Monday, November 24, 2008

Queen's, the university my girlfriend tried to persuade me to go to.

When I went to university in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the Vietnam war was raging, not only in southeast Asia, but in the streets of the cities, dorms and academic halls of educational institutions in North America.

Every campus had its left-wing element opposed to the continuing involvement of the American military in that war and they also had conservative students who supported the U.S. position.

In Canada, or at least, in Ontario, where I went to school, there were a number of newly built universities that had a high faculty ratio of American professors. Some of these were clearly men avoiding the draft. The campus sympathy was mainly against the war and the conservative elements were quietly supportive while the opposing left-wingers were much noisier and visible

I always felt that universities, from the 1960s forward were generally left-wing in their political orientation, from the student body up through the faculty. Very little seems to have changed in that respect in the nearly 40 years that I have been absent from campuses.

But what has changed is that the left-wing folk have abandoned the notion that a university is a dispassionate institution dedicated to the discussion and evaluation of ideas. They have become micro-fascist in their approach to debate and controversy. They would rather shut down or censor opposing points of view than meet them head on in open argument and debate.

We have been witness to Israeli leaders being shut out of speaking engagements, Islamic critics being shouted down by halls packed with Muslim students, pro-life advocates being banned from student events and denied funding from student fees that other advocacy groups obtain.

Given the attitude of revered left-winger icons like Al Gore and David Suzuki who show no shame in attempts to silence those who oppose their environmental opinions, it is not surprising that this tactic has insinuated itself into the politics of our campuses. Censorship decisions by our human rights agencies have also provided fallow ground for the notion that you simply shut up the opponents, or discredit them, rather than out-debate them.

The latest controversy in this field comes to us from a university not otherwise noted for left-leanings, namely, Queens, in Kingston, Ontario. Long considered an establishment bastion, it now appears the university has employed student eavesdroppers, who are paid to insert themselves into conversations between other students “to foster a safe environment in which all students can speak with assurance, and where differences of opinion will be worked through in civil debate”, in the words of Patrick Deane, Vice-Prinicipal, in a letter to alumni. He assures us that “…it is not true that facilitators will in any way seek to censor, censure or discipline their peers.”

This is his justification:

"The Intergroup Dialogue program is not disciplinary but educational in nature, and more than anything else it resembles peer mentoring, long an established part of university life across Canada. It does not exist to force or even encourage consensus on any issue, except one: that freedom of speech and thought is impossible without respect, consideration, and a commitment to mutual understanding. It is difficult to see how we could claim to be educating global leaders if this commitment were not a cornerstone of our institutional life."

Methinks it should be called the Interloper Dialogue program. Has Mr. Deane never heard that eavesdropping is still considered to be bad manners and disrespectful by most of the civilized world?

What defines “respect, consideration and a commitment to mutual understanding”? If two students are sitting around a common room and discussing how the Sharia law discriminates against women, or whether gays should not be married, what does the interloper say to them if he/she is not to impose his or her views or censor their conversation?

Surely, if the intervener is to have any role to play it would be to say that gays deserve equal consideration and that Sharia law is a perfectly respectable body of law for Muslims to follow, or that such subjects should not be discussed because they might be deemed disrespectful.

Once you say anything like that, then you are imposing a view, a politically correct one.

If the role of the interloper is to tell them tone down the conversation because there might be gays or Muslims within earshot, then you are imposing the black specter of censorship.

And as for “mutual understanding”, if ever there were a killer phrase rubbing out good, honest, knock-down debate, this has to be the one. It says be nice, at all costs.

We are told it is all voluntary, so it is okay. This conveniently ignores the fact that these student stooges are paid by the university to “guide” otherwise free conversations amongst other students. I could think of fewer things more disrespectful to the student body than this misguided program.

Mr. Deane says it is a one-year pilot project that will be evaluated for its usefulness.

How will usefulness be measured – by the lack of controversial conversations amongst the students?

When a Queen’s University institutionalizes political correctness in its student body heaven help my grandchildren who have to live under the leaders that come out of this “educational” experience.

Someone should remind Mr. Deane that the main objects of a university education are to instruct students in the skills of critical thinking and to imbue them with a passion for new learning and knowledge. Causing students to be fearful or concerned that their opinions are not meeting some authority’s standard for acceptability is not the path to engender critical thinking.

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