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Tuesday, April 1, 1997

Peter Emberley's very modest proposals for universities under siege 
in 1997


April 1, 1997 GRAVITAS

Zero Tolerance:
Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities

Peter C. Emberley

Penguin Books

Peter Emberley has acquired a reputation as a trenchant critic of education policy with Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada and other writings. His regard for George Grant, Michael Oakeshott and other ambiguously conservative writers and his advocacy of traditional liberal education has been sympathetic to many conservatives. But Emberley is not the kind of man who can happily accept a political label. He is at once too high brow and too combative. Zero Tolerance is largely a polemic against the pressures besetting universities in the 90's. He dishes it out with equal vehemence against what he calls the corporate right and the cultural left. His prescriptions might be called moderate, though they are more truly lame: better management.

Emberley proceeds through a series of issues denouncing what he calls hot button or predictable responses to each. He attacks the attack on tenure and the defence of tenure, Maclean's survey of universities and the universities' defensiveness before rating, the promotion of the Income Contingent Loan Program and students' expectations of free education. What he is for is obscure and there is an element of suspense as the reader slowly proceeds to the last chapter and its recommendations.

The treatment of the controversy over the zero tolerance "Framework Regarding Harassment and Discrimination in Ontario Universities and Colleges" proposed by Ontario's late NDP government in 1993 is a particularly frustrating case of his damning both sides on a quite straightforward issue. The Framework envisaged a truly Orwellian ideological restraint on the life of universities and colleges. Emberley is himself vigorous in his denunciation of it. The most noted protest against the framework was a "Statement on Free Inquiry and Expression" signed by 40% of the faculty at Trent University, in which the professors claimed a "right to offend". Emberley, with about equal vigour, denounces the professors' initiative, as if they were vicious boors intent on driving their students and colleagues to tears. The Trent professors, who include old lefties, conservatives and apolitical scholars are, when not in their union mode, a mild mannered lot and clearly all they intended to say was that in their writing and teaching they could not pursue the truth as they might see it if they had to worry whether someone might be offended by what they had to say.

No useful discourse is possible on the Framework's terms. No doubt some people will be offended by Emberley's book. Robert Fulford might be. Perhaps Emberley will be offended by this review. The Trent professors intended and implied no worse. But in calling down a plague on both houses Emberley leaves room for qualified oppression from revised frameworks. Happily he makes no such recommendation in his conclusion. Even without his encouragement and the lead of an NDP government, forces within universities will do their worst.

Emberley's chief concern is with the protection of what he calls scholarly culture from demands that university education show economic returns in acquired skills and from ideological restraint and discord. He insists on the commonplace distinction between education and vocational training. On this basis, the role of the university is the education of scholars. Training for a job belongs elsewhere. The distinction is difficult. Arguably, scholarship in a discipline like philosophy or physics is as much a vocation as law or medicine. In any event the greater part of university education has always been vocational. Universities were preparing lawyers, doctors and clergy for work in the middle ages.

The whole basis of modern government funding of universities has been the expectation of an economic return from the preparation of graduates for work. Without law, engineering, medicine, commerce, journalism, forestry and other professional schools established long before the hot button 90's the universities would be greatly reduced and exposed. Emberley bravely recommends that the professional schools should be ejected from universities and merged with community colleges to form polytechnics. He then fantasises that the professional training would be run on a full cost recovery basis involving the Income Contingent Loan Program and the resulting savings devoted to the purified universities. Rather inconsistently he says that the polytechnics should be given the financial support to acquire the lustre of an M. I. T.

But such a purification could not be complete. Much of what would be left in the faculties of arts and science is and always has been intended as job preparation. Science graduates will work in industry, economics graduates in finance, English and history graduates will teach. If they did not expect this, few students would spend the time and what money they might have to on a university education and governments would not support them.

 Perhaps the scholarly culture that Emberley seeks to defend and promote should be given generous financial support. But what exactly scholarly culture is and how and why it should be fostered and for whom would have to be clarified before this could be counted on. Emberley lards his book with high flown but obscure passages on his idea of a university:

The university is an institution formed to cultivate intellectual and spiritual passion, discerning moral judgment, imagination and the methodic discipline associated with scientific research. In its capacity to question prevailing social practices and to stimulate intellectual knowing and moral doing that transcend the immediate practicalities of the world, the university serves society by offering it a higher idea of itself and endowing it with decency and grace.

Repeatedly he argues that university education should make good citizens.

Two key words almost never occur in the book: accessibility and discipline. The quotation above is an almost unique use of the latter term. In the politics of post-secondary education accessibility has always been seen as a good thing. A secondary impetus behind the explosive growth of government funding for universities was the appeal to politicians of offering a college education to the masses, who had seen it as an upper class privilege, though universities had always been channels of social mobility. But politics has never gone so far as to aim at everyone going to university. Some selection on the basis of academic standards has always been assumed, even though standards have become highly elastic.

Any good idea of a university must entail that it is not simply impractical or unaffordable that everyone should go to university but undesirable. It must be sufficiently specific that some rough principle of selection will be implied. Emberley's ideas are so vague, his talk of making good citizens so broad, that it seems everyone should go to his ideal university. Only if scholarship is understood as a special vocation can principles of selection be developed. Emberley seems to understand and accept that only a small minority of each generation should go to university. After he had ejected the professional schools it would be less than 10% of any age group. But he cannot explain why this should be. The explanation can be found in concepts of scholarly vocation and scholarly discipline.

Emberley's idea of scholarly culture comes across as a rather juvenile adventure in ideas. He has a rosy view of the wide-eyed enthusiasm of youth, in contrast to Allan Bloom's pessimistic view of his students' complacency and ignorance. Zero Tolerance is sprinkled with the names of thinkers, or at least writers of thoughts, invoked perhaps to lend an air of authority to his arguments or to suggest the excitement of scholarly conversation. Plato cannot be too ancient or Derrida too post-modern, De Sade too transgressive or St. Thomas too orthodox, Siger of Brabant too obscure or John Ralston Saul too popular for Emberley. What is striking about these references is not the show of erudition but the lack of discrimination.

Plato was a philosopher and Derrida, to the extent he has any substance, was a philosopher too. Neither can be studied to any great purpose outside the discipline of philosophy. They cannot be understood without long hours of solitary study. The achievement of understanding, whether in writing or seminar discussion, must be rigorous argument and not an exercise in self-expression. Emberley is too fond of Oakeshott's pretty and overused image of conversation. Scholarship is serious stuff. It is not for everybody.

The contribution of scholarship to society is like that of pure science. It is indirect and unpredictable. It is no more necessary that we should all study philosophy than that we should all study cosmology. The test of scholarly vocation must be high academic standards. High enough that for the relatively small numbers who meet it full scholarships might be justifiable and affordable. The rest will have to be good citizens without being good scholars. It is for the high schools to make them such.  A scholarly culture based on scholarly vocations will survive in universities where most are pursuing other vocations. That is as it has always been.

Scholarship is best seen as a kind of by-product of practical education. While the mass of students seek to acquire useful knowledge and skills to permit them to follow a career, some will feel called to acquire a special mastery of their subjects. They will want to understand the foundations of their subjects and to go beyond what is received to new knowledge and understanding. Their mastery will qualify them to teach and to pursue research. Scholarship thereby becomes an independent vocation. But it cannot completely cut itself off from its roots in practical learning without risking Alexandrian triviality or irresponsible fantasy.

Emberley ignores intellectual issues that are perhaps more important than the political and financial issues he treats at length. He deplores the influence of post-modernism on the politics of universities but in one of his wackier passages celebrates Foucault and Derrida:

A seminar, in particular, can be intensely erotic....Every conversation is a seduction, every search for meaning is a longing for reconciliation and completion. Students love to seek the extreme:...They take naturally to the postmodernists Foucault and Derrida for their iconoclasm, for their dissolution of boundaries, for their celebration of ambiguity.

How far, it should be asked, are the minds of the thousands of students of cultural studies improved and who is there to judge whether the millions of dollars of public funds spent on this are well spent? Would we do better to spend more money on medieval philosophy and less on post-modernism? These questions cannot be answered without making serious intellectual judgements on what has value and what does not. Such judgments will be contested. But they must be made. It will not do simply to be excited by big names from Baudrillard to Bonaventure.

Academic politesse and a compulsion of the university community to band together to defend their rather agreeable jobs stifles an intellectual conflict that is necessary for the defence of scholarship. Academics are too afraid of tarnishing the prestige of universities and the possibility of philistine political interference to call into question the value of much contemporary scholarship. Students meanwhile, though they are supposed to be taught to think critically, if nothing else, are either dully impervious to their professors' attempts to indoctrinate them or all too ready to adopt the latest fashionable discourse as the assured means to academic success and a post-modern career.

Who determines what is taught in universities? Certainly the governments who largely pay the bills have little understanding of what they pay for and exercise control only at the level of gross funding. They grudgingly pay for whatever it is that people do in universities because it is a 'good thing' and because the affluent and articulate university community will kick up a fuss if they are squeezed too hard. In professional schools market forces have some influence. But as professional education is heavily subsidised, the supply of professionals often exceeds demand. Too many doctors and lawyers are being produced. Legal education, moreover, is at least one year too long, but no one would think of crossing the articulate and influential law professors, by whom and for whom the three year LL.B. course was designed.

Outside the professional schools the curricula are the incoherent product of tradition, fashion, politics, academic careerism and students' whims. The disinterested pursuit of truth, true scholarly vocation, is overwhelmed by it all. The universities' assumption of the role of centres of social criticism has politicised scholarship, compromising its quality while shielding it from criticism on the ground that criticism would be political interference. But why should governments subsidize academics some of whom are expressly out to subvert them?

If universities cannot assert and pursue academic standards based on an ideal of the disinterested pursuit of the truth, they cannot expect forever to protect themselves from the imposition of government standards. As it is, an important constituency within universities has rejected any standards of truth, seeing only discourses competing for power. And while universities raise the alarm at the prospect of political interference, they are keen to influence public policy and to act as social, sc. political, critics. Emberley himself argues for the importance of this role, descending into what is for him a rather unseemly pragmatic justification for universities. It is time for people both inside and outside universities to question the intellectual value of much that goes on in them and to reject the presumption that we can look to them for authoritative guidance on social issues. An intellectually critical attitude to universities can only be good for them. Only on that basis can they hope for financial and political security.

Emberley is a fluent, lively writer, but his book is poorly organised and repetitive. The chapter headings only partly describe their contents. The index is a bad joke. He has a weakness for rhetorical questions, which he should answer, and list rhetoric:

Amidst this battle there is misguided zeal, silly idealism, shrewd pragmatism, paralyzing cynicism and intractability....
We have an abundance of mission statements, talking-head conferences and fervent manifestos, but many of these are little more than smoke and mirrors.

He seems to have tried to put everything he ever thought about universities into his book without settling down to exact and concrete argument on anything. Where he descends to deal with facts, government financing for instance, he covers the ground too quickly before taking rhetorical flight again. Given Emberley's prominence in educational debate, it is all very disappointing.