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Zero Tolerance:
Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities


313 pages,
ISBN: 0140253475


Post Your Opinion
But It's Not Such a Crowded Theatre
by Nathan Greenfield

Given his belief that scholarly culture is a conversation in which all participants say, "Yes, but," Professor Peter Emberley must expect that others who "love" universities will have concerns about parts of Zero Tolerance. Mine have little to do with proposals to abolish tenure or digitalize libraries. What worries me about a work I eagerly awaited are lapses in Emberley's intellectual rigour and his surprising attitude toward free speech. But first, let me say, "Yes."
The recent history of Canadian education is, as he writes, "a history of solutions looking enthusiastically for problems." Decades of education theory that has held self-esteem to be the highest good have produced ill-educated, "wounded" students. "Outcomes-based education" (OBE), proposed by the supposed expert William Spady, is one of the newest solutions favoured by educrats. It is unlikely to do better. Under OBE, students are taught to "do life," which has something to do with acquiring the "values, skills, and knowledge required for success in a rapidly changing world," and precious little to do with learning to love literature or history or to understand the beautiful symmetry of science.
Emberley stands against the incursion by the "corporate right" into education. Outsourcing, alternative delivery mechanisms, and for-profit contract servicing are music to the ears of the Globe and Mail's editorial board, the Conference Board of Canada, and ministers of education like Ontario's John Snobelen, who believe that grants should be cut and that universities exist to turn "learners" into "knowledge workers". These fads injure the raison d'Ítre of the university: the protection and teaching of values and ideas that stand above the market. Though they all have them now, Emberley reminds us that universities did not grow out of corporate "mission statements", but out of the beliefs of religious orders.
His indictment of the new income-contingent loan program (ICLP) is stinging. This doesn't "empower" students (now, "consumers"). It shifts the burden of funding from the general taxation system to individuals. ICLP creates new sources of revenue for banks that make student loans; the federal government will pay those banks a premium and graduates will pay them interest. Emberley fears that soon lenders will link approval of student loans to job prospects-name a bank with a V.P. Classics.
Universities must, he argues, become more efficient. Firing some of their 280 vice-presidents, using existing contracts to get rid of "dead wood", and even "rationalizing" programs would be good starts.
He is at his best when he takes on today's radical chic, what he calls the cultural left, which knows only one commandment: "Go forth and deconstruct." Whatever their economic lacunae may be, old-line left-wing critics like Reg Whitaker want to "discover the points at which arbitrary power had intruded and unfairly stacked the deck to favour the bourgeois and property owners," and to replace these social relations with genuinely just ones. Postmodern feminists and multiculturalists believe, rather, that because reality is a social construct, there "can be no `true' or `just' state of affairs" to discover "beneath the evident falseness and injustice of the world." All there is are interpretations built on words that are nothing but metaphors of force.
The banner under which multiculturalists and feminists march reads: "Inclusion/Diversity". But their "scholarship" is exclusionary. The history of the countries of the North Atlantic is summed up in one word: "eurocentrism". They delight in attacking the British, French, and Americans for colonialism and rarely mention that these same countries produced modern medicine and the philosophical bases for feminism and multiculturalism. If my experience at conferences is any indication, Emberley is right to say that postmodern multiculturalists and feminists want universities to include-only-themselves. He nicely turns the tables on them by noting that in their plundering of the "culture and literature of the non-West.to find tales of oppression and victimization," they recapitulate the Imperial Project.
If "to govern is to choose," to profess is to assign. But Emberley does not give us his list of the important books. Anyone acquainted with syllabus shot-up in the "canon wars" can understand why he would be reluctant to offer himself as a target. Yet as the head of Carleton University's College of the Humanities he should have risked it. It's fine to say, as he does, that university students grow by engaging in conversations with the great literary and philosophic books and with narratives of history. The purpose of these encounters with "the human condition in all its superlative virtue and all its depraved evil" is the development of a fully-formed moral and civic personage. But Emberley's reticence almost dishonours F. R. Leavis (who formulated the "Yes, but" notion of scholarship). Leavis began The Great Tradition with the most famous list in literary studies: "The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad." It's disheartening to see Professor Emberley avoid this kind of statement, by saying instead that students must read in amongst three themes: freedom, god, and death.
A disturbing lack of rigour is evident in statements like "We are witnessing.a colossal breakdown of moral order in civil society" and his overstatement of Jean Bethke Elshtain's arguments. It's one thing to argue, as she does in Democracy on Trial, that the social agreements that have held our polities together are fraying, that "more and more we confront one another as aggrieved groups, rather than free citizens" and even to fear for democracy's future if the public's "hate" for politicians and the political process continues unabated. It's quite another, however, to assert in 1996 that "our own established democracy [is] so much weaker than some of the newer struggling democracies of the former Eastern Bloc." As for the "colossal moral breakdown" (a phrase belonging more to talk radio than reasoned analysis), last time I looked, the vast majority of Canadians filled out their income tax returns, voted in elections, and were still known for being polite.
What concerns me most about Zero Tolerance is Emberley's less than robust defence of free speech. Things begin well enough; he excoriates rules of the type that Ontario's former minister of education, David Cooke, tried to impose on the province's universities (and did impose on about half a million college staff, professors, and students). Ontario's Harassment Code allows third parties to accuse anyone connected with a university with creating a "negative environment". Even "telephone calls from another country to anyone in the university" are included within the ambit of Cooke's code. Since, as Emberley correctly notes, such codes grow out of human rights legislation and not the Criminal Code, the normal rules of evidence and procedure do not apply. Someone accused of creating a "chilly climate" need never be told who made the accusation or what is required to prevent creating another one.
But things get alarming when Emberley argues that academic freedom demands a higher standard of behaviour-collegial niceness-than does free speech in the constitutional sense. The former type of freedom is historically separate from (and much older than) the latter. But in the real world of speaking individuals, the two cannot be divided, especially in institutions that are chartered and paid for by governments. Emberley fears that, if you are offended by my speaking my mind, you will then call for limits to what I can say. This is an accurate rendering of today's campus politics, but it need not lead to timorousness. Nor should it lead us to reject-as Emberley does-Alan Borovoy's claim that "freedom of speech is the condition upon which all other rights are based."
No-one familiar with the so-called culture wars would dispute Emberley's claim that "if there ever was a time in the past when untempered thoughts or words were" allowed, "by no stretch of the imagination could one think that such a time is now," because every group is suspicious of every other group. But unless you are willing to cede freedom to an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic and, indeed, anti-political fringe that thrives on expanding "feeling bad" into "being oppressed", Emberley's statement must remain a description and not a prescription.
He tries to give his waffling an intellectual patina by quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, and then saying "Our times are like a crowded theatre." Voices may be shrill and tempers short, but there is no evidence to support the claim that the country is about to become a panic-stricken mob. Further, a professor of political science should know that despite their fame, Holmes's words do not govern American constitutional jurisprudence. Reasoned political speech, as opposed to what might be called shouting madness, is an absolute right, as the Nixon Administration found when the United States Supreme Court allowed the publication of the Pentagon Papers, even though the Court knew that they would fuel the somewhat less than decorous debate about the American war effort in Vietnam that was then ripping apart the nation's campuses.
Professor Emberley concludes his analysis of the "crisis" at our universities by noting that the decision of University of Toronto's Hart House to replace its "predominantly Anglo-Saxon [?] food services" with the more multicultural Taco Bell "played neatly into the hands of the corporate right." The corporate right has profited from the rise of the cultural left, and not just by providing equity consultants to stalk the land or producing brochures, leaflets, and guidebooks without number. No, it benefits from antics of the cultural left because as long as Canadians fight for the title "Most Aggrieved", there is no one left to challenge the pro-business agenda that now dominates Canadian politics.
Whatever my disagreements with Professor Emberley, I am indebted to him for reminding me of Virginia Woolf's eschatological vision: "When the Day of Judgement dawns.the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, `Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.'"

Nathan Greenfield is a professor of English at Algonquin College in Ottawa, and has a monthly column about popular culture on CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera.

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