Can The University Be Saved From Social Justice

September 2015

A couple of years ago, the University of Ottawa used as a recruitment tool the slogan “It Starts Here.” This grand and empty phrase (a pronoun with no referent and a verb denoting limitless possibility) expressed the new article of faith of Canadian universities: that attending university is not just about learning an academic subject but about life itself, about self-empowerment, environmental awareness, political activism, the boycotting of Israel, feminist commitment— anything but mere books.

Gone are the days when universities accepted as a matter of course that their purpose was to transmit a body of knowledge. Today such an idea bandied about at a meeting of the Board of Governors would seem laughably outmoded. What student would want to attend an institution that set its sights so low?

Over the past forty years, the university has been caught in a perfect storm that has not only battered its structure almost beyond recognition—its programs, the attitudes and behaviors of students and faculty—but has seriously damaged its mission and values.

Having admitted too many students, many woefully unprepared for university study, universities have been unable to check grade inflation and have steadily reduced core requirements for knowledge in the disciplines. In place of knowledge, mantras about gender, race, and class, oppressor and oppressed, the privileged and the marginalized, provide a thin patina of relevance and righteousness.

The 60s destroyed the idea of the university as a place set apart from whatever social currents were roiling the wider society. The collapse had been a long time in preparation, its origins reaching back at least into the progressivist pedagogy of John Dewey. And as the winds of social-justice crusades continue to rage, we pretend with varying levels of bad faith that the disaster has been in some sense salutary, even necessary.

Now students are invited, as on the University of Ottawa’s Destination 2020 (Goal 1 of “Our Four Strategic Goals”) to “make ours a better world.”

The University’s statement of “core values” makes clear that learning is not sought in itself: the true good is “combining scholarship and social purpose.” The acceptable purposes, predictably, include “cultural diversity,” “sustainable development,” and “equality.” A key section of the University of Ottawa’s “Vision” statement declares its pledge to “instil in each of our graduates an ethic of service, a culture of engagement and an awareness of shared responsibility.”

Such an emphasis sounds laudable, but one is struck by the utopian, near-totalitarian scope and the immeasurability of the stated goals. Universities have no business pretending to oversee their students’ development of “ethics” and “awareness,” except as a happy but unpredictable by-product of the subjects studied and the insights and habits thus acquired. To claim that university can produce a particular type of person—one who cares about the right causes and desires to interact with fellow citizens in the right way—is to indulge in an egregious misunderstanding of what an institution of higher learning can and ought to do.

The idea opens the university to a radical weakening of its intellectual substance, a fatal undermining of academic freedom where it seems to conflict with “shared responsibility,” and ultimately to the takeover of the university by totalitarian agents and utopian ideologies in the name of “ethics” and “awareness.”

This is exactly what happened to all the English departments I have known. Over the decades, they found themselves unable to withstand successive ideological currents: the feminism and Marxism that invaded their precincts in the 1970s, the anti-racism and anti-colonialism that began percolating in the 1980s, the queer and crip and trans and poco and pomo and eco agendas of the 90s and afterwards—with the result that obeisance to “diversity” and homage to the voice of the “other” replaced any commitment to knowing the literary tradition. How could we teach British literature, we fretted, to a multicultural student body, some of whom had cause to resent the British Empire? Who were we to believe that western literature had value in itself, that it could teach anything except what we already thought we knew: the sins of western culture, the oppression of women and their valiant overcoming, and our failures of openness to the subaltern?

This efflorescence of self-loathing and pious renouncing spread to every English department in North America until precious few, if any, had not been overtaken by sociological and ideological rather than literary commitments.

So we come to where we are today, when the merest whiff of sexism or racial insensitivity—an English instructor who prefers male writers, a Nobel laureate who makes a joke about girls in his lab, a white professor who corrects the English usage of a black student, a student club that wants to discuss men’s rights, a speaker who ridicules the claim that college campuses condone rape—is enough to cause disruptive protest, tearful apologies, and administrators’ abject rehearsals of their diversity commitments.

The question now remains: can we define the university’s purpose in terms separate from social justice? Might it be possible to say in the 21st century that the university is committed to the dispassionate examination of ideas—not to multiculturalism and equity, not to the liberation of oppressed groups, not to the healing of historical grievances—and that if it wants to heal the world and empower the oppressed, it is no university at all? That anything that interferes with the pursuit of truth is a desecration of its mission?

Can we challenge the social-justice mandate head on? If not, then the university is certainly lost, for social justice will always trump every good of free inquiry, reasoned debate, or academic standards. These are the values that must be defended by any institute of higher learning worthy of its name.