ClassAction: Café society for the new millennium 

By Karen Herland

Elizabeth Hunt and Dave Waddington led a University of the Streets Magnifying glass

Elizabeth Hunt and Dave Waddington led a University of the Streets

The University of the Streets is kicking off its seventh year with a huge variety of events, ranging from CIHR co-sponsored Cafés Scientifique to a series on human trafficking and another on the relationship between art galleries and the public.

The 22 conversations scheduled between the beginning of Sept. and the end of term include subjects near and dear to program coordinator Elizabeth Hunt. Hunt will be off on maternity leave as of the end of the year and wanted to realize some of her pet projects before she left.

The program, part of the Institute for Community Development, encourages informal, community-based discussion in public venues around the city.

On Sept. 8 Hunt moderated a discussion led by one of her own professors in the education department’s graduate program, Dave Waddington. As she introduced the professor she clearly has a lot of respect for, she joked that although she would be in his classroom two nights later, for now, he was on her turf.

Over 35 participants, including students, professors, staff and interested citizens, filled a Mile End café for the evening conversation on science and citizens. Waddington led the discussion by setting up the opposing positions of public figures John Dewey and Walter Lippmann held in the 1920s.

On the one hand, Dewey wanted to educate omnicompetent citizens with more than a passing knowledge about science, technology, how the world works and how to apply that knowledge. His own classroom practice extended to helping his elementary-aged students build their own smelter. “Can you imagine the health and safety violations involved if that were done today?” joked Waddington
Meanwhile, Lippmann firmly believed citizens generally lacked the capacity and the inclination to form a reasoned opinion and that certain decisions were best left to the experts.

Participants raised a number of questions about the role of knowledge transfer, credible sources, informed decision-making and education. Hunt demonstrated practiced skills in encouraging dialogue by inviting those present to share even ‘half-formed thoughts’ and making the effort to address those present by name.

Many present challenged artificial boundaries between art and science. Others took up the idea first proposed by Alexandre Enkerli, part-time anthropology professor, that although individuals may not be omnicompetent, the internet has opened up the possibility to create and maintain virtual communities with a range of knowledge and the potential for omnicompetent networks.

Others began to question the underlying premise of designated expertise by suggesting that our notion of science and expertise might well be anti-democratic.

Waddington was very pleased with his first University of the Streets Café experience.

“I heard a lot of fresh points of view being aired, and I felt that the diversity of perspectives made for a really interesting and vigorous dialogue.” He found the more open-ended, hands-off style of the discussion to be an interesting change from the more directed approach he takes in the classroom.

A full schedule of public conversations for the term is available online.


Concordia University