizing," rather than "challenging" students. Monday, December 3 on CBC Radio's The Current, Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan and author of the book Campus Confidential, expressed similar sentiments: Universities should function as a "proving ground," he argued, and therefore not be too accommodating.

To be fair, neither Wente nor Coates was speaking about yoga or dog therapy. Rather, both were expressing concerns about more substantive changes, such as those recommended in a recent Queen's University report on student mental health. These include reductions in the amount of required reading and writing at certain times of the semester, greater flexibility on assignment deadlines for students with special needs, and longer exam periods.

In essence, Wente and Coates' argument goes something like this: Universities are admitting more and more students who are unsuited to the rigours of higher education. These institutions have lowered their standards in order to make more money through tuition fees and, at the same time, high schools are "coddling" their students, leaving them "thin-skinned" and unprepared. Instead of reforming these mediocre students' bad habits, universities have made it easier to achieve good grades and, eventually, receive a degree. This, in turn, reduces the economic value of a university education (anyone, it seems, can get a B.A.) and leaves graduates unprepared for the "real world."

Wente and Coates believe that universities should serve the job market. A university degree used to mean something to employers, bemoaned Coates in his Current interview: "It meant you could handle stress; it meant you could cope; it meant you took responsibility for yourself; it meant you managed your classes, managed your workload." Similarly, Wente writes that university should be where you go to "learn to cope with your responsibilities and manage your time."

It is striking that neither Wente nor Coates had anything to say about the content of a university education. The topic of your undergraduate honours thesis, it seems, matters less than whether or not you submitted it on time and formatted the bibliography correctly. Universities are supposed to test students' mettle, to sort the employable wheat from the unproductive chaff.

The problem is that, at least in the case of the social sciences and humanities, universities were never meant to function as a sorting mechanism for the job market. As Mark Kingwell pointed out in a recent Globe and Mail article, "liberal education is about citizenship, not job training or simple personal enrichment." Universities are not supposed to help corporations find productive workers, they are supposed to create an engaged and informed public.

In her article Wente deplores the fact that (according to an unnamed professor friend) university students today are less interested in "challenging or debating" ideas in class than were their predecessors. These students, she posits, simply wish to "collect a credential," rather than engaging in their education in a more meaningful way. This attitude, however, is the logical outcome of precisely the type of higher education that Wente and Coates advocate. A view that sees universities as more valuable for testing instrumental organizational skills than for teaching literature, rhetoric, or philosophy can't help but devalue the process of learning in favour of the simple obtainment of a degree.

I agree with Wente and Cotes on one point: University isn't for everyone. There are plenty of ways to be successful in life without attending university. We would all be better served by eliminating the false and misguided tendency of seeing those who choose not to attend university as "lesser." Indeed, it is this attitude that is responsible for a great deal of students' stress. The possibility of a poor grade seems to imply not only academic, but also personal and societal failure.

Increasing the range of socially acceptable options for graduating high school students does not, however, mean that we should make it harder to attend university, only that we should make it easier and more acceptable to pursue other options.

We shouldn't be bemoaning the fact that more students who are not "academically gifted" in an extremely narrow, extremely traditional sense, are going to university. We shouldn't be trying to root these students out through unnecessarily onerous workloads. The fact that more students are attending university is cause for celebration. We should devote the effort and resources necessary to change university education to better serve all students; to provide them with the facts, theories, and critical thinking skills that will help them better contribute to our democracy.

Attending university shouldn't be more stressful and more demanding. It should be more exciting and engaging.

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