Humanism Betrayed

January 2002

Review of Graham Good, Humanism Betrayed: Theory, Ideology and Culutre in the Contemporary University. Montreal: McGill - Queen's University Press, 2001.

Graham Good, a Professor of English at UBC and a member of SAFS, has written an important, incisive, and timely book. Humanism Betrayed is a tightly reasoned and spirited defence of liberal humanism against the illiberal thinking that predominates in significant portions of contemporary academic life.

Good practices what he preaches. Having previously written on the essay as a literary form and on the clear headedness of George Orwell, he has produced seven succinct and powerful essays that provide much insight into the intellectual ills afflicting our "inclusive" and "sensitive" universities.

The opening essay in the book provides a penetrating analysis of the notorious McEwen Report of 1995 which purported to examine allegations of sexism and racism against UBC’s Department of Political Science. Good demonstrates that this report’s total disregard of normal standards of fairness and due process was no accident; it was the logical consequence of an intellectual approach that treats people as group members rather than individuals, regards truth as an outdated concept, and sees a person’s credibility as being dependent upon the status of his or her group.

In the subsequent essays, Good dissects the many flaws, inconsistencies, and logical failings of the various isms that bedevil us. He examines a wide range of current theory including constructionism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism as well as the ways in which the ideas of influential thinkers, such as Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Geertz, and Foucault, have been appropriated to fashion instruments of self-righteousness and intolerance.

The McEwen Report stands as a peculiar low point in Canadian academic affairs. Remarkably, the one hundred and eighty page report, despite being written by a lawyer, did not consider it necessary to weigh and evaluate the responses of faculty members to the sweeping allegations that were being made against them since, in McEwen’s view, "racism and sexism are normal parts of the history and traditions of the dominant (white male Anglo/European) social group," a group "who have been educated in the patriarchal and authoritarian traditions of Western society." In Good’s succinct words: "The idea of ‘systemic’ discrimination, unwilled by any individual, leads naturally to the idea of collective guilt."

Fortunately, administrative practices have improved at UBC since President David Strangway’s panicked implementation of the McEwen Report’s recom-mendations -- without even giving the Political Science faculty a chance to reply to it -- lest he be thought soft on sexism and racism. Perhaps he subscribed to the McEwen Report’s insight that "the first symptom of racism is to deny that it exists." His more principled successor, Martha Piper, apologized to the Department on behalf of the University in November 1998 for the inadequate procedure that was employed and "the flawed report that emerged and the University’s subsequent inappropriate action."

If Graham Good’s hard-hitting book, which focuses primarily on the intellectual sources of the new sectarianism, rather than its past manifestations at UBC, receives the widespread reading it deserves, perhaps the quality of scholarly discussion in the humanities and social sciences will eventually improve as well.