I subscribe to the National Post because they publish a handful of writers I admire, namely George Jonas, an excellent writer and thinker of admirable historical sensibility who writes candidly. He grew up in Hungary under communism, and of all writers I know sceptical of left-wing ideology, I feel he’s got the most cause. It’s not just an idea for him, though it’s that too. Policies that make a light go off in my head must stir his stomach.
I provide this background because his article yesterday, “Deliver us from the universities,” is guilty of generalizing a bit, and while I’d actually agree with him if I had to make a bet, I’m holding out for more evidence. Essentially: universities were and are the chief threat to freedom of speech.
Jonas cites a study being conducted by civil rights lawyer John Carpay, who created an index that promises to “evaluate the state of free speech at Canadian Universities.” The findings come out in November, but Carpay demonstrated them last week in an apparently convincing sneak peek organized by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy for Calgary’s Chamber of Commerce. I’m curious and sceptical about the methodology, but my personal experience inclines me towards agreeing with the conclusion.
First Jonas reminds us that in origin, Universities were religious, not liberal. They believed they had to educate students to learn the truths they already possessed. In the 20th century, “universities incubated both fascism and communism, along with their many sub-versions (pub intended).” In one sentence, Jonas provides some history, a great use of “incubated,” and doesn’t succumb to that brutal reflex where people claim they don’t mean to write the puns they mean to write. “As for the 21st century, with jihadism infesting campuses all over the world, we’re off to a rocky start.” He denounces Hamas apologists, dubbing them “terrorist chic.” Wicked stuff.
Aside: academics are disproportionately left wing because they have theoretical jobs, and in theory everything works, even communism. Doubting the theoretical on grounds it’s only theoretical undermines the foundation of their life’s work, and so essentially, it undermines their life. Perhaps the chief virtue in a good intellectual is to resist the impulse to merge the theoretical and the practical, and be always able to separate and distinguish the two.
Back to Jonas’ idea: I read a fantastic book on Orwell a few weeks ago describing all the left-wing hostility aimed at Orwell during the 40s, despite Orwell’s ardent allegiance of the left. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” In spite of Orwell’s devotion to the left, he admirably refused to stop criticizing where he saw problems. This was before the extent of Stalin’s crimes, the Gulags, were widely known and the left-wing intelligentsia frequently apologized and praised him. To do so was modish. Nobody wanted to publish Animal Farm because, spoiler alert!, in the end the animal’s revolution fails. Orwell wanted socialism to work, but he couldn’t suppress his doubt no matter how much it irritated his comrades. His allegiance was wholly to the truth, and for this he was ostracised. Jonas understands this dilemna: if Orwell had trouble criticising the Left, what can us mortals do and say?
My goal isn’t to denounce left-wing ideology, just the practice of silencing the other side’s argument on grounds that the verdict is already in. Though most universities have a dominant left-wing ideology in place, I’d be equally opposed to a right-wing one. I hate thinking that succumbs to grotesque oversimplification that obliterates nuance. Indeed, universities have a mandate to instil critical thinking abilities in their students to overcome this unforgivable weakness in mind. But academic environments are rife with suspicion and hatred for people who think differently. The chief fault is the inability to believe your ideological opponent is honest and intelligent.
But this difference in thought doesn’t even have to be highly charged political opinion. In all kinds of classes I’ve heard friends lament that they feel uncomfortable diverging from their professor’s opinion in print for fear he’ll disapprove, and they’ll be graded accordingly. But a different interpretation of poetry or literature doesn’t arouse the indignation and hostility that political disagreement does. In all situations, students must not be made to feel uncomfortable voicing and writing their unfettered opinion, supported of course by convincing textual evidence. It’s precisely here, in classrooms, where Jonas’ charge resonates most with me. Most faculty, and especially students, are smart enough to know they ought to voice in favour of freedom of speech, but insufficiently principled to commit to it in full. Rather, they’re principles are devoted solely to their cause, and there are none left over for the cause of free speech.
Example, a professor with an overt bias (voiced in politically correct terms so as not to get fired) would likely go mostly unchallenged by students who either: want to avoid a scene; don’t want to jeopardize their grade; don’t have the confidence to speak up, don’t want to be class nerd; don’t have a clue what the professor is even talking about; feel total indifference. Maybe they’re simply hung over. They’re understandable reasons, and at various moments I have succumbed and overcame all these things myself. How many professors really say and believe: “my class is only useful if I’m challenged at every step of the way because the only valuable opinions are those which have survived the heaviest scrutiny?” Even the polite Canadian tendency towards non-confrontation is incompatible with a robust academic environment where ideas become important only after they’ve survived harsh, weighty scrutiny.
I’m eternally grateful to Dalhousie, which I realised was a freakin’ Xanadu after spending a year in that putrid swamp OISE. I left Dal with my innocence intact under the naive belief that academics want to get at the truth. They’re smart, passionate intellectuals. Yes, but they’re all too frequently under the false belief that their views embody everything that’s good or desirable, and they tolerate no other view. I’d like to see the results from this Campus Freedom Index and learn how the study was conducted.
If you’ve managed to sit through all this, bless your heart. Next writings will be light hearted: the “curmudgeon’s fall-fashion style guide” or perhaps, “the Kardashian divorce: I knew she was a skank.”