In Blog

Controlling Knowledge; Corralling Dissent

By: Len Findlay

Like most people reading this, I wear a number of hats. Here are three:

I have taught at the University of Saskatchewan for over thirty years as a dedicated teacher, scholar, and activist.

I am also two-time Chair of the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and deeply involved in the current campaigns known as “Canada’s Past Matters,” and “Get Science Right.”

And I am a Past President of Academy One (Arts and Humanities) of the Royal Society of Canada, and the instigator of the RSC expert panel on “The Status and Future of Canadian Libraries and Archives.”

What have the past several years wearing these hats taught me? The answer is lots, much of it deeply disquieting, not only for educators and researchers but for all Canadians.

Unquestionably, the “Great Recession” has been succeeded by the Great Suppression, where anyone who still has a voice is supposed to use it with the meekness of a parliamentary back bencher, speaking out only to protect the brand and praise the leader.

For those who may doubt a direct line from Redaction Central in the Prime Minister’s Office via the public service to postsecondary institutions, consider the words of Michelle Rempel, when she was Parliamentary Secretary to then Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent (who was usually as hard to find as the Higgs boson).

On CBC’s “Power and Politics”  (April 1, 2013) Ms. Rempel responded to the news of an Information Commission investigation into the muzzling of government scientists by declaring that this so-called muzzling is just a “media protocol” like the ones in place in universities with regard to faculty activity and “grant applications.”

A similar animosity was evident in Conservative Party attacks on Justin Trudeau’s impromptu remarks to Peter Mansbridge about the Boston Marathon bombings. Especially telling, perhaps, was Candice (Hoeppner) Bergen’s insistence that you cannot react and sound “like a university professor” at such times (CBC “Power and Politics,” April 18, 2013). Thus does the former financial advisor, long-gun registry opponent, and second-term MP for Portage-Lisgar attempt to tie Trudeau to his past as a drama and social studies teacher, to his professorial predecessors Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, and to those favourite targets of the “tough-on-crime” crowd: evidence and intellectualism. When you have an infallible moral compass, who needs to consider “root causes” anyway?

It is worth noting that the history of universities is in significant measure a struggle against injustice as well as ignorance. Moreover this history includes numerous examples of fighting authoritarianism successfully. When university leaders refuse to fight for their institutions and the public interest they choose to do so. They don’t have to do so. Unfortunately, much like freedom of assembly, expressive freedoms – including academic freedoms – have rarely been so threatened in Canada as they are today.

 

While key institutions and programs are eliminated or brought to heel, the postsecondary educational sector is increasingly hammered by governments, media, and tame consultants, as doubly wasteful and no longer affordable. In other words, post-secondary teachers and researchers are alleged to belong to a smug and bloated system that produces graduates for nonexistent jobs while also providing secure jobs for purveyors of (mostly) useless knowledge. And when the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the federal granting agencies take their cues from the PMO and its provincial counterparts in approving inadequate and badly targeted public funding, the two main casualties are academic independence and the public good.

According to numerous governments and corporate funders, education must favour economic value over independent inquiry and social engagement, while skills training must accept the paradox of increased demand and depressed rewards—a contradiction at the heart of Stephen Harper’s assault on organized labour. If research is to be more short-term and for profit, then teaching must apparently be client-driven in the crudest sense, while community service must model itself on corporate partnerships where the risk is public and the benefits private.

So goes the shift from a liberal education to a neoliberal one; and from vocational training  to training for  a precarious workforce, in a fracked labour market rather than a unionized and occasionally  fractious one. It is an economic  policy shift which John Maynard Keynes in 1933 called “the imbecile idiom of the financial fashion.”

Now more than ever, those of us in the academy need to make the case for affordable access to quality education—education resting on the tripod of academic freedom, fair compensation, and appropriate job security. We need to make that case for ourselves and for others because few academic managers care to do so any longer.

 

lenfindlaysmallLen Findlay is an activist, scholar, and educator. He is a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, two-time Chair of the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and Past President of the Arts and Humanities Academy of the Royal Society of Canada.