A Private School Of Public Purpose

How and why we fail to fulfil Colborne’s vision



The famed philosopher and Princeton professor Peter Singer has never donated to Princeton and says he will never give one cent. He argues a donation to Princeton would make a  marginal difference but a donation given to an organization that focused on those who have nothing, would have much greater utility. He states that the one exception for such a donation would be to places that produce people who may solve the world’s problems.

Upper Canada College may not be Princeton, but we are far from paupers. Which begs the question: why is the school deserving of its donors’ dollars? A century ago, UCC’s role as a tool for the reproduction of the upper class was unabashedly clear. Today, the College has progressed to a greater degree of self-awareness of its privileged position within Canadian society, as reflected in the expansion of the financial assistance program amongst other initiatives.

In 2002, Doug Blakey, then principal of UCC, delivered a speech to the Empire Club where he examined this very same question. He discussed the ways in which the College as an institution was living up to the vision of our founder Sir John Colborne. Blakely believed it was important for students to understand that the purpose of their education was not “to acquire money, to become defenders of capital, to build a big house, to have a cottage on Georgian Bay, but rather to make the world a better place.”

What he believed differentiated UCC from the great British public schools after which it was modeled was the explicit public purpose outlined in our founding documents. From the beginning, UCC was meant to educate the leaders of tomorrow on how to shape society for the good and thus it was a “private school of public purpose”.

The arrival of Principal Eric Barton in 1967 brought along the introduction of mandatory volunteerism at UCC. Though mandatory volunteerism may seem like an oxymoron, it is generally agreed that it is a necessity in “character building” which is more or less the attempt to instill mental and moral values in students within a secular school and society.

Mandating volunteering is much like having students read great works of literature. Most of us would not bother to read Shakespeare if it was not shoved down our throats by the English department. On your first taste, you hate it, but over time you slowly develop the tools to dissect and digest the work and eventually develop an appreciation of the Bard. Similarly, we are being force fed volunteerism, but without a single utensil. Like an eating contest at a country fair, boys dive face first into a feast and the focus is on quantity not quality. Once all is said and done, you have earned your blue ribbon, but unlike with Shakespeare, you are left with a bad taste lingering in your mouth.

Students should be taught to slow down and appreciate a rich and rewarding experience  that allows us to better understand our role within the world. In theory, CAS reflections should prompt appreciation of this nature, but in reality they fail to do so and so much more comprehensive classroom learning is needed to complement service experiences. At the very least, the school must push students to re-evaluate personal values and motivations as well as build a connection and commitment to the community.

Volunteerism at UCC has become a means to an end, rather the end in itself. The objective of volunteerism is not to assist in admission to Ivey or the Ivys, but rather it is a moral obligation. It is not simply an act of kindness, but a moral requirement; as the biblical verse puts it “to whom much is given, much will be required.” The privilege of the student body must be balanced by duty towards those who lack such privilege or cannot perform such a duty.

The issue with noblesse oblige is that it can be considered a direct affront to the core values of the College — that the palm we bear is to a great extent “given” and not merited. Research has found that when high status individuals are faced with the disparities of society and asked to answer for their privilege, they most often turn to the belief that they are where they are by effort, talent and skill. On the stage of Prize Day, meritocracy may shine as those who have earned top marks are distinguished for their achievements.

However, broader society with its growing economic inequality and diminishing social mobility is undoubtedly not a meritocracy to the degree in which many students at the College believe.  The issue with perpetuating this myth of meritocracy is that if an individual truly believes that those on the top deserve to be there, then they must also believe those at the bottom deserve to be there and are not deserving of their compassion.

Despite participation in service activities, students often fail to actively engage with issues because of these beliefs. The work of Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne, professors at the University of Ottawa and Mills College respectively form three conceptions of a “good citizen”—personally responsible, participatory, and justice oriented.

From kindergarten, schools teach us to be personally responsible; we all attempt to act responsibly within our community as we obey laws, pay taxes and recycle. Participatory citizenship is what UCC, like most schools, strive to achieve through service programs as we are asked to not be idiōtēs (in the classical sense) and participate in the civic affairs and social life of the community. While the personally responsible citizen may donate to a food drive, the participatory citizen would organize the food drive.

The last of the three is justice-oriented citizenship which is to critically examine the social, economic and political structures which are at fault for the ills of society and seek out and address the injustice through systematic change. Justice-oriented citizenship would ask why people are hungry and seek to address the root problems. While participatory citizenship assumes leadership roles within the established systems and structures, justice-oriented citizenship asks that we challenge the way the systems themselves may produce injustice.

All three dimensions of civic engagement are important, yet the College is not teaching students to pay attention to the last of the three. The institution of justice-oriented citizenship is impeded by an unwavering belief in meritocracy. The perception of the current structure as fair and just delegitimizes any call for reform in the interest of the common good.

At UCC, there is a lack of awareness of the political dimensions of the service initiatives students engage in. When students are not taught to appreciate the nature of the problem, then the necessary solution seems simply to be more involvement by more people rather than systemic action. Students need to be taught within the classroom to take a political approach to the issues at hand: to ask the critical questions of why the people they are helping need help in the first place; and how to solve the issue in the long-term. This would lead to recognition that political action may be necessary.

Students must be taught to examine the moral values embedded in particular policies or institutions, and the role these values play in aiding or preventing solutions to the issues of human need. The College needs classroom learning to provide a forum of discussion about the larger issues involved. We must better synthesize meaningful community service, instruction, and reflection throughout a boy’s time at the College to teach civic responsibility.

Examining community service inherently raises the question of what defines community. One of the objectives of community service is to further our moral development by expanding the circle of what we consider community until, ideally, we view the whole of humanity as part of our moral community. However it is possible for a UCC student to earn all of their service hours without stepping foot off the school grounds through events such as Nuit Bleue, May Day and Winterfest. While scooping ice cream for peers, parents and Old Boys is a form service, it fails to challenge students to expand their definition of community beyond the UCC bubble.

Tutoring economically disadvantaged youth or organizing a sporting event for intellectually disabled students allows you to interact with those you may not have otherwise. This cross-cultural experience allows you to embed yourself within a community other than your own and have a greater understanding of a different reality. Such experiences often catalyze the development of empathy and allow students to come to the realization that the less fortunate are in fact deserving of our service.

Indirect volunteerism such as food sales that have risen in popularity in recent years suffer from a similar issue. While the funds collected are valuable to the recipients themselves, the experience offers limited value to participating students. Students have become so disconnected from the issue their donation addresses that there is no possibility of a realization of justice-oriented citizenship. Allegations that one student may have even skimmed off the top of such a sale are a reflection of this failure.

In his speech Blakey also spoke of the “vital role in encouraging the growth of such civic mindedness by modelling it as an organisation” and that the school “…through its public conduct, exemplifies, if you will, what it asks and expects of its students. At UCC that means modelling, as an organisation, doing good and doing well. An important part of the students’ education to see how their school conducts itself as an organisation.” This means, that beyond changing the service program and the broader culture of the College, there is still the opportunity to examine the College itself within the justice-oriented framework suggested.

In many ways the school practices the ideal of public purpose to which it has explicitly committed itself. Though even as we embark on a “modern, inclusive and progressive path,” we still leave others behind in our journey. I would like to draw your attention to Aramark for a moment–and for once not in critique of their cuisine. I return to the question of how we define community: do we really consider Aramark staff members of the UCC community?

Sure we pay lip service to not leaving a mess in the Student Centre and we remember to include them in the College Times, but what about beyond that? The outsourcing of the school’s labour force to a third party contractor as a cost-savings measure seems to be far from the inclusivity we trumpet in national newspapers. The reality is that Aramark pays many an annual salary below  the cost of tuition at the College which in large part is what allows the contractor to offer the savings it does.

Today, much of the private sector has shifted to outsourcing labour to contractors or the use of temporary employees. This shift has begun to hollow out the middle class and has wide sweeping social implications including a loss of social cohesion, perhaps even to the polarization of politics and the rise of Trump and Brexit. Ironically, we cannot afford to pay the price of low wages because the social cost is too great. We need to return to policies that favour secure and stable employment; someone will always have to cook, clean and care for UCC and they deserve a living wage.

A living wage policy at the College would reflect a commitment to human dignity and acknowledge that people have the right to a decent standard of living. UCC must reevaluate its priorities and recognize that the well-being of its workers is worth paying for. If the school needs to trim its budget perhaps we should opt to instead not spend what is likely thousands of dollars to rent a crane to wrap the Clock Tower in a “Think Ahead” banner. At this point, the irony should not be lost on anyone; those surviving on low wages cannot afford to consider long-term financial planning and to “think ahead” when they only have enough money to pay their next bill.

As individuals and members of larger institutions, such as the College, we must be critical of how our actions and beliefs affect others. We must admit to our own shortcomings before we can address them. Progress requires that we question everything around us, including the institutions which taught us to ask questions. It is my hope that at the very least my words may spark a dialogue on how we can best honour Colborne’s legacy in fulfilling his vision of a school in service of the greater good.