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:
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!)