University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

University Blues?

Author Jeff Rybak talks about the educational system's flaws - and how students can play to its strengths.

Jeff Rybak, 31, is a graduate of the University of Toronto Scarborough and author of What’s Wrong with University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway. The guidebook-cum-philosophical treatise examines the purpose of university education and gives practical advice to students on getting the most out of their schooling. Rybak, a former vice-president, academics, on the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, is currently studying law at U of T. He talked to writer Graham F. Scott about his book.

Just what is wrong with university? We don’t tend to invite students to think about what they really came to university for. We act as though there’s only one kind of education, and you come to get that, and then you’re successful. And of course, it isn’t that simple. You need a motive to get what you came for, and you need to realize that what you came for is not necessarily what the person beside you came for.

That sounds more like a problem with students, not universities. It’s a problem with the way universities market themselves, and are presented by the government and society in general.We act as though this one place is the answer to everybody’s success: if you want to study something because you love it, come here. If you want a career, come here. If you want to change society for the better, come here. If you just want to get away from your parents, come here. At some point, they convinced us that everybody needs this.

Would you say that U of T is doing better, worse or about the same as other universities?
In my book, I’m not trying to name names. I think that U of T suffers from the big, research-based, monolithic university problem, where everybody gravitates to this one standard of excellence, to the detriment of other options. U of T is a good school, I just don’t think it should be the one standard that everyone aspires to.

What should students do to get the most out of their time at university? Take ownership of the experience. Sometimes you actually have to get up and say, “I want to participate.” For one student that might be a writing circle, for another student that might be a job fair. If you just wait for what’s handed to you, the odds are you’re not going to get offered what you want.

That sounds like students should be approaching the university as consumers looking for their money’s worth. Is that a fair characterization? I’d say approach university in a way that says you are determined to get value out of it and you are going to take the lead on making sure that happens. I’m not sure that’s only a consumer perspective – you could say the same thing about church.You get as much out of it as you choose to put in.

Why did you want to write this book? Three years in student government. I was helping students with academic problems, and I was getting sick of saying the same things over and over. So I started to write things down, to help students understand things that I thought they’d benefit from. I wrote about 15,000 words, and a professor looked at it and said,“You know, you might have a book here.”

You started your undergraduate degree at 27. What were you doing in between high school and university? Travelling. Writing – unsuccessfully.Working a number of minimum-wage jobs to support myself, and generally just living and growing up. Which brings me to my criticism of this whole “grow up at university” idea: life lessons are free. … If you need some time to grow up, there’s a whole world to do it in.

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