06 May 2004

Higher education: Canada versus the US

On our recent trip to the United States, I was reminded again of some of the differences between that country and Canada. They're not always easy to discern on the surface, but they're there. One of these concerns post-secondary education. Here in Canada -- at least in Ontario -- this field is dominated by a very few provincial universities, some of which may have had christian origins but are by now rather thoroughly secularized. These tend to be concentrated in the major urban centres. The universities may or may not include affiliated colleges, some of which are church-related. For example, as one drives past the University of Waterloo, one sees a rather patronizing sign calling attention to the "church colleges." These include Renison College, St. Paul's College, Conrad Grebel College and St. Jerome's University, affiliated with the Anglican, United, Mennonite and Catholic churches respectively. All are related in some fashion to the University of Waterloo itself. Nearby Waterloo Lutheran University retained its independence but changed its name to Wilfrid Laurier University some three decades ago, thereby abandoning its Lutheran heritage.

Then there are the colleges, such as Mohawk College here in Hamilton. Elsewhere this would be called a polytechnical school and, accordingly, it offers the bachelor of applied technology. The very word college in Canada -- and indeed throughout the Commonwealth countries -- has an indeterminate meaning. It could be a polytechnical school, a private secondary school (e.g., Upper Canada College), a graduate theological school (e.g., Knox College), a school affiliated with a university, or even a professional association (e.g., Ontario College of Teachers).

By contrast, in the US, where I grew up, post-secondary education is far more decentralized and encompasses a variety of types spread throughout the country, including metropolitan areas, middle-sized cities and small towns. There are the publicly-controlled state universities (counterpart to our provincial universities), independent universities and colleges, church-related and confessionally-based colleges, ivy league schools, and so forth. These are scattered far and wide, popping up in the unlikeliest places but firmly rooted in the hearts of their supporters. Driving through Michigan, as we did last week, one frequently encounters signs alerting travellers to Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Spring Arbor University, Albion College, Kalamazoo College and -- somewhat off the beaten path -- Hillsdale College, Ave Maria College and -- way up in the UP -- Finlandia University. There education is not simply a matter of state governments undertaking to educate their citizens. It is a matter of particular communities -- some overtly confessional and some not -- becoming aware of the need to educate their young people, refusing to wait for someone else to take the initiative, and deciding to do something themselves.

Despite its Canadian location, Redeemer University College conforms to this American pattern. It was established 22 years ago by Reformed Christians of Dutch heritage, who sought to establish a university rooted in an overtly christian worldview. One of its models was certainly the Free University of Amsterdam, but it also joined several institutions south of the border, including Calvin College, Dordt College and Trinity Christian College, established along similar lines. Yet Redeemer is definitely a Canadian institution.

I must confess to preferring the decentralized, bottom-up approach to post-secondary education, of which Redeemer is a part. I rather like driving into a small American town and seeing an equally small college (read: undergraduate university) there. Its very existence speaks well of the people who have sacrificed to make it possible and to keep it going through the ensuing decades. That many of these supporters are Christians with a vision of education in the service of God's kingdom makes their efforts all the more praiseworthy. I could wish for more such efforts in this country.

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