Canadian University Life

Mary Ann Dimand amaebi at
Wed Mar 8 11:33:08 EST 2000

(Alas! I was nearly finished with a lengthy reply yesterday when it vanished
into the Abyss.)

Britta wrote:
"Is that only so with liberal arts colleges? I always wondered whether it
was only German students that are "left", "alternative" or whatever you may
call it...."

And Alexandra said:
"<Grin>  Remarkably enough, the above succinctly describes the political
atmosphere at the University of Toronto..."

My reply is based largely on my experiences (impressions and memories) as an
undergraduate in the US (Southern Illinois University, Yale), a graduate
student in Canada (Carleton University) and the US (Northwestern, Yale), and
an instructor of undergraduates in Canada (Carleton, Brock, Glendon College
of York University) and the US (Yale, Albion College). I think that there
are differences between school type and between countries. And what I'll say
is about student populations, rather than individual students.

Albion College is a small liberal arts school. Most liberal arts schools are
small (say, 1000-4000, biased toward the lower end). Because of the small
size, a college *can* take on a character. Oberlin and Antioch and *perhaps*
Grinnell, for instance, are or are reputed to be liberal. There are lots of
American liberal arts colleges which are or have the reputation of being
conservative, however-- Albion being a genuinely conservative school. (I'm
not sure what its rep is on this, and suspect it would depend on the
evaluator. To the mainstream at Olivet or Adrian College (other small
liberal arts schools in Michigan), I expect most Albion students might look
frighteningly liberal. (Those schools bussed in students to make more noise
during a conservative-fomented Crisis a couple of years ago.)

I think it likely that there are at least small liberal or radical circles
at many or most liberal arts schools, however. There certainly was at

There are also many (usually small) religious-affiliated colleges in the US.
The greater the degree of Protestant religious affiliation, the more
conservative the school tends to be. So far as I know, the politics of
Catholic-affiliated schools can be anything at all.

So-called elite institutions (EIs) are typically larger than liberal arts
schools (say, 4000-7000 undergraduates), but I don't think the populations
differ that much. The biggest differences are that on the whole, EI students
are quicker and have better educations before coming to college, and that
there are graduate students at EIs, which affects the general culture. Even
the graduation requirements of EIs tend to resemble those of liberal arts
schools. Greater size means the ability for there to be more subpopulations
which don't feel utterly marginalised, however.

American state universities run huge (typically from 10,000-20,000
undergraduates). Because of their size, they encompass a good many
subpopulations, and it isn't common for a state school to have any
particular political reputation.

The thing is, American young persons tend to run conservative these days,
and to attribute this to Common Sense. (This despite the tendency of
American conservatives proudly to consider themselves Lone Wolves.) I
attribute this to the profound effects of the Reagan Revolution on American
culture and public discourse. When I was a young person, general
undergraduate politics were not remotely as far right.

Canadian universities are more like American state schools than other
American colleges, by and large. (I think McGill is the only exception I'm
really aware of.) Canadian schools are much fuller of Canadians, however,
and thus less polarized and more prone to conversation than to diatribe.
Though Canadian politics got more conservative in the 80s and early 90s (I
don't know about now, though!), I don't think the cultural shift was what it
was in the US. Nice stable Canadians. :)

Alexandra also said:
"(In Canada, unlike I think in
the US but I might be wrong, you go from high school straight to
university--college is an altogether different sort of beast.)"

Not unlike the US. There is in part a semantic difference here.

For non-Canadian readers: historically (outside Quebec), Canadians go to
high school through grade 13, then do three years of college for a regular
BA and four for an honours BA. The thirteenth year and the three-year degree
are disappearing, however. In Quebec, eleven years of school have typically
been followed by two years of CEGEP, and those by three or four years of
university. I don't know whether these are disappearing or not.

So there's some real difference. I think the primary difference is semantic,
however. In the US, college means undergraduate institution and university
means that there are at least a few graduate programmes as well. Basically,
Canadian college = American boarding school or junior college / community
Canadian university = American college or university.

Long-windedly, Mary Ann

About as radical (left) as a non-Marxist can be.

.................................................................................     why wouldn't you? 

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