From Cabbages to Kings: The Narrowing of the Overton Window

January 2023

Mark Mercer, In Praise of Dangerous Universities and Other Essays, Frontier Centre for Public Policy, 2022, 199 pp.

“University culture involves the strenuous interrogation and examination of everything from cabbages to kings” (p. 27).

It used to be received wisdom that university politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low. This seemed to be true even as some of the largest internecine dramas played out within post-War academia. In the early-60s Gilbert Ryle refused to review Ernest Gellner’s Words and Things in Mind1

on the grounds that it was abusive, and not merely critical, of Oxford ordinary-language philosophers. In the mid-70s E. O. Wilson was deemed a pariah for his work in sociobiology. In the late 80s there was the Historikerstreit dispute over how to reconcile the Holocaust with German historiography. The early 90s brought us the Derrida Cambridge affair, which contested the suitability of conferring an honorary doctorate upon Jacques Derrida. This was followed by Mary Lefkowitz’ challenge to revisionist Afrocentric “history”, and then by the Sokal hoax of the mid-90s, which laid bare the “fashionable nonsense” that had uncritically gained respectability in some quarters. As recently as 2007, we saw the Norman Finkelstein-DePaul tenure contestation. There are, of course, many more instances besides. Reports of these esoteric stories often did not extend beyond the pages of The Times Higher Education Supplement, though the (still ongoing) Rushdie Affair has had the most profound of implications worldwide, culminating in the grim Charlie Hebdo attack as well as the recent knife attack on Rushdie himself.

In contrast, universities today have of late gone well beyond what Susan Haack identified over two decades ago as “activism masquerading as inquiry”. They are now unapologetically activist, ideological or, in current jargon, intersectional, generating an increasingly absurdist social ontology: the idea that everything is necessarily tinged by the political. Equally disconcerting is that colleagues in the medical and mathematical sciences have detected a distinctly anti-intellectual sentiment in the creeping low-grade politicization of these disciplines. With the generational shift, what now happens in the university has, by design, leaked into the corridors of power, public policy, the corporate world, the police, the military, the arts and pretty much any institution one can think of, including the church. Political scientist Dwight Waldo very presciently (in 1970) wrote: “We can no longer use our little joke that campus politics are so nasty because the stakes are so small. They are now so nasty because the stakes are so large.” Discourse is palpably and unashamedly malicious, as witnessed by the Brett Weinstein-The Evergreen State College debacle and, closer to home, the Bill C-16-Jordan Peterson-University of Toronto kerfuffle. For all intents and purposes, the heckler’s veto wins out: thinkspeak/newspeak/doublethink now informs the dominant pedagogical paradigm. That school boards are at the centre of widespread and bitter skirmishes suggests that the university has been well and truly conquered and other vistas are being eyed for expansion.

With this pessimistic tone in mind, are the defence of the virtues of freedom of inquiry, critical thinking and viewpoint diversity that we (SAFS/FIRE/HxA) so value2

a case of too little, too late?

Mark Mercer’s little book is an empirical snapshot from the frontline of the affairs in Canadian universities. Unlike the steady flow of books bemoaning the state of higher education and dwelling upon the most egregious and bizarre cases of illiberal behaviour stoking the culture wars, Mercer’s book doesn’t traffic in hearsay or cheap polemics. It’s a compilation of previously published op-ed articles, cases that on current form, are weekly occurrences. Unlike most academics, who for understandable reasons whisper behind closed doors, Mercer has boldly stepped up to the plate and calmly and analytically made his thoughts known. Moreover, in his capacity as President of SAFS, he has advocated on behalf of academics who have fallen foul of university clerisies, “purity tests”, kangaroo courts, &c. But the question remains: how did universities arrive at this sorry state of affairs?

Cutting across Mercer’s book, the reasons offered are manifold and hardly exhaustive. The meta-themes include the overextension of higher education (the corollary is the downgrading of vocational training); the associated proliferation of “woo-woo” subject matter (for example, “lived experience”, pp. 112-1153

; pp. 127-130; also the so-called “Mickey Mouse”/“underwater basket weaving” courses); the downgrading of the liberal ideal of inducting one into what Michael Oakeshott termed the “conversation of mankind” (chapter 3); and the (not mentioned) corrosive effect of return on investment – that is, the impulse to treat the university enterprise in terms of profit-centres. Related to this is the chasing of foreign student fee income and grade inflation. Needless to say, these corruptions of the universities’ teleology must be laid at the doorstep of their bloated administrative bureaucracies.4

Mercer frequently invokes the term “administrators”. These self-serving bureaucracies need to fetishize victimhood. Umbrage, however trivial, needs to be sought out and, if need be, manufactured: after all, this activity is their primary raison d’être. And in the service of this, they tend to be ham-handed: lacking in judgement, quick to appease, and quick to undermine natural collegiality by resorting to formal conflict resolution (pp. 63-64). In most cases they misidentify an apparent problem that must be solved.

When Mercer writes that “Universities are always in danger of becoming churchlike” (p. 130), his point is well-taken. This analogy has been noticed by many, including this reviewer (see author’s “Opium” citation in the bio-sketch), and, very recently and most prominently, by the linguist John McWhorter.

So what are parents and potential students to do to negotiate the minefield that is the university system? In the first instance, Mercer’s book should be in every high school guidance councillor’s office and should be required reading by every parent thinking about the perils of student debt, especially since the proliferation of overtly ideological and soft options are, career-wise, far less likely to be able to service that debt. This can only breed resentment. As the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy observed, “You can get all ‘A’s and still flunk life.’’ At the very least, a college or university that subscribes to the Chicago principles should be an indicator that the institution is aware of the dangers. Alternatively, if one has a more vocational bent, that doesn’t preclude becoming the beneficiary of the civilizational virtues of a liberal education: these days it is very much at one’s fingertips.

There are three additions I’d make to Mercer’s excellent Recommended Reading list: Susan Haack’s Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays (2000); for a deep, comprehensive and assessable analysis of the issues, I’d suggest Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013); and more recently Piers Benn’s Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars (2021).5

Though a comprehensive sociology of the modern academic and the would-be public intellectual has yet to be written, I suspect it will make for bleak and bizarre reading. In the eighteenth century, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote: “Today we are trying to spread knowledge everywhere. Who knows if in centuries to come there will not be universities for re-establishing our former ignorance?” In my view, this has come to pass. We are entering another Darkness at Noon6

moment. Blasphemy laws have stealthily been reintroduced under the fig-leaf of “hate speech”, just as the Dark Ages-like (faculty-driven) hatred of the Jews has been licensed under the fig-leaf of anti-Zionism. Against the backdrop of the unprecedented imposition of martial law (Canada’s Emergencies Act) and the wielding of techno-authoritarianism (the freezing of bank accounts and social media censorship), the outlook by any metric is bleak. As long as public universities and the mainstream media are beholden to the ruling party, they too can get away with exercising their innate authoritarianism.

The pendulum will swing. Falling enrolment (and with it, falling fee income), a fall in alumni donations, with an increased number of well-adjusted, antifragile students (i.e., critical thinkers) in truth-orientated institutions will drive this correction. Perhaps the most important nugget of wisdom that Mercer offers is that “One of the joys of being a critical thinker is that one is never offended” (p. 20). Also, a reinvigorated appreciation of vocational training will greatly add to the common good. Moreover, the culture at large will rightly ridicule and satirize the authoritarian impulse, giving parents and potential students real pause for thought. Mercer and SAFS (not crassly parti pris) will, with true liberality, come to defend apostates, while inevitably, their illiberal cultish brethren will eat their own. We need more gadflies like Mark Mercer.

1 Ved Mehta hung the philosophical part of The Fly and the Fly Bottle: Encounters with British Intellectuals (1962) on the ruckus this caused.

2 It used to be the case that academic freedom was the central virtue to progressivism going as far back as Dewey.

3 “The Academic Irrelevance of Lived Experience”. There is a legitimate tradition of philosophical theorizing that can accommodate “lived experience.” It is that of phenomenology which involves the study of structures of consciousness experienced from the first-person point of view with the subtopics of intentionality, consciousness, and qualia, being prominent in recent philosophy of mind.

It’s worth noting too that the “Lived Experience” Mercer takes to task undermines the very prospect of the moral life by denying the possibility of what Adam Smith called the “impartial spectator”.

4 . . . and the equally complicitous parents who view the university as no more than as a young adult baby-sitting service (see Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind and Steve Horwitz’ “Cooperation over Coercion: The Importance of Unsupervised Childhood Play for Democracy and Liberalism” Cosmos + Taxis 3(1): 3-16).

5 I’d bring your attention to the just published collection featuring two SAFS board members – Mark Mercer and Andrew Irvine – both speaking specifically to the Canadian context in a book entitled International Comparative Approaches to Free Speech and Open Inquiry. Mercer’s chapter is entitled “Why Freedom of Expression Should Reign Supreme in University Life” and Irvine’s chapter is entitled “Free Speech and Open Inquiry in Canada”.

6 The title of Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel.