In a recent article in Academic Matters, Canada’s national journal of higher education, Professor Ken Coates expresses regret that the culture of political activism that transformed universities in the 1960s and 70s has died out. Although pleased that “radical, creative and outspoken commentators” still “use the campus as a pulpit,” he is saddened that “preoccupation with practicalities … has transformed Canadian universities into calm, largely dissent-free places.” At the article’s end, he stresses that “it is more than nostalgia that brings one to yearn for days of activism and protest.”
If Coates were merely an aging hippie grumbling about his lost youth on a personal website, his mischaracterization of the current situation on Canadian campuses would provide no cause for comment. But Coates is an influential university administrator and research fellow, the former Dean of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan, Founding Vice-President (Academic) at the University of Northern British Columbia, and now a prestigious Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Waterloo. He is also the author, with Bill Morrison, of Campus Confidential: 100 Startling Things You Don’t Know About Canadian Universities (2011).
In that book, he and his co-author frankly address some of the grim realities of the 21st-century university classroom, including a majority of students who lack the skills needed to flourish at the post-secondary level and who are neither interested in nor intellectually equipped for the subjects their professors are expected to teach them.
But in the book one also finds a lament for the tumultuous decade of dissent. The authors miss the days when students and faculty “protested against the war in Vietnam, fought against racial discrimination [and] had as much sex and drugs as possible.” Now, they note ruefully, “Save for some battles over Israeli issues, Canadian universities are pretty staid places.”
The tone of regret over declining radicalism in a book chronicling plunging standards and widespread student incompetence suggests a philosophical incoherence that is far from unusual amongst academic commentators such as Coates. He is certainly not the only university leader to profess a commitment to academic “excellence” while also extolling, in his words, “exciting debates about social change, cultural revolutions, and transformative action.” Having been formed by the post-1960s liberal university and possessing the comfortably left-leaning credentials that aided his rise through the ranks in the Canadian university system, he cannot see a correlation between the sharp decline in academic standards and the student radicalism he idealizes.
As was recognized by Allan Bloom, an appalled witness to the ‘60s campus revolts at Cornell, the decision by university administrators to give in to activist thugs, allowing course content and requirements to be dictated by criminals with guns, effectively destroyed the foundation on which the university had rested. Having lost confidence that something precious could be gained from the study of the Western intellectual tradition, academics were left to embrace nothing more substantial than ever-shifting social goals such as combating elitism and racism. Ultimately, such goals have led to the “victimology” and anti-intellectualism documented in sobering detail by Bruce Bawer in The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind (2012).
Even in its non-violent form, campus radicalism was never benign. Much of what Coates eulogizes was anarchic and pointlessly destructive: not only the mind-numbing drugs but also the proliferating sit-ins and protests that provided excuses to skip class in order to make a big noise about issues such as sexism and the Vietnam War on which the vast majority of students were laughably ill-informed.
And Coates is dead wrong to think that such mindless and malignant activism has passed from the scene.
Just a few weeks ago at the University of Toronto, Canada’s largest and most prestigious university, a group of approximately seventy students sought to shut down a talk by Warren Farrell, a leading men’s rights author who has written unorthodox accounts of gender relations with such red-flag-to-feminist-bull titles as The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex (1993) and Women Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say: Destroying Myths, Creating Love (2000). His November 16th talk addressed the marginalization of boys in our contemporary culture, who now fall behind their female peers in education and social development.
For Farrell’s detractors, the suggestion that boys and young men might deserve sympathetic attention is anathema, prompting one protestor to tell a young man attempting to attend the event, “You are fucking scum.” The vast majority of the protestors had undoubtedly not read Farrell’s work; if they had, they might have debated him rationally after his presentation. But Women’s Studies and the other so-called academic disciplines that have proliferated in the name of social justice do not encourage thoughtful, civil debate. Based on group grievance, their ideology rejects reason and civility as tools of the oppressors, encouraging the hysteria seen at the venue.
In what has become a staple strategy of leftist campus protest, the anti-Farrell demonstrators defaced and ripped down posters advertising his talk, sought to block access to the building in which he was speaking (even at some points blocking the exit routes from the building) and engaged in sustained verbal abuse of those attempting to attend. They shouted slogans and obscenities and, among other offensive gestures, gave the Heil Hitler salute to the police officers, some of them women, tasked with trying to keep public order. Bruce Bawer provides a cogent analysis of the anti-male prejudice that now underlies much of what is taught in Women’s Studies classrooms as a context for the demonstrators’ behavior, arguing that professors have turned their students into “mindless mouthpieces for a party line and, in at least a couple of cases, into terrifying fountains of sanctimonious rage.”
Bawer’s analysis is acute, and no impartial viewer of the YouTube link can, I think, dispute his assessment. Another frame within which to understand the incident is Ken Coates’ tribute to the university as a place of “transformative action.” The transformation of individuals into zealots is, of course, what every revolutionary movement requires. But I’m not convinced that these girls and their patriarchy-averse male allies really do, in their everyday lives, seethe with murderous rage against men. Many probably have kind fathers, gentle brothers, and close male friends whom they recognize as fellow human beings. I suspect that on a different night, they might have shouted just as crudely, and behaved with the same level of intolerance and fanaticism, to denounce market capitalism, European imperialism, Israeli terrorism, Christian bigotry, the Conservative government’s war on the poor, the North American military-industrial complex, the putative purveyors of Islamophobia, or any number of similar “evils” that could provide occasion for their defiance and easy martyrdom.
The issue is that the natural angry energy of young people is channeled in such ugly and destructive ways precisely because they have been taught by innumerable Professor Coateses that only through such anger are they really experiencing university life as it should be lived, only through such extremity proving themselves the kinds of students “who have learned about injustice and inhumanity.” The suggestion, though never stated overtly, is that there is even something a little wrong with students who are content merely to study, to immerse themselves in their books and lectures. The post-1960s university experience has become more about performance and self-display than about book learning, more about passionate feeling than thinking. Unseemly behavior for the appropriate causes is expected and even approved by university officials, most of whom share Coates’s left-liberal sentiments: witness the demonstrators’ gentle treatment by police, who laid no charges, and the lack of any condemnation, or even notice, of the protestors’ actions by university officials or the mainstream media.
Many more such incidents could be listed to give the lie to Coates’ characterization of the Canadian university scene as quiet, and countless from American campuses also. The fact is that radicalism of various stripes is still very much alive on campus, much of it condoned by the administration, and none of it essential—in fact, most directly counter-productive—to the sustained intellectual investigation and mastery of complex concepts that university life should promote and protect.
Perhaps it is time to make universities a politics-free zone, denuded of controversial speakers and their attendant protesters. Alternatively, the university could uphold freedom of expression and ensure that students who attack those with whom they disagree, and who deny others the right of assembly, are appropriately disciplined. But until university administrators are clear that intellectual pursuit must take precedence over activism, and that there is nothing innately beneficial and much that is deleterious about marches and sit-ins and shouting fests, the deterioration of university culture is almost certain to continue.
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