Updated: Apr 9, 2022
Remember the good old days when the student movement was an ally of university and college faculty members who dared to challenge the strictures of Cold War orthodoxy?
Academic freedom was vigorously championed throughout North America during the Vietnam War, notwithstanding FBI/RCMP surveillance and arrests of rebel scholars for draft resistance and other forms of civil disobedience.
In those halcyon days of such storied (and tenured) war opponents as Herbert Marcuse, Seymour Melman, Eugene Genovese, Hans Morgenthau and company, some profs even joined their draft card-burning student comrades in arms (non-arms?) in assisting draft resisters and military deserters to find safe haven in Canada or Europe.
Their activities outraged conservatives, of course. In a famous letter to the New York Times, Richard Nixon accused Genovese of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy” for declaring at a Rutgers University teach-in (remember when teach-ins were a thing?) that a victory by the Viet Cong would be a blessing.
Giving aid and comfort to the enemy, just to be clear, was the very definition of treason in the U.S. and punishable by death.
In the topsy-turvy, higgledy-piggledy Republican Party of today, where Mafia Don and his attack-dog enforcers and consiglieri seethe daily at the disloyal domestic threats posed by the likes of Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney, giving comfort and aid to the genius now butchering Ukraine is as much an article of faith as praising the Lord and passing the ammunition.
After all. With enemies like Vlad the Impaler, who needs friends?
Genovese got his wish in 1975, of course, a few months after Nixon had been granted a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he “might” have committed as president.
But then, you could always count on the book-burning Right to rabidly oppose the inherent wrongfulness of teachers daring to speak their minds.
Lynne Cheney (Liz’s mom), David Horowitz and other defenders of the American way have long pressed for the expulsion of professors they consider unpatriotic. Nor is that sentiment confined to the U.S.
You might remember the dustup that arose a few years ago when federal Conservative Party operatives decided to distribute fliers at the York University campus, warning vulnerable students from respectable families that their insidious teachers were agents of left-wing indoctrination.
The fliers bore an image of then leader Andrew Scheer, who made equally ill-fated successor Erin O’Toole seem “woke” and charismatic, along with the catchy, Madison Avenuesque slogan: “Because you can only hear the same left-wing talking points from your professors so many times.”
Not that social conservatives don’t have a reason to be dismayed by the way campus life, and intellectual society in general, have evolved since that burst of Sixties radicalism.
Such disciplines as gender studies, peace and conflict studies, First Nations studies, queer studies, Chicano studies, disability studies and others have been a direct outgrowth of pressure on institutions from student organizations and faculty associations acting in concert. Smart people wanted to study these issues and challenge the status quo.
At least through the 1970s, despite howls from anti-egghead, “moral majority” rabble rousers in politics and the media, left-leaning academics were largely free to excoriate imperialism and social inequities, support various liberation movements and chip away at heretofore infrangible foundations of knowledge such as established literary canons. The profs were impatiently applauded in these pursuits by the vast majority of students, whose major criticism was usually that change wasn’t happening fast enough.
Then came Reaganism and the rise of the Tea Party and the Reform Party and Paul Martin’s budget cuts and Mike Harris and Harperism and the Koch brothers financing the attacks on faculty bargaining rights and the explosion of for-profit schools … in short, the end of the post-WWII boom years that had funded public institutions in both the U.S. and Canada.
The times that once had been a-changing with so much promise have morphed into the harrowing mindscape of today, a time when there are far more graduates of even the radically scaled back humanities and social science fields than academic departments could possibly absorb.
Mirroring the off-campus world of temps, outsourcing and subcontracting, tenure-track openings are a lofty but impossible dream for thousands of lecturers hired on short or part-time contracts on either side of the border.
The women and men in these precarious grad student and assistant and associate positions have limited leeway when it comes to choosing texts, planning courses or influencing curricula. They have to think long and hard before voicing unpopular opinions or risking incurring the wrath of officious school administrators, business-oriented trustees or sensitive students quick to respond to perceived slights or biases.
Which brings me, enfin, to Bill 32, the law tabled this week in Quebec that would allow “any word” to be uttered in university classrooms in the province, so long as those words are uttered in what is deemed to be an academic context.
(If the word in question is an English one, of course, an accompanying French word must be “markedly predominant,” per provincial signage laws. Hä hä. Je rigole. Parfois je me tue.)
Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann told reporters that the bill will preserve a high-quality learning environment for white and racialized students alike. (D’ailleurs, my friends of various skin tones have all complained that the nice-Nelly neologism “racialized” comes with a built-in assumption that white is the default setting for human beings and that other people have either a bonus turbo trait or some kind of deficiency. Why not call white people pinkicized and leave everyone else alone?)
But back to McCann: “Classrooms are not safe spaces; they are spaces for debate. Censorship has no place in our classrooms … we must protect the teaching staff from censorship.”
One would have thought that it’s even more important to protect the young adults learning to exercise critical thinking skills from the perils and pitfalls of undue censorship. But sadly, that’s not how stories like this are playing out among student unions. In Quebec or elsewhere.
As Virginie Ann of the Canadian Press reported: “The bill draws on a committee report last December requested by the government in response to a scandal at the University of Ottawa in 2020, when a professor was suspended for using the N-word during a class lecture. A student had complained that part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval used the word to explain how some communities had reclaimed certain terms.”
At the time, Quebec Premier François Legault and Liberal Opposition Leader Dominque Anglade both said the university should have defended Lieutenant-Duval for using the word in an academic context.
That’s not how student leaders see it.
Ann quoted Jonathan Desroches, interim president of the 91,000-member Quebec Student Union, as saying the bill is unnecessary and reflects a generation gap between students and teachers.
“There must be training for not only staff, but also the student community to ensure that everyone understands elements of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Desroches said.
About 30 student unions signed a statement denouncing the bill as an attack on educational institutions.
“It’s a call for repression of the student community and a populist means to rally the population against progressive ideas,” the statement said, adding that the bill distorts the concept of academic freedom to give licence to teachers inclined to make discriminatory or provocative remarks.
“Academic freedom doesn’t protect the right to say anything,” the statement says. “Rather, it protects the rigorous pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of a just and egalitarian society and the challenge of power by scholars.”
Alors, with a right-wing nationalist party like the Coalition Avenir Québec in power and a conservative businessman like Legault as premier, there’s some merit to the concern about the bill’s being “a populist means to rally the population against progressive ideas.”
When Scheer was running for the Tory leadership in 2017 after Stephen Harper’s downfall and needed a wedge issue, he stole a page from Trump and latched onto an affected concern for dwindling academic freedom: “I will withhold federal funding from universities that shut down debate and can’t stand different points of view.”
In the Ontario general election of 2018, Doug Ford campaigned on a similar promise. That August, his government mandated “free speech” at the province’s public colleges and universities. Institutions that failed to implement and comply with a free speech policy by Jan. 1, 2019, faced substantial cuts to their operating funds.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers condemned the Progressive Conservative move as “unprecedented interference with institutional autonomy” and “a solution in search of a problem.”
James Turk, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, went further: “It’s not about saving free expression on campus. It’s a deliberate measure, borrowed from the American right and alt-right, to play to what the premier sees as his political base.”
In an opinion column published by Universities Canada in its publication University Affairs, Creso Sá, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education, wrote: “Most with a working knowledge of higher education would agree that we are nowhere near a free speech crisis in colleges and universities, let alone one justifying government intervention — and we would think that the bar for the nanny state to step in would be higher for a PC government.”
So yeah, je comprends.
Still, I was conflicted when a protest by hundreds of uOttawa students forced the cancellation of a speech by odious American conservative Ann Coulter back in 2010. Couldn’t disagree more with her outrageously wrongheaded takes on immigration, border security, liberalism and civil rights, but I did think a well-educated audience should have been sophisticated enough to see right through her. (The fascists, white nationalists and Ayn Rand libertarian types are a lost cause anyway.)
Which is why the student reaction to Bill 32 is so troubling.
If you’re going to explore in a classroom filled with intelligent young adults how some communities have reclaimed hateful racial epithets, I don’t see how you can avoid at some point hauling out and thoroughly dissecting the N-word. Abhorrent words lose their power only by daring to speak their name.
Part of the genius of 1970s television sitcom All in the Family was how it parodied and disarmed a working-class bigot like Archie Bunker, leaving him with no better argument than blowing a raspberry when uncomfortable truths were exposed. The show helped sap the sting and remove the thorns from words coined to hurt their targets.
If you were a part-time lecturer in the varsity classrooms of today, hoping to make a point about racism, would you risk a suspension or career suicide by showing clips of a ridiculous older white man using condescending expressions and peppering his speech with lame, puerile name-calling?
This would be the first exposure to these repulsive terms, of course, by anyone who listens to hip hop or plays video games or spends 15 minutes on YouTube or TikTok or Instagram.
Thank God the pur-et-dur position adopted by the nattering nabobs of n-word negation in Quebec student unions could never be satirized, mocked or exploited by cancel-culture-denouncing enemies on the Right.
And it’s even more reassuring that these champions of a just and egalitarian society don’t share any bowdlerizing, expurgatory, censorious or puritanical DNA with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Don’t Say Gay crowd. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
Just say no. That always works.
Funny thing. All in the Family was constructed around the palpable clash of values between the so-called Greatest Generation and their children, the Baby Boomers. A generation gap.
Plus ça change.