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Joel Kotkin: ‘Decolonized’ universities dividing Canadians

Higher education goes Medieval

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For generations, education has been a primary means to make countries like Canada and the United States stronger, more productive, and self-confident. Now the education system is not only failing to perform its primary mission for young people, but increasingly works to undermine and divide nations.

The decline of effective schooling, once identified with the U.S., has spread to other countries, including places like France and Germany. In Britain, reading and math scores continue to decline steadily while almost one-fifth of the population is “functionally illiterate” .  Much the same is happening in Canada.

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Once Canada seemed distinct from the long flailing American system. When my wife moved from Montreal to Los Angeles in junior high, she felt about a year-and-a-half ahead. This might no longer be the case, as Canada’s primary school performance has declined markedly. Math, English and science scores plummeted during the pandemic, but were already falling before that; math scores have been decreasing  for two decades for 15 year olds. Rising expenditures seem to have made little difference.

Equally disturbing may be the content being taught. In Canada, as in the U.S., primary school curricula are becoming increasingly politicized. There’s a sense, derived from the universities, that Canada’s past is essentially a record of evil and that the country is itself fundamentally illegitimate, the product of colonial political oppression rather than a flawed, but ultimately successful nation. Canadian children are in danger of losing their own heritage, of being deprived access to anything bright in their history. “We are in danger of ‘mass amnesia,’  being cut off from knowledge of our own cultural history,” noted the late long-time Torontonian Jane Jacobs 20 years ago.

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The roots of this decline stem from the universities, which train school teachers and administrators, and the educational fads they proffer. We may think of schools as incubators of thought and technology, but they can also serve as  tools of autocracy, as was clear even in Medieval times. One of the first great higher education institutions, the University of Paris also served as  a staunch guardian of orthodoxy, and in the 1300s it held a conclave to affirm the reality of demons that were supposedly infecting society. The historian J. B. Bury, in 1913, described the Middle Ages as a time when “a large field was covered by beliefs which authority claimed to impose as true, and reason was warned off the ground.”

This return to a Medievalist approach has been evident for years. Orthodoxy increasingly elbows out free speech and open inquiry. Free speech has been under assault on Canadian campuses for years, notes a report from The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. Attempts to force Universities to allow for diverse, even unpopular opinions, as done last year in Alberta, have incited strong opposition from faculty, students  and educrats. One college president in Canada has even justified efforts to tamp down on “free speech” by saying it was intended to encourage “better speech” and to protect “the humanity of students, faculty and staff.”

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The impact on university curricula is already evident. Schools like Concordia are already implementing programs to both “decolonize” and “indigenize” their programs, in place of more classical approaches. This rethinking is likely to get worse in coming years. In Canada nearly one in four social science staff, according to one recent report, consider themselves “far left”; overall three quarters identify as at least liberal. Only seven per cent voted for the Tories in 2019.

The leftward tilt is particularly strong among Ph.D students, who will be the teachers of the next generation of university students. These views have consequences: already half of Canadian social science and humanities teachers believe in “diversity quotas” for reading lists, while two-thirds of faculty under 40 support “decolonization” as a primary task for education compared to 44 per cent of those over 40.

The current wave of ideological conformity also has more recent antecedents. As historian Frederick Spotts has observed, and as Niall Ferguson has documented more recently, universities served as a “stronghold” of the Nazi  regime. In Russia, which had a far lower percentage of literate people than Germany, the expansion of education, both at the secondary but also the university levels, was designed to create “the new Soviet man.” Even science was cancelled if it violated comrade Stalin’s world view — something most famously seen in genetics.

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This emphasis on indoctrination on a mass scale was more recently seen in Mao’s China, where the largest focus lay in shaping “young minds.” During the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966, Mao unleashed the indoctrinated young against the last vestiges of liberal thought, and often their own teachers, as well as China’s vast  traditional culture. This mixing of politics and education resulted in the proliferation of mindless, often vicious mayhem, and a desire to cancel all discordant  thoughts.

As of now, colleges in the U.S. and Canada are not quite home to militant Red Guards, but they are sending their ideologically conformist graduates to staff our bureaucracies, run our companies and worst of all, teach our school children. Universities are increasingly not churning out skilled, impartial experts but people, even in the sciences, whose work is increasingly judged by its political correctness. Even Chinese students, and their families, long drawn to Canada’s universities, are beginning to realize that an increasingly woke education may not be worth the cost.

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These trends threaten the trajectory of all liberal democracies, including Canada. Rather than engines of class mobility, graduates of elite universities have become in Daniel Bell’s phrase, “an enclaved class” who seek to impose their worldview on society, and particularly the young. France’s Christophe Guilluy sees them as a “privileged stratum” of people who gain from globalization, or at least are not harmed by it, and  operate from an assumption of “moral superiority” that justifies their privilege.

Similarly, Canada faces the tyranny of its own “Laurentian elite,” which seems eager to shape the next generation for what they perceive as higher purposes. These agendas are pursued  even if it requires trampling historic rights as evidenced by such things as the ill treatment of the truck drivers protests or continued attempts to control social media. After all, these decisions are made by “credentialed” experts who, as their university degrees suggest, always profess to know better.

Reversing  these trends in both universities and secondary schools will require greater diligence from citizens as well as their elected leaders. Like their counterparts south of the border, Canadians  need to be feisty towards the educrats, particularly on such issues of political indoctrination and the notion parents should not be informed if their children identify with a different sex. If the current educational establishment gets its way,  Canada, like other western countries, will continue to see its culture unravel on the way to inevitable decline. This should be seen as intolerable not only for parents, but for the entire nation.

 Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His last book was The Coming of New Feudalism (Encounter).

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