Rex Murphy knows nothing about Canadian universities

Rex Murphy had the usual sort of paint-by-numbers column in the National Post this weekend, voicing his outrage over Brandeis University’s decision to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Nothing particularly remarkable there. The headline could have read “Tiny little American liberal arts college caves in to political correctness.” That would have been about right.

Instead, the column ran under the headline “Universities have become factories for reinforcing opinion.” Now I know headlines are not written by the same people as the columns, and so sometimes say wacky things, but Murphy goes on to make the same extraordinarily broad generalization, based on a single data point: “Universities are losing their halo. They are now factories for reinforcing received opinions, what the market holds as right and true — so-called ‘progressive’ ideas. They have a deep hostility to ideas and opinions that wander outside their small circle of acceptability.”

How does he know this? Well I guess because Allan Bloom said so, back in 1987, and this latest episode at Brandeis just confirms it.

Murphy was certainly not alone in making the big, sweeping generalization. The Jersualem Post, for instance, ran a slightly hysterical variation on the same column, under the heading “American academia bites the dust: Brandeis University’s historic mistake.” One small difference though. The Jerusalem Post thought that this episode reflected poorly on universities in the United States. It would never have occurred to them that it reflected poorly on all universities, much less Israeli ones. And yet Rex Murphy is a Canadian, writing in a Canadian newspaper. So when he chooses to criticize “universities” (rather than specifically American universities), he is presumably intending his comments to apply to both American and Canadian universities.

In making this generalization, Murphy is manifesting one of the worst habits that Canadian commentators have, namely, of treating Canada and the United States as if they were the same country. This shows up most clearly in the belief that whenever anything bad is happening in the United States, it must also be happening in Canada, and so there’s no need to actually go and check. (You can see this lazy habit very clearly among those who worry about income inequality. They consistently take statistics about American inequality and assume that the story in Canada must be more-or-less the same. This despite the fact that the trends are quite different. Why are they different? Because we are, you know, different countries.)

Canadian universities are also really different from American universities, both institutionally and culturally. And there are few better ways to illustrate the difference than to look at Brandeis and compare it to, say, the University of Toronto, where I work. The first thing you’ll notice is that Brandeis is tiny. It has only 3,500 students, compared to 83,000 at UofT. The second major difference is that it charges astronomical tuition fees – more than $46,000 per year (compared to $5,800-$12,000 at UofT). Because of those two facts, Brandeis resembles many private U.S. colleges in having what one might call a strong customer-service orientation.

To put it more plainly, Brandeis offers boutique education to the super-privileged, and it coddles them accordingly. So no wonder Brandeis is worried about “offending” people. Offend a student, you get a call from the parents. The same parents you’re milking for almost $50k per year. That’s why these same small liberal arts colleges have all but stopped failing students, or enforcing rules against plagiarism. But if one were to assume, on this basis, that all universities are doing the same thing, in Canada and the United States, you would be failing to recognize the very different incentives that these institutions face.

Most importantly, public mega-universities in Canada are pretty much completely insulated from “customer complaints.” In 18 years at UofT, I’ve never had blowback from anything I’ve said or done in class. (I have a colleague who has been known to call students “retards” in front of the whole class, when they ask dumb questions. No one has ever told him to stop.) This of course creates its own problems, but cravenness in the face of public opinion is not one of them. As a result, we are free to remain old-fashioned hard-asses about things like grading and plagiarism. UofT has barely had any grade inflation – my big intro courses have a C+ average, just like in the old days. And we routinely mete out harsh punishment for plagiarism, including expulsion.

I wonder if Murphy has ever stopped to contemplate some of the enormous differences between Canadian and American universities, and wondered what they might be a consequence of. For instance, Canadian universities do not practice affirmative action in undergraduate admissions. Why is that? Why is there not even any pressure to do so? Or consider how much Canadian universities have fawned over Irshad Manji over the years. Is it possible that criticizing Islam is somehow verboten on campus? Or consider the honorary degree that University of Toronto gave to George H.W. Bush. Was the “progressive” orthodoxy behind that as well?

The truth is that, while political correctness was once a significant force in academia, it peaked sometime in the late ’80s and has been on the wane ever since. Furthermore, it was never anywhere near as big a deal in Canada as it was in the United States – partly because Canadian universities were barely hiring during the primary years of the political correctness craze. If Murphy knew anything at all about Canadian universities, he would know this. But of course he doesn’t – which is fine, because as an outsider it’s difficult to know these things. Except that if he doesn’t really know anything, he should keep his opinions to himself.

So, in summary:

Ygritte - You know nothing Rex murphy

One last point, more of an aside: conservatives need to figure out whether the thing they hate most about left-wing intellectuals is their “moral relativism” or their “political correctness.” The problem with political correctness is that it involves people trying to impose their own narrow moral views on others, whereas moral relativism involves a refusal to do so. Thus the two tendencies are mutually exclusive. The fact that conservative commentators blend them together suggests that what they are really upset about is simply the fact that other people have moral views different from their own. (Good luck fixing that problem!)


Rex Murphy knows nothing about Canadian universities — 4 Comments

  1. There are some valid and important points here, although the broad thrust of the piece is a bit exaggerated. There’s some simplification going on in more than one direction: in the first place, although I think it’s correct that political correctness “was never anywhere near as big a deal in Canada as it was in the United States”, it would be more accurate to say “as it was in many – and especially many of the most prestigious – American universities”.

    In other words: the U.S. university system is gargantuan, and includes many more *kinds* of universities than exist in Canada, all of which have their own academic sub-cultures (liberal arts colleges, private research universities, state institutions, denominational colleges, just to name a few – and most of these can be broken down into further sub-categories). So the culture of American institutions can’t be very meaningfully spoken of in such broad strokes.

    That being said, there certainly have been more than a few sectors of Canadian universities that have been heavily influenced by the left-wing activist bent of some of the more elite U.S. universities. And that sometimes has led to comparable attempts to suppress unpopular opinions (i.e., by trying to make pro-life groups illegal on campuses). Not to mention that the general leftward tilt of universities is pretty much a global phenomenon. Whether or not it is a *problem* is a separate question, but I think that, for instance, Ross Douthat’s recent NYT editorial on the subject re: the U.S. can be fairly applied to certain sectors in Canada as well.

    But this is all nit-picking. Here’s the more important point:

    Do conservatives need to figure out whether what they hate most about left-wing intellectuals is their “moral relativism” or their “political correctness”? Well, some probably are quite confused about that, yes. But it’s more important to note that the two tendencies are not as “mutually exclusive” as the author alleges. Or, rather, in *theory* they are logically exclusive, as he says. Fair enough! But surely the author knows that theory and practice do not always perfectly align. As a result, a decent share of left-wing academics (and others) express both “moral relativism” and “political correctness”. So the real task for the conservative (who, as a conservative, is usually going to be reactive) is to figure out how that theoretically incoherent combination manages to persist and be popularized among the ostensible intellectuals of the left. Allan Bloom’s book explored exactly that contradiction, for instance. So does the aforementioned Douthat NYT editorial. You may not *like* their explanations. But they are certainly very cognizant of the problem that you purport to skewer them with.

    At the least, I would certainly question the judgment or sincerity of someone who suggests that it’s somehow a distinct feature of conservative thought to vacillate incoherently between “absolutism” and “relativism”. I’m more inclined to think that one reason that so many people (left and right) adopt that theoretically incoherent positions is that they can be so effective in practice. And that sounds like more a problem for Professors of Philosophy and Ethics than anyone else.

  2. Incidentally, it’s worth taking a look at this recent display from a prominent Canadian university:

    Of course this by no means vindicates all of Murphy’s analysis, or vitiates many of Heath’s valid points, but it does illustrate that the attempt to illustrate that attempts to forcibly shut down ideas that some left-wing interest group or other are hardly unknown to Canadian campuses. These episodes hardly define Canadian universities. But there is a problem that bears addressing.

  3. Murphy was talking about the way that faculty and administrators behave. The way that students behave is a completely separate question (and doesn’t have much bearing on the question of whether universities have become “factories for reproducing received ideas”). As far as the students go, the left and right on campus have been playing this game for over 50 years, I don’t see anything new. My only advice to the students here would be, “don’t feed the trolls” — because that’s essentially what they are doing.

    On your first comment, you’re right about the two positions often being conflated in practice. And I don’t want to deny that political correctness is out there. The charge that always rung false to me is the “moral relativism” one — it’s something that I just don’t see. I ask my U.S. colleagues and some of them say that they have lots of students who claim to be relativists, but I simply never encounter it in Canada. As far as faculty are concerned, it’s so far in the opposite direction as to be disconcerting. The trend in moral philosophy is towards moral realism, often of a highly parochial variant. I actually invited David Wong (from Duke University), one of the most sophisticated defenders of moral relativism, to give a talk at UofT, precisely because I felt that no one was taking relativism seriously enough. And I’m not even a relativist!

  4. Fair enough! As I originally wrote, I agree with most of the major points of the post. And the issue that you raise in the comment regarding relativism is a very interesting one.

    Still, I do think that it’s relevant that if we look at many conservative critics of liberal “relativism” (especially public intellectual types who exist in the margin between academia and politics/journalism: e.g., Bloom or Douthat rather than Murphy), they are at pains to emphasize that the relativism which they object to is often an incoherent and not fully thought-through or clearly-articulated mish-mash of relativist and absolutist tendencies. And I think that problem could very well cross borders – and ideological divides. (Since it’s hard for anyone to be consistently relativist or absolutist, especially in politics.)