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Spinning Leaf

January 19,

Poison in academe

How forced growth in midcentury produced brainrot


The Crisis in Canadian Universities
By David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell and J.L. Granatstein
Random House, New York
216 pages; hardcover; $29.95


With this collaborative assessment of the current state of academe, historians David Bercuson (University of Calgary), Robert Bothwell (Toronto) and Jack Granatstein (York) provide another exception to the truism that anything written by a committee is worthless. Which is no bad thing, since, as their book clearly demonstrates, it becomes less and less likely that Canadian students will ever hear anything about the best-known exception: the King James Bible, fruit of committees working at Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster.

Professors Bercuson, Bothwell and Granatstein demonstrate much else as well, and trace the problems of our universities to some surprising sources. Though many consider it one of Canada's post-war triumphs, the expansion of post-secondary education to some 40% of working-aged Canadians (as compared to 16% in Britain and 23% in Sweden) was actually, they argue, a poisoned chalice.

Having accepted federal money to build their campuses, provincial governments and university administrators made a fetish of "accessibility" at the cost of embracing mediocrity. All those new buildings had to be filled. The policy established in 1966 by Ontario's Conservative premier, John Robarts, was typical. "Standards," he declared, "should be moderate and reasonable such as to enable the average student to proceed to a degree." Grades between "55% and 60%, depending on the type of course" would suffice.

Aside from the loss of intellectual quality engendered by such a policy, it sowed the seeds for today's economic crises on campus. To teach the thronging thousands, universities hired myriad professors who now crowd the top of the salary grid even as the government grants that funded them have all but vanished. To meet the payroll, university admissions offices opened wider the flood gates. It was a dubious gamble. Although university senates have even authorized remedial courses for credit, large numbers of weak students make for high attrition rates and attendant loss of tuition income.

Petrified Campus puts to rest any doubt that governments aided and abetted the dumbing down of education. For example, in 1996 Dawson College, an English preparatory college in Montreal, was informed by the education minister that its history department was failing too many students; it must lower its standards. "To ensure that this outcome was achieved, the instructors were directed to assign no more than 200 pages of reading per term."

Federal funding in the form of Social Science and Humanities Research Council grants to scholarly journals also backfired. Established to help academics communicate their findings to each other in a Canadian context, they led to publication of more articles than anyone could read and to a proliferation of "academic boutiques."

Over the past 20 years the discipline of history alone saw the founding of at least 15 journals, none of which sought a wide academic audience. Some of these publications went virtually unread, with circulations as low as 80; others, like the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law and Hystoria, have served as hot houses for the development of radical feminism and political correctness.

At first glance, the chapter on feminism and political correctness seems encouraging. Most of the worst outrages of PC seem to be at least five years old: the racism charges which have rocked the University of British Columbia's political science department date from 1992, and the Martin Yaqsin and Philippe Rushton imbroglios were earlier still. It has also been almost half a decade since Ontario NDP education minister David Cooke's unsuccessful attempt to impose "neutered" speech codes on Ontario universities. (After two years of Tory government, however, such codes remain in effect at the province's Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology.)

Prof. Granatstein agrees that the time between atrocities is lengthening, but ob-serves that this is what you would expect. Activists like Veronica Strong-Boag (UBC), who proclaims that contemporary universities help "rationalize imperialism, capitalism, racism and sexism," have all but won the day, he says. Already they have changed the way university professors and students think and speak.

Carleton University women's studies Prof. Jill Vickers is not alone in her efforts to ensure that every Carleton University syllabus is ethnically clean. Spineless professors and administrators, not to mention ill-prepared students, nod sagely whenever anyone echoes her claim that "students should not be made to grapple with an inconvenient fact" but rather be "encouraged to believe" that their views of, say, the history of North America's aboriginals are as "valid" as any put forward by anthropologists.

Carleton seminar-goers also take seriously Prof. Hester Lessard's claim that stare decisis--legal reasoning based on precedent--is just one more example of "systemic racism." Prof. Diana Majury of Carleton's law department also supports this position. The quality of her insights can, perhaps, be gleaned from the fact that she once wrote about a Court of Appeals decision on harassment after choosing "not to put herself through the pain of reading it."

Such wrong-headed arrogance, one hopes, may yet be self-defeating. Most of us remember what happened to schoolmates who didn't do their homework. Sooner or later, they flunked out.

--Nathan Greenfield

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