It's back to school season, and thousands of young people in Nova Scotia are commencing degrees in the subjects their parents want them to study, or the ones they imagine will get them a good job---or just heading directionlessly to university because it's the default option. Academic Laura Penny thinks it's high time we looked into this.
"Someone told me one too many 'Do you want fries with that' BA jokes," Penny says, half-joking, when asked why she took our education system to task in her second book, More Money Than Brains: Why Schools Suck, College is Crap, and Idiots Think They're Right, published in April (her first, Your Call is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit, came out in 2005). Penny teaches English and culture theory at King's, Mount Saint Vincent and Saint Mary's, and will read from her new book at the Word on the Street festival on Sunday morning. The festival moves from the Cunard Centre this year, back onto the street at Victoria Park.
"One thing I'm interested in in the book is how come we have so many more educated people now and public discourse is so anti-intellectual," Penny says.
Stephen Harper, Dubya and Sarah Palin feature among her favourite scapegoats. More Money Than Brains investigates everything from the way we're educating our youth, to anti-intellectual public figures, to how the same upper class that sneers at her degrees in comparative literature is also eager for its children to study at the institutions she teaches at.
Penny teaches subjects from required first-year writing classes at MSVU and SMU to seminars on postmodernism at King's--- predictably, she praises the King's students' love of reading, and says that often, "I have to make the case for reading being cool," at the other schools, where students make the usual arguments that they don't need to read or will never use English.
"A lot of people are going to university by default, a lot of people are disappointed to find out it's not job training," she says. She thinks university needs to be accessible to those who want to study, but that we need to look at how we push kids to study business or engineering or law because it's a supposed sure-fire ticket to a good job.
"All these people who are enrolling because it's the thing to do, are going to be unscrupulous businesspeople and lousy engineers."
Discussing what she's been reading lately, Penny says she's been working her way through "a huge stack of sex ed books," research for her next book, which will look at the way sex education is taught, public reaction to it, and who gets to make the decisions about it. She also mentions economist Tim O'Neill's report on Nova Scotia universities, which was released to the public Friday.
"I did not like the ending or the characters, and the plot was totally predictable," she says. "You know, you ask a bank guy, get a bank answer."
Universities are "the only successful industry" in the province, she continues, and "the idea of too many universities is like too much lobster." She thinks the government should work to look at our schools as an asset, not a liability, and suggests that cutting costs by cutting university jobs fails to consider the consequences to Nova Scotians of those lost jobs.
"Can I pull on my perfectly cynical hat?" Penny asks. "If you're a young person in Nova Scotia, get out."