16

Universities can’t save the world

Memo to activists: unis are for teaching, not preaching


 

Student politics got slightly less ugly last week as the Capilano Students’ Union (at Capilano College University in North Vancouver) reversed a policy denying club funding for anti-abortion groups.

Of course, the CSU didn’t change its mind out of some newfound commitment to free discussion on campus. Nope, the Heartbeat Club, the group that was initially denied status, took the union to the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal on the grounds that the ban violated their religious rights. The CSU tried to have the complaint dismissed, but those efforts were denied.

Considerable controversy has been created regarding the status of anti-abortion campus groups, with student unions denying them status at a number of universities, most recently at Lakehead, where the student union has prevented them from not only being recognized but from handing out pamphlets and starting “unsolicited conversations.”

We are told that allowing such groups on campus creates a hostile environment for women, as if all women are of a unified opinion on the issue. The capacity to cause offence is inherent to a politicized space, and insofar as student space is politicized, people will be exposed to ideas and points of view that will offend them.

But it is not only that women might be offended by the presence of anti-abortion groups on university campuses, but that the presence of such groups, according to the CSU’s website, threatens to deprive, in some way, a woman’s right of “having control” over her body. In other words, free expression is to be subordinated to the fear that some people might actually be persuaded to change their minds.

Similarly, the justification for shutting down a campus debate about the morality of abortion at York University was that the issue had been settled because the Supreme Court said so. We can only hope that student union officials such as these never become elected members of government, where they may be encouraged to promote legislation outlawing interest groups that don’t fit their narrow conception of the world.

Denying club status for anti-abortion groups might seem to some (such as myself) as bereft of any rational justification, but it is indicative of a fundamental misconception of what universities do.

Universities have come to be seen by many a student activist not as a place of inquiry, but as a place where students are to be imbued with the tenets of social responsibility and taught to promote a better world, a place where politics are viewed not as a competition of ideas but as a war of ideologies, and a place to train ideal citizens by inculcating in them a comprehensive worldview.

A competing claim is that because universities should be places of inquiry, students should come away not with a comprehensive understanding of the world, but with developed intellects suitable for critical thought, and thereby for engagement in an advanced democracy. The mission in this case is not to train ideal citizens, but better citizens, and restrictions imposed upon campus debate must be seen as anathema to this conception.

Though the idea of a university as a place for students to learn to engage in a democracy appears to be more palatable than the universalizing mission conceived by those who believe they are promoting a better world when preventing certain groups to operate in student union controlled space, both views are equally misleading, if not outright spurious.

They are misleading for a number of reasons, but two in particular. The first is that they attach too much importance to what are, in reality, extracurricular activities. What the Heartbeat Club and other groups like it seek is not so much the right to express themselves; they aim to be recognized as a legitimate venue or means for participating in student life.

The second reason why viewing the university as a way to promote politics (democratic or idealist) is misleading, is that no matter what a university mission statement says, and no matter what delusions many professors with a romanticized memory of the 1960s have, all that we can expect to gain from a university education is to learn something.

The study of politics, history and society, is just that, the study of something, and is not about learning to be political or learning to be socially conscious, whatever that may mean. Those are character traits that may be arrived at through personal experience, conscious self-construction, or accidental diligence.

And, no doubt, some students will leave university as more engaged citizens, or having developed a comprehensive worldview. However, these outcomes are a byproduct of learning and inquiry, not their chief purposes. At best, these outcomes are a way for universities to justify their existence to the world; at worst, they entail the subordination and manipulation of the true mission of the university as a place for teaching and learning for its own sake, not as a means to something else.

Those who come to the Ivory Tower looking for something more “meaningful” than to become conversant in a defined field of study, will invariably be disappointed. Alternatively, they may come to view their extracurricular activities as the defining experience not only of their education, but of education in general, and not simply as a way to enrich campus life when outside the bounds of the classroom.


 
Filed under:

Universities can’t save the world

  1. “And, no doubt, some students will leave university as more engaged citizens, or having developed a comprehensive worldview. However, these outcomes are a byproduct of learning and inquiry, not their chief purposes. At best, these outcomes are a way for universities to justify their existence to the world; at worst, they entail the subordination and manipulation of the true mission of the university as a place for teaching and learning for its own sake, not as a means to something else.”

    This paragraph, and maybe your whole post, seem to suggest that “learning for its own sake” (whatever you meant about it) is, in your opinion, morally higher than learning for a certain purpose. In fact, I can bet there is no student who learns 100% “for its own sake” (i.e. without thinking of putting that knowledge to use).

    Now, what are the possible purposes of education (including both curricular and extracurricular)? Let’s name a few:
    – Academic: Learn to eventually contribute to creating more knowledge.
    – Professional: Learn to get a certain work opportunity.
    – “Democratic”: Learn to be a competent citizen when participating in collective decisions.

    etc.

    I would not attempt, at this point, to argue some of these goals are morally higher than others, as this would be as futile as your article. I think it would be more reasonable for universities to recognize the diversity of goals among the student population and aim to equilibrate these different goals in their course and service offerings.

  2. I never said that learning for its own sake is morally higher than learning for a purpose. But, the advancement of knowledge is what universities do, and though we may attach value to the byproducts of higher education, that doesn’t mean that is what universities are for.

  3. Oh, I would just add that the public university has a double accountability, one to the student and one to society in general.

    For example, some see evaluations as a service to society in general (the university “certifies” competency in individuals for certain functions as doctors, engineers, etc.) Of course, if we would be learning for its own sake (or for other personal interests), evaluation might not be necessary. This is one example where you have to equilibrate academic quality and other goals of the university.

  4. I generally agree with the thrust of your article, Carson, and I’ve also found that student activists sometimes cause both themselves and others an awful lot of problems and stress by over-emphasizing the world-changing role of universities. However, I’ll take issue with you on two points.

    First, and most critically, you seem to think that by proving that university is not the most appropriate place to promote social change that you’ve also proved university is not an appropriate place to promote social change. The difference is subtle but important. I know some students proceed as though university is the center of the world and must lead every movement. I agree they are wrong. There is, however, a very compelling argument (and one I agree with) that says you should always promote positive change no matter where you are. On that basis, students are entirely justified in promoting social change within their institutions not because it’s the one and only place to do that, but rather because it’s simply where they happen to be. I don’t believe you’ve even engaged with this motive in your article, which in my opinion forms the greater part of all student activism.

    Second, and more generally, I disagree that extra-curricular activities must remain subordinate to academic work, as the more significant experience in learning. The notion that all the psychology majors in school today go off to “do” psychology in the workforce (as one example) is simply laughable. We all know that. People find their eventual vocations in any number of indirect ways, and many of them happen in the context of activities that must be termed extra-curricular. That doesn’t mean activism, necessarily. It could mean many things. But it’s no less valid, for all that it’s non-academic.

  5. I guess my only comment is, since when did anyone need a university-sanctioned “club” to be politically active and engaged? There’s nothing to stop any group of people who happen to attend the same university from finding each other and engaging in whatever form of activism they wish.

    If the university doesn’t want to fund them (and, I can think of a lot of “clubs” that could be proposed to a university that they might not wish to fund) then surely there are larger community, provincial or national organizations supporting the same cause who might be able to provide financial support or other resources (such as pamphlets or speakers) to promote their activities.

    Doesn’t this whole debate over official club status imply that it’s somehow up to the the university to determine which actions are or aren’t legitimate? Why give the institution that power? Why define your own legitimacy based on school designation? Does official designation make the group’s actions any more meaningful, relevant or important? Are they unable to meet, discuss, learn and teach if they are not an official club? Or, do people find themselves just not that “into” the cause if they have to pay for their own poster paper?

    Part of the university experience is about developing one’s own independence. I would respect these groups if they believed so much in their actions that they formed their *own* group and spend their time actually furthering their cause. Instead, this mentality confers upon the university some sort of special powers to legitimize actions that a public educational institution seriously shouldn’t be given.

  6. Pingback: Can it really be called “activism” if you seek the university’s permission to do it?

  7. I understand Sarah’s position, but I think I could correct her on a couple points. First, the issue isn’t recognition by the university itself. It’s recognition by the students’ union. I know it can seem like there’s little enough difference, but I think Carson’s point isn’t about (certainly isn’t only about) the attitudes exhibited by students seeking to organize in their club, but also by the students sitting on the board of the union that sought to deny them.

    Second, being an official “club” does confer important advantages and benefits. The ability to participate in a clubs’ fair, for example. Funding, which Carson mentioned. The right to book rooms on campus for meetings, which is perhaps the most critical for many groups seeking to organize. I entirely agree that one’s entire identity shouldn’t be dependent on official extension of these benefits, but they are significant benefits nonetheless.

    Coming from a union environment, I understand why “official” status as a club is meaningful. We don’t have the resources to give funding, allocate rooms, or even allow space at an annual clubs’ fair for every individual who might ask for it. Therefore, there’s a process to get recognized. Using that process as a means to silence groups you dislike is a dangerous game. Yet as Sarah justly points out, as soon as you get into it you are unavoidably into it. No one wants the White Supremacist Club on campus. So judgment is unavoidable. But beyond what’s already in the university’s code of conduct (or similar) I don’t think a union should go around denying recognition and resources to groups that are otherwise allowable.

    Again, I know it can seem like a funny line, that a students’ union has this kind of power at all. But as soon as you have a room to book or a dollar to allocate, you start to need rules about how you book it and how you allocate it. I fully respect and understand why the anti-abortion group, seeking to organize, would make an issue of that. Where any amount of power exists, it’s valid and oftentimes important to ensure it’s used responsibly.

  8. “I never said that learning for its own sake is morally higher than learning for a purpose. But, the advancement of knowledge is what universities do, and though we may attach value to the byproducts of higher education, that doesn’t mean that is what universities are for.”

    I understood that this is what you meant, but in my opinion this is a moral (or political, which is similar) judgement on the purpose of the university.

    Also, I feel this might be a naive and irrational position to hold. If you have a look at what the university ACTUALLY does, you see that a series of political/economical/social influences contribute to determine the teaching and research program of universities. Knowledge is always researched/produced with certain motivations in mind.

    Jeff brings an interesting point:
    “On that basis, students are entirely justified in promoting social change within their institutions not because it’s the one and only place to do that, but rather because it’s simply where they happen to be.”

    I agree with Jeff and I would add that I don’t see why people have to be activists (or more generally, simply be concerned citizens) on weekends and evenings. This applies as well to salaried professionals, to students, etc. If you spend most of your waking hours in your workplace/university, this is why you should be creating social change first. A local injustice is an injustice, and people learn more from local events than distant events. You have way more influence on your immediate environment than on global politics.

  9. I would note that the separation of powers between the students’ union and university depends from place to place. At the University of Ottawa for example, being a club recognized by the students’ union gives you guaranteed room/infotable bookings, space to post in one building (UCentre), and possibilities of funding. The university however can also provide funding, and it has to approve posting outside the UCentre, as well as any other material being distributed on campus.

    I think one way to get around the room booking problem would be for universities to allow any student to book a room at no cost, just as they allow any professor to book a room at no cost. After all we all pay for these rooms through tuition.

    For approving posters and leaflets, it is important that the university and students’ union have clear guidelines which allow freedom of expression to the extent permitted Canadian law. (I have presented a motion to that effect at both our local AGM and at the CFS-Ontario AGM last year, both were adopted)

  10. Sounds like they have a bunch of Stalinists operating over at York U. I don’t know what’s worse – idiot anti-choicers or idiot censors. The real world must be smacking its lips in anticipation of their appearance in it. Look for one the these wing-nuts to be running the CFS in a couple of years.

  11. Pingback: More Coverage on York Federation of Students’ “activism” « UofT Students for Life

  12. Being political at a University is about criticizing your professors and also about engaging them. The students who have earned your label of ‘Activist’ don’t actually do a helluvalot that is dangerously political. I must comment also, that your contrasts about what a University should or should not be, don’t say very much.

  13. The reason why this is such a big issue is that without this club status a club is not allowed to have a speaker, have meetings, book a room, do a demonstration, get funds or anything. Funds is teh least of the issue but in essence by not having club status you have no rights as a group to do activities on campus which is in essence an indirect silencing.

    These student unions are saying that they do not want the message on campus. As such that is why they are trying to ban Pro-Life clubs because they are scared that people are actually standing up to them and what they believe in. I really hope that society stands up and says no to this before they start going on to silence something else.

  14. To answer Deepthinker I would suggest that the right to use space or demonstrate, etc. should be granted to all students, club status or not.

    Then the student union (or university, for that matter) can choose or not to sponsor a particular event. If they choose not to, the pro-life group can get funding from an outside organization, which should not be difficult.

    This is a compromise to give the student union the choice to spend or not student levy funds, while not barring access to space or limiting speech.

  15. actually, it’s not a compromise. it’s upholding two different freedoms at the same time. sorry for the miswording (I can’t edit my own post).

  16. Unfortunately what happens when unsanctoned clubs use University facilities, they do so at risk of expulsion. This happened at U of C when the Pro-life club tried to demonstrate and were told by administration they could only do so from an off campus venue, ie across the street from the university. Serveral othe Universities have emgaged in similar sanctions. I am not an expert but the issue should not be the freedom of the clubs to exist. It should be the imposition of being black listed by student unions elected to represent all students.

Sign in to comment.