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College Quarterly
Fall 2013 - Volume 16 Number 4
The Necessity of Criticism
By Howard A. Doughty

In 1959, I was threatened with expulsion from high school for helping to organize a chapter of the Canadian Student Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. It was my first exposure to the issue of “academic freedom,” though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. It was also my first encounter with the fact that educational institutions are politically contested turf, though I didn’t fully grasp that concept either. The experience might also have alerted me to the patterns of power that thread through our society from top to bottom, but it took outgoing American president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Farewell Address” to the citizens of the United States and his far-famed reference to “the military-industrial complex” to get me thinking more broadly and more clearly.

I owe not only my political awakening to General Eisenhower, but also my education and my career. Thanks largely to a small device named Sputnik that the Russians had flung into an elliptical low-Earth orbit in the autumn of 1957 and thanks especially to a fair amount of anti-communist hysteria, North America suddenly discovered the importance of education. Growth had taken place before, especially to accommodate American soldiers following World War II, but fear of Soviet domination of extraterrestrial space led to massive expenditures to enlarge and transform existing colleges and universities, not to mention the Interstate Highway System originally designed to facilitate military movements in the event of a Soviet invasion, not an invasion of affluent Canadian “snowbirds” bound for the beaches of sunny Florida.

Of course, cold war jitters were not alone in prompting educational escalation. The extraordinary investment was also tied to a vague awareness that the industrial revolution was about to give way to a new technological era. No longer would a primary school education be enough for manual labour nor would a high school diploma be sufficient for most mental labour. I was one of the millions of beneficiaries.

The grand expansion of educational opportunities allowed me to do what no one in my family had done before—advance beyond high school. Thus was I saved from a life on a loading dock, selling shoes or driving a dump truck. I will be forever grateful.

Not only did I complete an undergraduate program as a member of York University’s first-ever graduating class, but I also managed three additional degrees thanks to an inflation in graduate schools both in Canada and the United States. Then, on 1 August, 1969, I was offered a place on the faculty of Seneca College where I have been dispensing whatever wisdom I possess for over forty-four years.

Thanks to Premier William G. Davis, the Ontario college system was established in 1965 and was mandated not only to teach vocational programs, but also to ensure that each and every student had between 30% and 50% of their studies in the liberal arts. The mission was plain: we were to prepare people for the workplace and for personal development and civic life. John Stuart Mill would have approved. For better or worse, I still admire that mission.

I will not rehearse the “permanent crisis” in postsecondary education that I have witnessed for over five decades. It’s enough to say that my early exposure to education as contested terrain was relentlessly reinforced. In graduate school in the USA, it took the form of differences over hostilities in Vietnam and, shortly after the Tet Offensive, I faced the threat of jail over, once again, a related question of academic freedom (Cahill, 2004). Back in Canada, struggles over vocationalism and the assault on liberal arts education continued, while immanent battles over academic freedom in the colleges remain to be fought (Doughty, 2010).

Sometimes things got ugly, but sometimes there were temporary accords during which we could get on with the job of teaching. Now, however, new disputes over technologically enhanced education are being framed. And, as Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick (2013, 21 September) so elegantly put it: “[the provincial government] is quietly working on another project, bringing MOOCs—massive open online courses to Ontario, which is the grenade in the classroom. They haven’t pulled the pin yet. They will.”

All of this testifies to two basic truths. Firstly, constant upheaval in the organization, curriculum and the rationale for colleges has been the chief characteristic of college administrations throughout their existence. Secondly, that turmoil has taken on the character of controversy and occasionally open conflict.

My point? The corporate culture that increasingly dominates education and most other aspects of our society regards open disagreement over philosophies, policies and practices as obstacles to what it calls “progress” and the achievement of proper corporate goals. It disdains political disruption. It wishes to suppress or at least marginalize dissent. The power structure is firmly in place and open discussion, much less dissidence, is unwelcome. It disseminates an ideology from which I respectfully demur.

Aristotle called our species zoon politikon—“political animals.” For Aristotle, politics was our most ennobling vocation. To avoid the political was to denature ourselves. I completely agree.

In recent years, that most excellent scholar and practitioner of critical pedagogy, Henry A. Giroux (2012, 17 December), has said as often as people are willing to listen that “teaching is a moral and political project.” It is moral insofar as it aims (or should aim) to help students distinguish between right and wrong; it is political insofar as it aims (or should aim) to help students act to enhance the good and to diminish the evil. Since we do not live (yet) in a totalitarian state, it is therefore required of us to infuse our classrooms with moral and political teaching. This, incidentally, applies to instructors of accountancy and zoology as much as to philosophy, sociology and the like.

In the twenty years that I’ve circled in and out of The College Quarterly, I’ve published five editorials, twenty-two articles, fourteen review essays and two hundred and fifteen book reviews. From the initial prototype and the first issue of the first volume to this most recent edition, I’ve tried to keep the flame alive. Though I recognize that a few others have sought to extinguish or at least to contain it, I couldn’t be happier.

There is plenty of space in CQ for technical papers and research articles that purport to be objective and disinterested works. They are not, of course, for every bit of writing contains within it embedded human interests that at least implicitly give expression to particular norms, values and attempts at mastery of both human and non-human nature (Habermas, 1971). Nevertheless, there must also be ample room for explicit and vigorous debate. It has been (mostly) a pleasure to have been invited and permitted to raise an occasional red flag, to offer criticisms and to carry the often unwanted message that the future is not preordained. Things, I have tried to say, might be otherwise and it is our task to assess current realities, anticipate future trends and subject them all to rigorous analysis and unrelenting interrogation. Freedom and democracy, while difficult to attain and maintain, are essential to the educational project and to submit prematurely to authoritarian processes is to betray our lives as educators. As my great friend Frank Eastham (1944-1998) told a group of faculty members who had been well and truly intimidated by a senior college official back in 1970: “Surely there must be a strategy more ennobling than a preemptive cringe.”

The College Quarterly has supported this critical spirit and, as such, has helped promote the notion that our institutions should be “colleges” worthy of the name. I am, once again, grateful.

References:

Cahill, R. S. 2004. On how knowingly to condone an illegal act. The College Quarterly 7(3).

Doughty, H. A. 2010. Academic freedom revisited. The College Quarterly 13(1).

Giroux, H. A. 2012, 17 December. The war against teachers as public intellectuals in dark times. Retrieved 9 May, 2013 from http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/13367-the -corporate-war-against-teachers-as-public-intellectuals-in-dark-times.

Mallick, H. 2013, 21 September. Ontario’s quiet little suggestion of (gasp) elitism. Toronto Star, p. A4.


Howard A. Doughty was the editor of The College Quarterly from 1993 to 1997 and has been Book Review Editor of CQ since 2003. He served as the Editor of Bridges: Explorations in Science, Technology and Society from 1986 to 1991 and has been Book Review Editor of The Innovation Journal (www.innovation.cc) since 1998. He has taught at Seneca College since 1969 as well as at the University of Hawai’i, York University and in the College of International Studies and the MA program in Diplomacy and Military Studies at Hawai’i Pacific University in Honolulu.