The College Role in Growing up.

Billy Allan, Royal Military College of Canada

I offer the following perspective based on my experience at the Royal Military College of Canada that, despite the name, is a small university where a full range of liberal arts, sciences, and six accredited streams of engineering are delivered.  With approximately 1000 undergraduates, it scales somewhat larger than a college at Durham.  The RMC of Canada dates to 1876, with a primary purpose to educate the Canadian military officer community.  As it grew, with soul-searching corrections prompted by WWI and WWII, the residential scholarly community organized itself into squadrons, that roughly parallel the collegiate system that is the subject of your conference.  Squadrons, with their own flights and sections, are the base unit of student community.  The size of these units is a topic of interest to the Conference, and the RMC squadron has ranged in size over the years from 30 or 50 to 100 officer cadets of all years. The primary reason for squadrons, from the perspective of this ex-cadet, ex-senior military officer and now professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is to promote excellence through friendly competition and to facilitate a steep development curve by bonding senior students to junior students.  Intramural sport takes place between squadron teams, and sport of some fashion (varsity or intramural) is mandatory for all students.  These competitions extend to the military arts (obstacle course for the recruits, military drill and ceremonial activities) and professional skills (leadership, communication, deportment) community engagement (class projects in the local community) and simple team-building (talent shows, or charity fund-raising for example). Academic performance of squadron members figures prominently in the overall rankings, that are Hogwarts-like, although perhaps less arbitrary. The second advantage, equally important although for very different reasons, to having a manageable community unit at a university, pertains to the age and level of maturity of today’s student.  At the RMC of Canada, cadets arrive at 17 or 18 years of age, still very much in the middle.  The middle of growing up, facing such adventures as learning to drink or not, behave or not, romance or not, be brave physically, socially, academically or not.  They will win and they will lose, variously and ideally, in a balanced fashion. This happens best (and most safely) in a place where failure is acceptable and common, even synonymous with learning to succeed.  The rough edges of one’s  character are most painlessly chipped off by ones peers and friends. A close community is an essential feature of such a process. If successful, the students can collectively be driven to greater achievement at a pace that is unsupportable to any but the most extraordinary individual of the same age and maturity.  In the case of RMC, that means the Canadian public gets well-educated, well-socialized, confident and capable young officers in 3 years and 8 months.  Commissioned officer graduates are, for the most part, subjected to a short period of dedicated training, as they have been for their summers between academic terms, and placed in command roles where they are entrusted with the care and leadership of a score or a hundred soldiers, sailors or airmen and women of all ages, ranks and experiences.  This is possible only thanks to the full-spectrum development achievable in the friendly social cauldron that the collegiate system is. While RMC’s squadrons are smaller than Durham’s (and other collegiate universities’) colleges, the role is common and only the intensity varies.

I hope the themes of balanced cognitive and social development for the modern university student are explored in this conference, for success in this cannot be adequately costed out by the business planners that increasingly dominate the agenda in today’s universities. Furthermore I hope that, in the forgiving yet demanding environment of a college, and relying heavily on peer-leadership (that most difficult yet most effective lever), College officers will continue to execute their delicate task of building socially aware, engaged, talented and educated leaders.


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