A Reflection on Progress

25NOV14 – Imprint – As I reach the end of my undergrad, I wonder what has been accomplished – beyond the degree requirements and extracurriculars. I’m talking about the fuzzy personal growth stuff. There’s not a lot to measure up to, I can’t seem to find any transformative goals from first year that I intended to benchmark against. I quietly wonder what this societal right-of-passage has really meant. One experience towards the end of degree has coloured my reflection on all of it.

I was working on a project management team for a new pipeline project in Northern British Columbia this past summer. It was a chance to better understand the dynamics of one of the bedrocks of the modern world: our friend the hydrocarbon. One of my responsibilities community relations for the project. With a team from the company, I traveled across the province to facilitate Open Houses in remote areas. At an event in a hamlet on the Peace River, an elderly lady came in to protest the pipeline project. Her criticism was clear: “you people come here from the big city and mess everything up, and you call it progress!”

This argument touches on an underlying dynamic in human history. How many times has “progress” been imposed by one group on another in Canada? I can think of a few examples: in the construction of the major infrastructure projects, in the regional conflicts between the east and the west as well as Francophone and Anglophone, in corporate interests against those of the general public, and fundamentally in the imposition of the colonial population on the Aboriginal peoples across this land. People from the core of society – with power and a firm belief in the privilege of their knowledge – come to the periphery to impress a particular vision of the future.

Harold Innis was one Canada’s great historians. He became dismayed by cosmopolitanism that precipitated his experiences in the trenches of the First World War. It was his belief that “the very lack of intellectual sophistication on the periphery creates environment that provides comparative advantage for critical thought”. Our prestigious degrees may allow us to slot ourselves comfortably into one of the many existing societal arrangements. We graduate into the mainstream (or in mirror opposition to it). In all of our newfound knowledge from the sophistication of the intellectual core, have we come to be able to see more? Have we improved our ability to be more empathetic? Looking back, development in these areas is the most important to me.

The university is seen to be one of the pinnacles of the knowledge of any society – where the future leaders are groomed. We invest a great deal of money and spend a good chunk of our youth immersed in it. Correlation is not causation, an important mantra of any undergraduate education. Do universities cause societal growth and improvement? Or is it the other way round? Or is there no relation?  When we graduate, one thing we will have for certain is knowledge verified with a seal and certificate. We will have the opportunity to impose a new vision of the future, or work for someone who will. What will we call progress?

question, agree or disagree

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