University of Toronto: fundamentalism and voodoo scholarship

A fundamentalist, literalist, absolutist theology cannot work in religion, and it cannot work in the area of academic freedom. And this notwithstanding the blind trust in a mythic absolute academic freedom on the part of University of Toronto officialdom.

The problem is that all such absolutisms can be put on paper but can never be practiced with acceptable results.

Here is a recent discussion in Times Higher Education of London. Constantine Sandis, a professor of philosophy, explained why academic freedom cannot be an absolute:

Suppose a history lecturer systematically maintains that the Second World War never happened or that the Crusades took place in 1986, and responds with coarse verbal abuse to anybody who dares to challenge her. It would be plain silly to suggest that her union and/or employer ought to protect her right to do so in the name of free speech.

But there was a counter-argument, by Alastair Fraser, a political scientist at Cambridge:

What would happen in the case you cite of the false date (why would anyone do this?) is that the students, having a range of sources and not relying, zombie-like, on their lecturers, would laugh the guy out of town. … In terms of the academy, we put our faith in core processes of collective reasoning, such as peer review. Most of us are susceptible to a combination of peer review, peer pressure and reason. Where we aren’t, putting up with the odd nut is a price worth paying to secure the possibility of disagreement and prevent any form of endorsed, official knowledge holding sway. This is the only process by which we can proceed towards knowledge.

Both Sandis and Fraser posit a hypothetical case. Fraser, to make his absolutist argument, posits that Sandis’s strange professor could only be an “odd nut,” quickly isolated by what would surely be, in Fraser’s view, self-correcting activity on the part of his colleagues. It’s easy enough to win an argument if you posit circumstances to fit your theology. But suppose, in real life, Fraser were confronted not with a single “odd nut” of a professor but rather with a sizable group of academics, all in the same department, all maintaining in their teachings and writings that the Second World War never happened, that the Crusades took place in 1986 ? And suppose further that these professors had recruited a sizable number of students, all busily producing learned theses proving either that WWII never happened and/or that the Crusades occurred in 1986 ? I would say that any such university would soon lose all credibility and would, in fact if not on paper, cease to exist as an academic institution. It would have committed the very suicide that courts have always warned would result from an absolutist view of our constitutional freedoms. It is, in fact, what is in the process of happening at the University of Toronto.

As we have seen in previous postings, the U. of T. has imprimatured at least two MA theses that maintain, and here I exaggerate only slightly, that all Jews are oppressive racists. And we have seen that these theses were not the work of single “odd nut” but rather the work of at least a preponderance of the teaching staff at the Department of Sociology and Equity in Education (SESE) at the U. of T.’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). Apparently the U. of T. officials are embarrassed in private, but they won’t let on to any discomfiture in public. In replying to critics of the SESE theses, these officials quote again and again, without further comment, the absolutist U. of T. 1992 Statement of Freedom of Speech which holds, very broadly, that there are just about no limits to freedom of expression on campus. (The only exception would be “when members of the University use speech as a direct attack that has the effect of preventing the lawful exercise of speech by members or invited guests, or interfering with the conduct of authorized University business.”) There is no mention in this Statement of any possible scholarly limits on the absolute freedom of speech at the University, and that, of course, as far as this document goes, leaves the door open to the practice of voodoo scholarship. Which is what goes on at the University of Toronto.

The problem is not academic freedom at all. The problem is that any provision for academic freedom must, to be meaningful, go beyond an abstract statement of “freedom” to a specification of how a regime of freedom can operate in an academic setting. This has been done, for example, by the Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel (UNESCO, 1997).

The UNESCO document speaks at some length for the rights of professors to conduct their teaching and research without hindrance or restriction; its call for freedom is at least as ringing as that of the U. of T. Statement. Nevertheless, UNESCO here is also careful to specify that academic freedom, to be academic, cannot be in violation of the canons of scholarship and science:

Considering that the right to education, teaching and research can only be fully enjoyed in an atmosphere of academic freedom and autonomy for institutions of higher education and that the open communication of findings, hypotheses and opinions lies at the very heart of higher education and provides the strongest guarantee of the accuracy and objectivity of scholarship and research ….

Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching.

A congruent statement has just recently been made by Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors; he may have had the U. of T. situation in mind:

Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing, and through electronic communication, both on and off campus — without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise.

Statements about academic freedom, including that by the U. of T., generally include the observation that a diversity of views is desirable and conducive to the free exercise of academic work. But as we have seen, the U. of T. practices, under flag of academic freedom, have resulted in at least one SESE department being dominated by a single political dogma, to the exclusion of all other viewpoints. Not only did the academic freedom absolutism lead to voodo scholarship, it also abolished, in at least one department, the very freedom it ostensibly protects.

Finally, a word about what formal statements can and cannot do for academic freedom.

As in the related (but not identical) area of freedom of speech, there are at least two ways in which general statements of principle can work. The first is the American way, in which there is an absolutist First Amendment which is then modified by court decisions and in actual practice so as to allow for the necessary limitations that make a free society work. The second is the Canadian way, which allows in its very Charter of Rights and Freedoms for deviations from absolutist interpretation through the “notwithstanding clause” (Section 33 of the Charter). (As a matter of fact, the Canadian Charter has been held not to be applicable to universities.) The University of Toronto, surprising for a Canadian university, has gone the American way in its verbal absolutism, but without the American practical provisions for limitation.

The upshot is this: The University of Toronto has a creeping problem of voodoo scholarship that invades its precincts. Its response so far has been: no problem, no problem ! freedom of speech ! outsiders: mind your own business ! But the fact is that there is a problem. And the public, which pays for this university, has a right to be involved. The officials need to take a close look at the voodoo in its ranks and need to take steps to restore public confidence.

Like most areas of democratic governance, an authentic regime of academic freedom needs to be responsive to the complexities and nuances and grey areas of a vibrant academic culture. And it needs to respectful of the core value of academic life: the pursuit of truth.

For a thoughtful defense and analysis of academic freedom, including its complexities, see the article by Terence Karran

Also: read the important analysis of academic freedom by Arthur Gross-Schaefer: Academic Freedom; Moving Away from the Faculty-Only Paradigm

Update 9/4/11:  yet another piece of anti-Israel propaganda, in the guise of an MA thesis, from the University of Toronto.

Mr. Hu: Tear Down the Laogai

Flash: here is what Mr. Obama did not say: “Mr. Hu, Tear Down the Laogai !” He should have said it, publicly, loudly.

What is the Laogai ?

Laogai (simplified Chinese: 劳改; traditional Chinese: 勞改; pinyin: láogǎi), the abbreviation for Láodòng Gǎizào (勞動改造/劳动改造), which means “reform through labor,” is a slogan of the Chinese criminal justice system and has been used to refer to the use of prison labor and prison farms in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is estimated that in the last 50 years more than 50 million people have been sent to laogai camps.[1]Laogai is distinguished from laojiao, or re-education through labor, which is an administrative detention for a person who is not a criminal but has committed minor offenses, and is intended to reform offenders into law-abiding citizens.[2] Persons detained under laojiao are detained in facilities which are separate from the general prison system of laogai. Both systems, however, involve penal labor. (Wikipedia)

Laogai constitutes perhaps the single worst human rights outrage on earth today. It is probably the only large-scale remnant of the Soviet system. The indispensable source of information is the Laogai Research Foundation, led by Harry Wu, a former prisoner of the system.

Peto’s Freedom of Speech

When the University of Toronto chose to accept and then publish Peto’s M.A. thesis on the internet, it thereby gave its warrant that the thesis meets scholarly standards. A number of scholars and journalists, me included, objected: the thesis, we said, cannot reasonably be held to meet any academic standards, no matter how relaxed. The response from U. of T. officials has been quite simple. In endorsing Ms. Peto’s work, they say, they have done no more than uphold freedom of speech on campus. The implication, of course, is that we, the critics, are enemies of freedom of speech, or Fascists. Well, thanks a lot.

(Statements by U. of T. officials can be found here and here. There is also a somewhat similar statement by Professor Anna Shternshis, which I have answered here.)

I must say that I found it disconcerting to see high-ranking academics play a freedom-of-speech card with so little attention to what this concept — or rather this group of concepts — involves. At the very least, it is essential to distinguish between the freedom of speech that we all enjoy as citizens, in the public sphere, and the much more limited freedoms we enjoy in our more limited roles in private spheres, say as employees, or as students and professors.

In the public sphere, these freedoms are often referred to as freedoms of expression. The basic document in the United States is the First Amendment, and in Canada the much more recent Charter of Rights. These documents have been interpreted many times by courts of each country. They guarantee broad rights to freedom of expression, and, indeed, they define the great difference between free countries on the one hand, like Canada and the United States, and dictatorships on the other. But, as interpreted by the courts, such freedoms are not without limits. “Freedom of speech,” for example, does not allow you to “falsely shout fire in a [crowded] theater” (Schenck v. US, 1919), nor to incite violence (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969). Nor, of course, are we free, in either country, to libel our neighbor, or to place fraudulent advertising. In Canada, there is also a prohibition against hate speech. Such limitations warn us that when we seek to defend any given expression under the principle of freedom of speech, we defend that which is defensible by this principle, not that which is not. We need to be aware of the limits.

In any case, none of the criticism of the U. of T. in this case has contested Peto’s right to an expression of her opinions in the public sphere. That is her democratic right, and she should exercise it in public.

When we go outside the public sphere, the legal protections of free speech are much narrower, although of course we still expect, broadly speaking, to enjoy the benefits of living in free countries. But there are other principles that come into play that may be in tension with maximum freedom of speech. For instance, an employer can expect loyalty from his employees; a Coca Cola salesman is not allowed to tell his customers that Pepsi is better. And a university must expect its teachers and students to pursue academic excellence.

In academia, as the U. of T. officials ceaselessly point out, we need what is called “academic freedom.” Scholarship could hardly exist if individual scholars were constrained to voice agreement with the theories of their superiors. Or with the political doctrines favored by politicians. Or with the conventional tastes and attitudes of the community. All this is well understood and is not contested by anyone that I know of.

But the U. of T. officials give an entirely new twist to the whole idea of academic freedom. Their argument, at least as it is presented in their statements on the Peto case, is that the principle of academic freedom overrides all considerations of scholarship; that it dictates that any thesis whatever, as long as it gets the approval of the thesis advisor(s), is protected by the principle of academic freedom. Are there limits to this idea ? Again and again I have asked them whether it’s OK to present a thesis that the moon is made of cheese, and again and again they have refused to answer. The message we get here, clearly, is that freedom is all, scholarship is nothing. At this stage, the stance of U. of T. officials can hardly be considered coherent. Do these people really believe what they say ?

Professor Shternshis has suggested that Peto’s is probably not the only thesis devoid of scholarly value that has been accepted, and that, therefore, a criticism of her work amounts to some sort of selective prosecution. I agree that the petulant hate in Peto’s writing, in addition to her lack of scholarship, has helped to bring her to public attention. And yes, I also agree, very strongly, that the Peto case is not the only one that needs public scrutiny. But if there is anything unfairly selective about the attention given to Peto, surely the remedy lies in more scrutiny of more theses rather than in just putting up with this one. (See For OISE, the Peto thesis was no aberration)

How do you figure the circumference of a circle ?

And why would you want to do that ?

In his final week as Chancellor of New York’s public schools, Mr. Joel Klein was interviewed on TV about his educational philosophy. Well, he opined, a child certainly must know how to figure the circumference of a circle.

Now I bet that Mr. Klein himself, a lawyer and educational administrator, never once had to figure the circumference of a circle after leaving high school. Perhaps he needed this knowledge for higher math in college, and perhaps not. I myself happen to remember the idea: 2πR, and of course I needed this knowledge when I studied trigonometry and calculus. So yes, I am not against teaching 2πR somewhere in high school, or, better yet, teaching how to find the formula if you happen to need it.

But compare this to mathematical ideas that everyone truly needs, and that are not taught in high school, at least not on a regular basis. Take the basic ideas of statistics, in particular the idea of sampling and the often-abused idea of “statistical significance.” These concepts are essential to all citizens because they enable a person to evaluate the (frequently false) claims made in the media about medical research, public opinion polls, and much else. (For a recent account of the misleading nature of scientific reporting — in the absence of an understanding of the basic ides of statistics — see the important article by Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker of December 13, 2010.)

Here is one more example of the mindlessness of the current crop of “educational reformers” who preach the gospel of testing, large classes, charter schools, firing of teachers, and. overall, a disregard of Dewey’s concern for “the child and the curriculum.” See my previous posting here.

Jews who hate Israel

Stella Kübler Goldschlag, who helped the
Gestapo catch Jews in Berlin

Here is an excerpt from my revised Prolegomena for the Study of Jews Who Hate Israel:

The history of our dolorous subject starts at least as early as Biblical times when, already, there were individual Jews who hated being Jews and tried to do something about it; see, for instance, Deuteronomy 13:6-11. And of course all books on Jewish history, and even Wikipedia, have lengthy disquisitions under the rubric “apostasy.” In modern history there were even a few individual Jews who, usually under great pressure, saw fit to collaborate with the Nazis in the annihilation of their fellows (see, for example, Stella by Peter Wyden, the story of a young Jewish woman who helped the Nazis catch fellow Jews in wartime Berlin).

Obviously the individual Jews who set themselves apart from their people do not all fit into one neat little category, and of course the circumstances of the unfortunate Stella Goldschlag (who had herself baptized a Christian, and later committed suicide) is very different from the “ashamed Jews” of today, as described by Howard Jacobson in his novel The Finkler Question. Nevertheless, I propose that a broad interest in the topic will have to include all such types.

OISE’s Argot

Argot (pronounced /ˈɑrɡoʊ/; French, Spanish, Romanian and Catalan for “slang“) is a secret language used by various groups—including, but not limited to, thieves and other criminals—to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations. Wikipedia

The University of Toronto’s OISE, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, is in many ways quite a world in itself. Much has been made here and elsewhere of one of its recent MA theses, the one by Jennifer Peto. But the same OISE faculty member who supervised Peto’s thesis, Sheryl Nestel, also supervised five others since 2009. All six can be downloaded from the U of T website. The authors, besides Peto, are Abdullah, Ejiogu, Noss, Riley, and Epstein. These six theses are so full of linguistic tics and mannerisms that outsiders are hard put to follow what is being said:

“Hegemonic.” All six of the theses use the term, as in

What I am critical of is that this struggle against anti-Semitism has become so enmeshed with Zionist politics that the effects of hegemonic white Jewish human rights activism are often racist and imperialist. (Peto)

“Interrogate,” used as a transitive verb with an inanimate object, used by all six writers, as in

While both concepts help in rendering the national subject intelligible, it is the character of the muscular Christian that I find particularly generative for the research questions I wish to interrogate in this paper. (Ejiogu)

“Queer,” used by five out of six, as in

As much of this project is about Jewish identity, race and madness, in writing it I might accidentally clear a discursive space for Jewish identity in critical race theory, or for queerness in mad/disability studies. (Epstein)

“Racialized,” used by all six, as in

I suggest that these western feminist constructions of sexual liberation rely on
depicting racialized women as primitive and degenerate. (Noss)

These four pieces of argot can obviously describe only a small part of the esoteric nature of OISE’s language. To OISE initiates, no doubt, this language sends some signals. But to the uninitiated, what does it all mean ? I don’t think that OISE, or the part of OISE that engages in this kind of talk, can claim to communicate with the public that pays its bills.

By their words ye shall know them

Ever since the lugubrious events recounted in Judges 12:1-15 — having to do with the pronunciation of the Hebrew word “shibboleth” — it has been understood that, at least under certain circumstance, your words will give you away.

Take the unfortunate little publication sent abroad by the University of Toronto; you know, the one with “hegemonic” in its title. In its 108 pages of text and notes, it uses the word “hegemonic” fifty-two times. Once and once only in these fifty-two instances is there an attempt at definition:

Here I am defining hegemonic Holocaust education as projects that are sponsored by the Israeli government and/or mainstream Jewish organizations. These projects also tend to have the support of Western governments and institutions.

Clear ? Not to the uninitiated who might think that “hegemonic” has something to do with the ordinary dictionary take on the word: domination over others. Now if that is what the author means to say — domination over others — why not just put it that way ? Because, in context, it can be seen (by those schooled in the politics of neo-Marxist groupuscules) that the author has something much broader in mind: a general policy of racism, imperialism, anti-“queer” crimes, and many, many other bad things besides. “Hegemony” in something like this meaning was introduced by the dissident Bolshevik Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and then became more and more of an all-purpose cuss word for latter-day Gramscists. In British Columbia, for instance, one writer who opposed the Social Credit Party found that party to be “hegemonic,” urging his readers to become “counter-hegemonic.”

“Hegemonic” is an example of what I have called the esoteric language of fringe groups. An old article of mine deals with Communist usages of the words “provocation” and “red-baiting,” usages that I found strange, illogical, and self-defeating as political arguments. Those unfortunates in Judges 12 gave themselves away as foreigners by their language. The U. of T. author here, similarly, gives herself away as a cultist, removed from the common sense.