Hot Button Academic Politics

First published in the Toronto Star (24 September 1996). On the same day I received an email message from Professor Emberley: “Thank you for your mud-slinging, ideological squib on my book in the Toronto Star. You are obviously so mesmerized by the Zeitgeist that you cannot even see what's at stake in the university debate. Where there could have been an opportunity for us to have an interesting discussion, you evidently have dismissed me as 'intensely conservative' and 'ignorant.' Well, I suppose that's why the public thinks so poorly of academe—warring over turf, while ignoring the true needs of the students. I was utterly appalled.”


Review of Peter C. Emberley, Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities (Toronto: Penguin, 1996)


It might seem hard to imagine a better guide to the embattled terrain of Canadian higher education than Peter C. Emberley, a product of three distinguished institutions of higher learning, the director of Carleton University's new College of the Humanities, and author now of three books on what he calls “hot button” issues affecting Canadian universities.

Emberley's diagnosis in Zero Tolerance is direct and simple. Canadian higher education has been politicized by the corporate right and the “cultural left,” and “the plainly evident collapse of the university” is the result of “turf wars” and “a fierce jockeying for power and control” between groups that neither know nor love the university, but “are pursuing their own political agendas.”

This diagnosis is elaborated in nine wide-ranging and often exhaustively researched chapters. A tenth and final chapter restates Emberley's positions on key issues including tenure, public accountability, the relation between teaching and research, tuition fees, inclusivity, core curricula and academic freedom.

Zero Tolerance is valuable for the information it brings together on many of the issues currently under debate in and around Canada's universities and colleges. However, Emberley's assessments of the material he has assembled are often oddly inconsistent—most commonly at points where his posture of judicious neutrality breaks down in the face of a desire to advance his own intensely conservative cultural politics.

Thus Emberley correctly identifies recent steep increases in tuition fees, along with income-contingent loan repayment schemes, as a privatizing of public debt, and as a transfer of that debt from the baby-boomers who benefited from generous social and educational policies to a younger generation which is being denied the benefit of inexpensive access to higher education. However, he prefers to interpret these developments as “a form of moral education” which will teach this generation of students that “there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.” (Clichés of this sort, notably that weary equation of university study with “an odyssey,” resound through the book.)

Emberley's pose as a defender of the culture of humane scholarship is more directly self-contradictory. He denounces terms like “discourse,” “marginalization,” and “inclusivity” as “pseudo-intellectual jargon.” He heaps scorn on those who protest against cuts of 25 percent in university library acquisitions, since “about that proportion of library holdings is 'research' that has done little more than pad faculty résumés.” (One wonders, in passing, what proportion of his own writings Emberley would dismiss as “padding.”) He is no less contemptuous of faculty who feel threatened by “the bogeyman of the corporate world.” In his view, “It is only because teaching and research have been gutted of most of their meaning that the issues of the relevance of what faculty do have become so volatile.”

After this, Emberley's suggestion that “the major culprit” in his story is “the cultural left's identity politics” comes as no surprise. Some readers may accept his definition of postmodernism as “an intellectual tool currently being used in various social sectors to rewrite history and to re-engineer the evident experiences of living.” Many, however, will be shocked to find that his prime example of a “postmodern” rewriting of history is the United Church's recent apology to First Nations people for the suffering it inflicted on them through such “Eurocentric” projects as residential schools.

Emberley's loathing for those tendencies in contemporary scholarship that he lumps together as “postmodern” is exceeded only by his ignorance of recent work even in fields so directly relevant to this book as social history, cultural theory, and the sociology of education. (Thus, for example, Paul de Man's name heads a list of French academics “who helped inspire the May 1968 Paris student revolts”—though de Man made his academic career in the United States, published his first book only in 1971, and never had a significant following in France.)

None of these objections would count if this book projected a compelling vision of what liberal education is or ought to be. But here Emberley offers little beyond gush about the aspirations of young people and vague remarks about core curricula. Perhaps he is holding his best thoughts back for the benefit of his students and colleagues at Carleton.