Posted by: Scott | June 16, 2010

The Worthiness of Being Critical…

It’s funny how, in the so-called triumph of the marketplace, our market economy and political system more and more closely resemble those of the old Soviet Union with its sluggishness, its inability handle criticism of its faults, and its unwillingness to consider alternatives. They’re probably also just as doomed to the dustbin of history. Time to think critically, to consider alternatives before the ship runs aground for good!

As of this Friday morning, June 18th, I will no longer be a university undergrad. Time to be piped in by the six-time defending world champion SFU Pipe Band! (Did I mention I like bagpipes? My Mom’s Scottish Heraldry?)

After the bagpipes, I will finally have that coveted piece of paper called a Bachelor’s Degree, for what it’s worth. The process of earning this degree has been one of the most challenging and yet personally rewarding experiences of my life. The cost has been high, in time, money and sometimes stress. (Financially, I’m less badly off, though, than many of my classmates, so I really can’t complain…too much.) But, overall, it has been worth the effort.

There’s that word again: worth. And there is my question of the moment: what exactly is a university degree worth these days? Some would say not much. Many governments today place less emphasis on the value of such a piece of paper, instead favouring institutions that teach what they refer to as ‘marketable skills’. University programs, especially those that emphasize the humanities like philosophy, anthropology and political economy, I’m told, don’t teach enough of those marketable skills, and therefore receive less funding than those which produce hard research data. And so we have eighteen-year-olds entering university to become blood-spatter experts and economists just as the markets implode, oil gushes in all the wrong places and Canada’s crime rate falls. Yes, falls. But, I guess philosophy just isn’t as sexy as criminology. (Too bad those CSI-wannabes never met my first-year philosophy professor; she was pretty hot!)

But what are ‘marketable skills’? The most common definition I hear is one of skills that make you competitive in the marketplace. And just what are those, the Minister of Silly Thoughts so innocently asks? What skills do employers seem to want these days? If you look at companies like Lehman Brothers or British Petroleum, their idea of marketable skills would appear to include the ability to A) avoid asking critical questions, B) avoid questioning authority, and C) evade responsibility when something goes wrong, as will inevitably occur when no one does A or B. I suspect that for many Fortune 500 companies, the skills listed above would describe their ideal employee!

Same goes for governments. Our esteemed leaders in Ottawa would rather not have a bunch of nosy low-level bureaucrats and idealistic junior politicians questioning the seeming contradiction between Canada’s vaunted human rights record and recent revelations of Generals and Defence Ministers looking the other way while Afghan prisoners captured by our military are tortured. Damn that pesky Geneva Convention!

So, Honourable Minister of Silly Thoughts, you ask, what would be your idea of ‘marketable skills’? How about A, B, and C above for a start? But wait. There is something more, a foundation underlying A, B and C that makes them possible. University of Chicago Philosopher Martha Nussbaum was interviewed in last weekend’s Globe and Mail, and was basically asked the same question. She says that universities, politicians – and society as a whole – have undervalued the ability to think critically. Critical thinking means to analyze, apply and evaluate information; it means to come to one’s own conclusions and to defend them. In the world we live in today, critical thinking can especially mean speaking truth to power, to exposing what is wrong for all to see.

The trouble is that those very skills are what universities today are putting less and less emphasis on. Why? That’s because ‘we’ don’t think much of philosophy, anthropology or political economy anymore. But what is philosophy after all but the study of ethics, reason and real knowledge? What is anthropology but the study of how and why people act the way they do? And what is the forgotten art of political economy but the study of the nuts and bolts of capitalism and its alternatives? (Yes, Virginia, there are alternatives, if but we imagine them.)

Case in point. Last blog posting, I mentioned the trouble with gentrification’s effect on housing affordability in what is arguably one of the world’s hottest real estate markets: Vancouver. The undergrad research project that I also mentioned looked into the question of making energy efficiency and green building technologies more accessible (that is, affordable) for all. The problem is that environmentally-sustainable housing is considered a premium, a new niche in the marketplace, which means developers can charge pretty much any price they want for it, and get it. Not exactly affordable and sustainable housing for the masses. Time to think critically, look for alternatives to the market that bring people together.

What my research turned up was this interesting concept called a community land trust, or CLT. Basically, a CLT is a non-profit agency that owns parcels of land which are leased out for a small fee to its members: individuals, families, and in some cases small businesses. Members in turn pay their mortgage only on the value of the building sitting on the leased land, not the land itself. My research found, from a CLT in Portland, OR, that a new homeowner buying through a CLT could save 15-50% on the purchase price of their home. What’s more, a CLT as non-profit developer can promote sustainability through common, innovative design and/or education campaigns for members (the catch: participation in membership activities is mandatory), allowing for community-wide economies of scale. In this way, more people can afford to live with reduced carbon footprints while not impoverishing themselves.

The other thing I like about community land trusts is the emphasis on participation. Yes, it’s true you could find some antisocial people in groups like this, but for the most part, a community of owners will recognize how much they have at stake in their community, and act accordingly. This is good for everyone: more community interaction, less crime (read Jane Jacobs for proof) and a stronger community spirit. Where does the marketplace do all that? Until we are truly ready for the really big step – an alternative to speculation-based pricing for what is really a basic human right – CLTs are least a step on the good path.

Here is the URL for our reports, with mine on community land trusts listed under “Community Economic Development – Urban Land Assembly” in red. The executive summary is only four pages long, but you’re welcome to read the full report.

You see, in the hands and mind of a skilled critical thinker, a university degree can be a worthwhile, if not dangerous, weapon!

Meanwhile, it’s summer, and (bagpipe) music is in the air!



  1. So, if I were interested in community land trusts, where would I go to get more info? By the way, you could add a link to your report. I’d like to have a peek.

    • Oops! I’ll insert the URL in the text of the post. Thanks for letting me know about that.

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