Of all values touted as crucial to the intellectual health of the academy and society, the freedom of speech carries heavy weight. For the ability to disagree vehemently about first principles, to differ on issues of ends and means, and to hold up to critical investigation society’s conventional wisdoms and sacred cows denote a polity that should be as much a community of scholarly enquiry and scepticism as it is a powerful source for the exciting applied research that currently drives our scientific, medical, and technological progress.
In theory, our major role in society is to encourage debate on all questions relating to ideas and research as they emerge here and in the broader environments in which we work. In this context, academic freedom matters most when we differ, and we risk it when we stigmatize those who make arguments with which we disagree, rather than consider the essentials of those arguments.
This obligation has limits—as when speech (an idea or action) crosses a boundary proscribed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or Canadian criminal law. A cross burned on a black student’s lawn on King Street, or soap delivered anonymously to an Indian student TA, along with nasty notes, are two such incitements to hatred in the recent past that suggest uncomfortable links with lynching and murder. In such instances one echoes the sentiment of cultural theorist Hortense J. Spillers, who observed recently in discussing the gendered grammar of race against a domestic and international backdrop of atrocity and amnesia, that "at the very least, sticks and stones might break our bones“ but words most certainly will kill us."
Society has a huge investment in what transpires here, and it is in our interest to provide as broad an arena of debate as possible on all fronts. We must recognize that at times participants and observers will become uncomfortable, and at others we ourselves will be wrong. But we must stand firm in underlining the point that argument with divergent points of view is crucial to defining and resolving the big questions, whether philosophical, or a colleague's research agenda.
In recent years “research” has achieved unprecedented star power, with numerous private sector arrangements supplementing and in some instances superseding provincial and federal government funding programs. Corporate connections to universities have grown significantly, sometimes with problematic strings attached, and universities themselves now feature undeniable corporate attributes. The Federal Canadian Research Chairs at senior and junior levels are one example, providing significant faculty renewal, along with some troublesome hidden costs.
Yet during this period, as the research focus burgeoned, government grants for basic arts programs became stingier—a point underscored by Ontario Tory Mike Harris’s observation early in his tenure that science was more important than history and hence would have more funding. At the same time student populations continued to grow. This demographic became the ballyhooed double cohort of 2003, and it strained a professoriat seeking to recover from a decade of faculty decline.
This disjunction weighs heavily in the Arts and Science Undergraduate Faculty, where free speech arguably matters most. For in addition to providing students the chance to develop the knowledge base and hone critical skills necessary to succeed in a mercenary age, professors confront the vital responsibility of teaching students to think for themselves. Colleagues note that this is a daunting task, especially in the first year, when classes are huge, ambience impersonal, and students shy. Even in small groups, facilitating discussion and enabling students to develop a voice is not easy. But getting new students to park their egos and jettison the notion that ideas are owned and might reflect badly on their owners is crucial to student growth. It is an end worth pursuing not least because an arts education should be less concerned with an outcome of “fitting in” to the existing order than of bringing good questions that challenge the status quo. Hence the recognition by students that ideas are community property, in this case the property of a class, provides a good start in thinking about free speech on--and beyond--campus.
This classroom pivot of voice--defined here as informed and vigorous debate on questions of importance to all of us—derives its legitimacy in theory from Queen’s broad offering of courses within major and medial concentrations, which seek to provide an intellectual framework that will carry well beyond a student's four years in academe.
Yet with provincial and federal resources for higher education dwindling, the hands-on attention that once provided the life-blood core of our liberal arts program—small group discussions, professorial goads to self-reflection, and a lot of writing—are now more difficult to accomplish. If money for graduate studies and research increased, money for teaching assistants did not. Class size grew, multiple-choice exams proliferated, and not a few professors lamented that the new corporatism in higher education meant the mass production of graduates—less prepared, less able, and less thoughtful than their predecessors. This is so not because current students lack smarts but because they lack opportunity. Indeed, accessibility is not merely a question of who gets in to university. It is also a question of what happens once students are here.
One must therefore call, again, on provincial government to put money where its mouth seemed to be during the recent election campaign. Will Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario Liberals welcome education in the province as a public good and recognize the need to strengthen arts and science infrastructures, in the trenches, where such reinforcement is so badly needed? The question is more than academic.
Geoff Smith, an historian who lives in the School of Physical and Health Education, will never quit fighting for liberal arts, inclusiveness, and accessibility--in short, government responsibility for undergraduate education. He took part as a speaker in a recent ASUS-sponsored panel discussion about free speech on campus.