York honours dropout who became renowned education theorist

Thirty-seven years ago John Mark Willinsky dropped out of York University in search of utopia. On Thursday at the Faculty of Education convocation ceremony, the Stanford University professor returned to York to receive an honorary doctorate as a distinguished education theorist – and talk about how he learned to change the world.

Left: John Mark Willinsky

Willinsky started at York in 1969 and dropped out in 1971. His university days hadn’t been all for naught. Lionel Rubinoff’s survey course about utopias, part of York’s first-year big-ideas program, left an indelible impression, namely that utopias were a great critical device for calling the present world into question but shouldn’t be mistaken for brave new worlds. “It was not an education I was ready for then at the end of the sixties, with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the Whole Earth Catalogue in my book bag, not when the new world seemed within hitchhiking range.” With LSD guru Timothy Leary’s mantra – turn on, tune in, drop out – ringing in his head, he hit the road in search of a perfect commune. 

The Sault Ste. Marie boy never found his utopia. He ended up at teachers’ college in North Bay and returned home to teach school for 11 years. “Once I was a teacher, I slowly realized that teaching was something purposeful, something ‘deliberate’, to use Henry David Thoreau’s word. I also learned it was not about preparing students for some world or education to come. It was about working hard together then and there in the classroom. It was about finding sense and wonder in things at that point.” 

Special projects came to matter most, he said, like writing a musical about kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, making videos of the city’s history, publishing multilingual translations of textbook poems.

From Rubinoff, Willinsky learned “to temper the idealism, enthusiasm and aspiration for change and remain wary of utopian plans that will take us to another world.” After teaching, he learned that “change is all about working very patiently with people, about working with people persistently in terms of a goal and a focus and with a sense of irony and humour and in an effort to change one part of the world at a time – one element in a school day, one aspect of a student’s sense of hope and interest and aspiration.” 

These days Willinsky is doing just that – working with students on his Public Knowledge Project to make scholarly knowledge public and freely accessible to all, inside schools and out, via the Internet.  

“I invite you to work with students on things that matter, matter enough to make that learning public for the sake of others, for the sake of making this world a more fair, just and fascinating place,” said Willinsky. 

Willinsky received an honorary doctor of laws degree from York for his contribution as a critical education scholar, for public engagement in educational and social issues, for original scholarship and for his passion for the intellectual life.  

Until 2007, he was Pacific Press Professor of Literacy & Technology at the University of British Columbia and Distinguished University Scholar in its Department of Language and Literacy Education. He is the author of 12 books and more than 100 articles on language, literacy and literature, technology in education, anti-racism and postcolonialism. His award-winning books include: Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End (1998), in which he argues that the colonial legacy continues; and The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (2006), which stems from his work as founder and director of the Public Knowledge Project at UBC.