to me looking for a better mark, their argument is usually some variation
on “I need a better grade,” and rarely “I deserve a better grade.” Most of the
time, it’s simply a matter of what the grade must be for some other end – to
keep a scholarship, remain on a team or stay in an academic program.
I am always tempted to ask them what they think those minimum
averages for scholarships and teams are for. I wonder what they would
make of the argument that the reason the scholarship committee needs to
know your grades is to verify whether you are maintaining a high level of
achievement. The grades are supposed to be an indicator of that. If I just
change a grade to get it to the level you need, then it indicates nothing. In
short, I want to ask them whether they have considered the notion that
maybe they deserve to lose their scholarship or spot.
A similar kind of shamelessness shows itself in how easily some students lie. A student once jovially admitted to me that when he didn’t have
time to finish a bibliography for a paper, he stapled a blank page to the
assignment, tore that blank page off, apologized to the instructor that the
biblography had been lost and promised to have it in soon. I sometimes
overhear students counsel one another about how to deal with a late paper
by suggesting, “Just say that someone in your family died,” as if just saying
were not what we otherwise call lying.
Students can also strive to excel by becoming more resolute. I reflect
on this each semester when students get back their first assignments. Many
have done poorly and immediately drop the course. In other words, faced
with a disappointing result, a great many have only one recourse: utter
retreat. They assume that one lousy mark means success is impossible here.
They see the subject matter as irrelevant or me as unreasonable. They rarely
see their performance as something that should and could be altered.
Summoning this kind of reaction is not always easy, I know. My first
grade of B- as an undergrad shocked me. Hearing a PhD candidate give a
paper in one of my first grad seminars was life-changing. In both cases I
could have despaired, or dropped the courses. Instead, I decided I needed
to step up my game.
In order to excel, students need to learn it is possible not to crumble
in the face of disappointment or, indeed, in the face of excellence itself.
We must teach our students to consider that a bad result may be evidence
that one needs to improve and is not necessarily evidence that the game
all the mottos mentioned here are words that have inspired
me, but my favourite belongs to the University of Toronto at
Mississauga: Tantum Nobis Creditum (“So much has been entrusted
to us”). Most mottos – understandably – set out a goal for students, but this
motto is clearly addressed to the university itself. As a professor, I can’t
help seeing it as addressed to me.
University professors are the keepers of a long-standing trust: the
education of people at the highest levels of knowledge. If this does not
inspire a certain amount of awe in you then you are not a professor – or,
perhaps not as good a professor as you might be.
Much of what this essay boils down to is that the university is a public good. Strong societies have needs that do not apply to any individual
and cannot be met by the marketplace. In our case, it is the need to have
a crictical mass of people with advanced thinking skills. Among our judiciary, our teachers, our business people, we need skeptics, iconoclasts and
visionaries to prevent our civilization from blindly following our baser
When I have been asked (and often when I have not) to justify treating the university as a public good, I have always been glad to explain that
it cultivates a broadly educated populace and does not simply train young
people for whatever jobs seem to be in demand. But lately I have grown
weary of making the case, weary of needing to make the case. Still worse,
it is increasingly taken for granted by students, their parents, our governments, and even many of our university administrations, that education
for the greater good of humanity is a silly old notion that had little place
in the last century and no place in this one.
So much has been entrusted to us and we are betraying that trust. But
it may not be too late, if only we remember our mottos.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English in the department of languages and
letters at Cape Breton University.
MUCH HAS BEEN
ENTRUSTED TO US”