All posts filed under: Education

The Permanence of Segregation

[It] is sentimental and romantic to assume that any education or any example will ever completely destroy the inclination of human nature to seek special advantages at the expense of, or in indifference to, the needs and interests of others. ~Reinhold Niebuhr Spatial geographers and demographers tell us that segregation occurs whenever the proportions of two or more populations are not homogenous throughout a defined space. Plant and animal species are therefore usually—but not always—segregated; people, too, in societies throughout the world, are usually—but not always—segregated according to language, cultural difference, religion, nationality, educational background, political allegiance, and socioeconomic status. To be sure, none of this means that demographic patterns are fixed. Empirical evidence shows,1 for example, that American suburbs are more diverse than ever; recent evidence from England and Wales, too, suggests that ethnic mixing in neighborhoods and schools is increasing rather than decreasing.2 Rates of mixed marriages and cross-cultural exchanges, too, have everywhere increased. Yet one can acknowledge these demographic developments and still plainly observe that spatial configurations of segregation are everywhere recognizable; …

Can You Teach Children to be Anti-Racist?

In 1935, Richard Clarke Cabot, a professor of clinical medicine and social ethics at Harvard University, began one of the first randomized controlled experiments in the field of social science. In Cabot’s ambitious study, 650 underprivileged boys from Cambridge Massachusetts and the neighboring suburb of Somerville were selected into either a treatment or control group. The treatment group received counselling and a wide-ranging program delivered by these counsellors that included home visits, tutoring, and a variety of field trips and activities. The control group boys received none of these special services. Follow-up studies in the subsequent two decades found pretty much no effect from the program. A later analysis in the 1970s by Professor Joan McCord found that the boys involved in the program did worse on a number of key outcomes than boys in the control group. For instance, they were more likely to be alcoholic, dissatisfied at work and to commit more than one crime. This seems baffling. Surely, the counsellors had the best of intentions. How could a program of this kind …

How Will Decolonizing the Curriculum Help the Poor and Dispossessed?

On February 8th, 2021, the Students of Color Liberation Front at the University of Michigan made a series of anti-racist demands, including a call to “Decolonize the University of Michigan’s pedagogies and campus broadly.” This is a recent manifestation of the “decolonize the university” movement, which has been making similar demands over the past few years at most Western academic institutions. The movement has called for universities to decolonize curricula and math, to privilege “other ways of knowing,” and to #DisruptTexts from the Western canon, among other demands. The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) campaign explains that decolonization aims to “remedy the highly selective narrative of traditional academia—which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge—by integrating subjugated and local epistemologies” thereby creating “a more intellectually rigorous, complete academy.” Demands for decolonized epistemology stem from legitimate grievances about colonial era atrocities. Some activists propose helpful suggestions for improving access to higher education for students in the global South, especially in STEM fields. For example, in Decolonise the University (2018), Pat Lockley promotes open …

Georgetown’s Cultural Revolution

Sandra Sellers, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Law Center, was forced to resign because she was caught on video saying to her colleague and co-teacher David Batson: “I hate to say this… I ended up having this, you know, angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are blacks. Happens almost every semester. And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on!’ You know? Got some really good ones but there’s usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy. Of course there are the good ones… but come on…” Batson appeared in the video nodding embarrassedly. The video was a class recording which is only accessible to students in the class and is password protected. The conversation took place after students had logged out and the professors, unaware that the recording of the class ran for 10 minutes after the end of class time, thought they were having a private conversation. A student (not enrolled in the class) posted the video on Twitter and it instantly got thousands of retweets. …

Diversity, Inclusion, and Academic Freedom: The Case of Gender Biology

Our university recently circulated an email message, the contents of which I found somewhat strange. Or rather, I might have found it strange had I spent the past decade or two in a coma. The message was a carefully worded reflection on how academic freedom can be reconciled with the university’s updated and strengthened policies of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Although it strategically avoided specifics, one might justifiably infer that academic freedom presents some kind of threat to DEI. As I understand it, academic freedom means that what we publish and what we teach need only be judged for relevance and for support by the evidence base. In addition, it now appears that research must be compatible with institutional priorities. Less clear is where exactly these two guiding principles are expected to clash. In an attempt to understand this, I will reflect on a recent experience that may shed some light here. I am a paediatric endocrinologist, with teaching duties in the Department of Paediatrics (cross-appointment in Human Genetics), at McGill University in Montréal. …

Weaponizing Social Justice to Protect School Administrators and Discredit Whistle-blowers: A Canadian Case Study

On March 6th, I published a Quillette article describing how Robyn Bourgeois, the newly installed vice-provost for Indigenous engagement at Canada’s Brock University, had been seeking to mobilize her peers against the anonymous operator of an obscure (and by then, defunct) Twitter account called @BrockCivis. On her social-media channels and at the university’s “Two Row Council” (a body tasked with managing Brock’s efforts at “Indigenization, reconciliation, and decolonization”), Bourgeois accused the account of operating a racist and “criminal” program of “cyber harassment” that targeted her in particular, and Indigenous people more generally. No one at Brock would feel “safe,” she said, in a world where @BrockCivis is still “allowed to dehumanize the highest-ranking Indigenous person at Brock” (by which she meant herself). At a February 22nd Council meeting, a recording of which was subsequently made available to me, school officials brainstormed with Bourgeois about how they might investigate the nefarious account. The contents of @BrockCivis, one participant suggested, were a threat not just to Brock, but to Indigenous people all over Canada. Later in the …

Culture, the Humanities, and the Collapse of the Grand Narratives

Since the late 1950s, scholars and critics have proclaimed the decline and fall of the liberal arts. The crisis in the humanities is, as Geoffrey Galt Harpham argued in the Humanities and the Dream of America, no longer an affliction but a way of life. It is simply hard to imagine the humanities not being in a crisis. Perhaps we cling to this notion because a crisis is, at least, something we can overcome. If we discuss the death of the humanities, all hope is lost. To really understand what has happened to the humanities we need to analyse the state of Western culture as a whole rather than treating this crisis as an isolated phenomenon in academia. A quick look at the current debate indicates that there are two types of argument in circulation regarding this matter. The first deals with external factors, and focuses primarily on socio-economic changes, while the second deals with changes from within the humanities and the transformation of the academic landscape in the past 50 years. The socio-economic arguments …

Britain’s Academic Free Speech Bill

The British Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, recently set out proposals to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England. These include: appointing an Academic Freedom Champion with a remit to champion free speech and investigate alleged breaches thereof; stipulating that universities will have to “actively promote” freedom of speech on campus; and introducing a tort that will allow individuals to seek redress for breaches of their rights to free speech and academic freedom. The announcement sparked a lively debate in the British press and on social media, with some commentators welcoming the proposed changes, and others arguing that they are unnecessary and/or actively harmful. As I see it, this debate can be broken down into two key questions. Are free speech and academic freedom under threat at English universities? And if so, are the new proposals worth supporting? In this essay, I will argue that the answer to the first question is an unequivocal “yes,” and the answer to the second question is a qualified “yes.” Before proceeding: what is meant by “free …

The Threat to Academic Freedom: From Anecdotes to Data

Academia has become a closed system, a moral community defined by a set of sacred progressive values. The surge of no-platformings which took off in America in 2015 and hit Britain in 2018–19, or the fivefold jump in the rate of cancelling American academics which took place in 2019, present merely the tip of an iceberg of self-censorship and conformity. In this essay, I present extensive new survey data on the scale of the problem in the US, Canada, and Britain from my new report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology entitled “Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship.” This leads, at the end, into a discussion of policy solutions, where I argue that only government intervention can break the spiral of conformity gripping the contemporary university. The British government’s recent policy white paper on academic freedom, which adopted most of the recommendations of my previous co-authored report, “Academic Freedom in the UK,” is a blueprint that other jurisdictions are invited to follow. My current report represents an expansion …

How a Single Anonymous Twitter Account Caused an ‘Indigenized’ Canadian University to Unravel

In a recently published Quillette article, Political Science professor Frances Widdowson described the difficulties that Canadian university administrators face when they seek to “Indigenize” their schools. Everyone in academia seems to agree that Indigenization is an urgent task, but the particulars are typically ill-defined. As Widdowson reports in a newly published book, these efforts at Indigenization (sometimes referred to as “decolonization”) comprise a combination of symbolic gestures, ramped-up affirmative-action programs, mandatory anti-racism courses, and demands that Indigenous folklore be accorded epistemological stature on par with science. At Concordia University in Montreal, for instance, a dozen researchers are collaborating on a project called “Decolonizing Light,” whose aim is to “investigate the reproduction of colonialism in and through physics and higher physics education.” Our scientific understanding of light as constituting electromagnetic radiation perceptible to the human eye, these scholars explain, is the historical product of “a white male dominated field [i.e. physics] disconnected from social life and geopolitical history. [Its] narrative both constitutes and reproduces inequality.” Widdowson (who isn’t Indigenous) has been criticized for casting doubt on …