What’s the point of Mount Allison?

It’s pretty easy to rattle off a column about the university when I’ve spent the last two weeks mulling over my time here. Now more than ever, I tend to vacillate between sentimentality and cynicism about my time at Mount Allison. I’ve met a lot of people I respect and admire, I’ve taken a handful of classes that have made an immediately perceptible impact on how I view the world, and I’ve enjoyed a number of beers in a variety of places across town.

Still, my time here leaves me somewhat unsatisfied. It often feels as though life on and around campus isn’t organized in the way that most students, faculty, and staff would have it. I’m afraid I can’t point to a specific incident, policy, or budget line that I dislike or disagree with that can totally explain this feeling. Instead, I think in order to interpret this feeling it’s important to read the university like a text—by placing it in its historical, social and political context.

We could – and often do – say something about how the Mt. A community is more than the sum of its members. I agree, but probably not in the way that we might like to think of ourselves. Whatever the other aspirations of the university, it began as, and remains, a training ground for the ruling classes. It doesn’t much matter that many of us find that function somewhat distasteful—the university will continue to fulfill it. As Karl Marx wrote, “The traditions of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

The institution carries a lot of baggage: it was built on unceded indigenous territory, was the source of cannon fodder in an imperialist war, and has trained generations of future lawyers, physicians, ministers and bureaucrats to take places as functionaries of a pretty brutal social order.

At some level, the “memorial echo” now standing next to the Purdy Crawford Centre for the Arts is a symbol of how we do things at Mount Allison. Despite the ostensible “support of our troops” by the institution, the Memorial Library was demolished. I’m not much for the compulsory commemoration of the First World War – which was, in my understanding, a slaughter conducted in service of competing imperial interests – but I think studying the library’s fate can tell us something about the university.

First, it should be noted that it’s a memorial to a memorial. Even if you’re not trained in a discipline largely concerned with the cultural objects produced by postmodernism, that should strike you as a little odd.

This leads to some complicated questions. Is the “aura” of something taken to be sacred transferable to another monument? How many times can a monument can be torn down and rebuilt before it loses its commemorative function? While a memorial is always a performance of commemoration that doesn’t have any real, material relationship to the events or people it memorializes, this seems to take that divorce to an extreme.

If the administration had considered the original memorial to be something sacred, as many alumni do, it would not have commissioned its demolition. In this debacle and the alumni protests that ensued, we can see a fundamental contradiction between some of the differing social functions of a university.

In this case, we see the university’s classical role as preserver of tradition giving way to its newer role as a business that needs to advertise new buildings such as the PCCA to attract new students. While I’m not fond of the role of the university as a bastion of the martial values of feudalism that it froze in time – honour, discipline, obedience – we can see how they necessarily come in conflict with the university’s desire to appeal to the market of students looking for a university.

What we do here is in many ways more about appearances than substance.  Perhaps Mount Allison – and universities more broadly – could learn from my high school’s motto: “To be rather than to seem.” That is, there is a fundamental conflict between the running of the university as a business and its functioning as an educational institution. Rather than existing for its own sake, or for the sake of its students, faculty, and staff, it is managed so as to draw in students, more concerned with the appearance of substance rather than its actual presence.

In order to teach and learn unobstructed, we need to place the governance of the university in the hands of the people who work and live on campus—not an arms’-length board or imported administrators. On campus, as elsewhere in our society, we need a deepening of democracy before the institution can actually become greater than the sum of its parts. As the university continues to change, it must begin understand that governance and management can’t be taken to mean the same thing.

2 Responses

  1. I was a student at Mount Allison from 1968 to 1972 (graduated with an Honours English B.A.). I came from a broken family, my mother had remarried a man who was a low-level-technician in the Royal Canadian Air Force. I spent my last two years in high school in Summerside, PEI, after four years at a Canadian air force base in Germany. I ranked third or fourth in my graduating class at Summerside High. Mount Allison offered me a scholarship. Without that support, I would not have been able to attend university. The four years I spent at Mount Allison were a cornucopia of experiences. I am now 65 years old and retired and fighting cancer. I do not consider myself a member of the ruling classes (although I am on a first name basis with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein used to bum smokes from me). After graduation from Mount Allison I worked as a newspaper reporter, as a flack for a major university (Dalhousie), as a flack for the provincial government of Nova Scotia, as a flack for municipal utilities (water, sewer, electric) in The City of Calgary, and for the last 13 years of my working life, as a flack for the Department of National Defence. Along the way, I spent most of a year as executive assistant to a Nova Scotia Member of Parliament during the Clark government in Ottawa, and worked on more than 20 election campaigns on behalf of NDP candidates. When I moved to Calgary in the early 1980’s, people told me you will never elect an NDP candidate in this city. In 1986 and 1989, I (and a whole bunch of other people) proved them wrong. Last year Alberta elected an NDP government. Does that make me a member of the ruling classes? Mount Allison gave me the grounding to go forth into the world and actually do some useful things. Yes, it has a history of elitism, but it also has a history of recognizing ability and cultivating that ability. I remain forever grateful for the opportunity to attend Mount Allison, even if the girls from Montreal were snobs. Eric Cameron, Class of 1972

  2. Oh yeah, I should have mentioned I worked on the Argosy for my first three years and turned down an offer of the editorship in my fourth year because I was determined to get my Honours B.A. But the point I really want to make is that it takes along time to appreciate what your experience at Mount Allison has added to your life. And the other thing is that there is a community of Mount Allison people out there in the world, and that can pay all sorts of unanticipated benefits. The place has a rep!

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