Canadian universities today: center of knowledge or cash machines?


A post in the memory of Aaron Schwartz

Cosimo_Pontormo_(ca_1518)
Pontormo, Cosimo de Medici, c. 1518, The Uffizi

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the great Florentine de Medici family ruled “successfully” by making sure that knowledge remained in the hands of a few chosen ones, hence making the Republic of Florence, at that time, a very powerful nation.  But what they didn’t know is the following: if knowledge had been accessible to the whole population, Florence would have been a much more powerful state. As it is written everywhere, knowledge is power.  The more knowledgeable the country, the stronger it is.  We only have to read The Economist to verify that “evident” truth.

At Walk the Arts, we love to spread art knowledge at a reasonable cost; it is our mission. In the spirit of New York Art Trip, we always give a preparatory class to our future travellers.  This time, our conference entitled The Origins of Abstraction (read previous post) was given in a rented classroom at the University of Ottawa. But to our great surprise, we found out that the Ottawa University/Convention & Reservations contract states that if your presentation requires multimedia equipment, you cannot use your own equipment (a simple laptop and a projector), but you are obliged to rent it from the university (rule 82b). Since Walk the Arts (icscis) is a very small art/culture company, we were not expecting to pay for what we did not need and at a cost more than 5 times higher than that of a regular classroom. The same applies for cash-strapped educational non-profit organisations such as BRAVO, a Ontario visual artists’ association, which recently had the same problem.

The question is the following? In the second decade of the 21st Century, why can’t we use our own electronic material, today’s tools, to spread knowledge? Do we still have to bring a few pieces of chalk to use on an archaic blackboard in order not to pay for what we do not need?  Do we have to bring white paper to be taped on the blackboard since rule 82b even forbids the classroom screen? After talking to the supervisor, Mr. T., he told us that they had to make sure that “the quality of the presentation reflects what is being offered at Ottawa U“. Then, the question is: does the quality of a lecture depends solely on the type of multimedia equipment that is used? Do we have to use solely the University of Ottawa’s laptop and projector to make our conference “more accessible and exciting”? What about content?

When I think that as an art history guest professor of the University of Sherbrook in Rome, I was able to use a room at the Pontifical Institute of Eastern Church Studies… for a whole week and for free, using my equipment that I carry all the time. When I think that in Florence, while drinking Vino Nobile de Montepulciano with the same students, I was able to project my PowerPoint presentation on Renaissance Art Treaties from my bedroom window on the wall of the building across the street.

No! I regret Mr Allan Rock, President of University of Ottawa/recteur de l’Université d’Ottawa. Today, my alma mater is regretfully a cash machine, a big corporation, with its marketing schemes, with its clients, its personnel and products… and quotas to be met : what I was being told. The center of knowledge of the time of my B.A.s is not there anymore. Tuition fees are going higher every year on top of surcharging small businesses like ours, making sure that only a smaller part of the population receives knowledge, just like under the reign of the Medicis.

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