Unrest at the university

January 15, 2023

By Normand Baillargeon *

Le Devoir, Montréal, January 15th, 2023

I am currently editing lectures given by my dear Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) in 1950. In them he addresses the question of the philosophical and political conception of the individual. He inspires me to reflect on what I consider to be some troubling aspects of current university education.

The individual, justice, community

In the ideals of political liberalism and the Enlightenment, individuals are equal in rights and treated as such: this is an ideal of justice aimed at the universal. But it is also accepted that, depending on the context and circumstances, this ideal can be modulated.

Excellence is one of these possible cases.

Picasso or Einstein are not treated like other artists or scholars by and in those places (museums, universities) where the values they embody with excellence, values also presumed to be universal, have been recognized and are taken into account.

Bertrand Russell

But Russell also warns his audience against extending this idea too far. He warned that this would lead to the kind of hero worship of which Nazism had just (in 1950) provided an example.

It is also possible to disregard differences and reduce the individual to a cog in a machine that is the same as the others in the whole. This, of course, can be justified in a democracy, for a time, in a place: let’s say in the army, or in the factory.

But here again, another warning from Russell, beware of extending this idea too far. We could end up treating the individual as we do in a communist regime. The danger is then to deny the individual in the name of the collective, or the group to which he belongs.

Again, depending on the context and circumstances, this can be justified. Positive discrimination practices in education, adopted by liberal democracies and intended to correct serious past injustices, are of this order. But then one has to justify their careful and provisional implementation, to ensure that serious injustices are not committed in order to correct others, and to end them in due course.

Having said that, let us turn to the present.

Equity, diversity, inclusion

The existence of these programmes (EDI) can no doubt be justified by arguments of fairness, context and circumstance.

But their imposition by the state should raise doubts and concerns, especially when they are applied in a place, the university, which should be as much as possible sheltered from the ideologies of the moment and governed essentially by excellence. This seems to me to be even truer at a time when academic freedom is under threat. But universities, for too long now, unfortunately, have sometimes betrayed what they should be for base commercial reasons.

At the moment, when many voices are raised against preventing able-bodied white students from applying for a Canada Research Chair, or a non-white Chair in History (there have been many other examples over the years), there is a reasonable fear that the individual, and the excellence he or she should embody, may be relegated to the background. ( See article here )

Academic freedom

If excellence (and the truth it presupposes in the field of knowledge), in the world of ideas as in that of art, is sometimes clearly established (Einstein and Picasso are geniuses…), it is also, in other cases, more difficult to define, particularly in relation to new questions, issues and problems. The university is a place created to debate and seek to find it.

At McGill University, this duty of the institution has just been seriously denied by allowing the cancellation of a lecture by the British lawyer Robert Wintemute, who was deemed transphobic.

At Harvard University, Kenneth Roth, who was president of Human Rights Watch for nearly 30 years, was denied a position because of his perceived anti-Israel stance. Excellence gives way to some of the political ideas of an individual, who is reduced to it.

These are cases where the claim to fairness leads to injustice, or even to what smacks, if not of racism, at least of reducing the individual to his or her group. This should alert us.

But, inspired by Russell, I also worry about what happens to genuine diversity (and the search for truth that it can foster) in these cases.

Take this recent story from Hamline University (Saint Paul, Minnesota) involving someone teaching Islamic art. A fourteenth-century Persian painting shows Muhammad. After warning her students what she was going to do, to allow anyone who wanted to not see it, she showed it in an online course. Complaints are made to the management… who relieve this person of her duties.

But what idea do we have of the complainants then? They are held to be representative of their group. But this is to deny the individual (many Muslims do not think so) and even the sub-groups of this community: all those who do not take offense at seeing these images.

Among them, precisely… the Muslims who painted these images.

Translated by DeepL, validated by Michel Virard.

More information on the McGill-Wintemute case is available here, on the Hamline case is available here

* Normand Baillargeon is a retired UQAM professor. He is also co-founder of the Québec Humanist Association.

Michel Virard