The Evolution of ‘Feminist’–Starting With Jian Ghomeshi

IMG_2848

So Jian Ghomeshi, the former CBC radio star, minored in Women’s Studies when he was studying at York University. Maybe this had no influence whatsoever on his shocking, abusive, treatment of women, as chronicled in the Canadian media, including our social media, in the past week. But I do have to wonder if Ghomeshi could, to some extent, have learned how to abuse women through taking university Women’s Studies courses when he did. It’s an appalling idea; but, based on my own experiences with academic feminism, I can’t help but consider it.

Ghomeshi is 47 now so, according to my calculations, he would have been taking those courses around the same time that I had returned to university in my early 30s to do an MA in Education. I was then confronted by an angry, bitter, form of feminism that portrayed men in general in the worst possible light, that seemed to be a relic of the most vitriolic feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism, at least in Canada, outside of our academic institutions, had significantly evolved since then–or at least I thought it had. But, apparently owing largely to a professional interest in maintaining the status quo, those academic feminists didn’t see this–or wouldn’t openly acknowledge it if they did see it.

Even as a grad student, I was critical of this kind of feminism, and got into some trouble for it. (The most noteworthy incident is that my Master’s thesis, in which an academic publishing house initially was interested in publishing, was so strongly shot down by an academic feminist reviewer that the publishing house chose to abandon the project. The comments this reviewer had scrawled on the manuscript were just rude. Not as bad as a fist to the head, but something like it.) But then I was allowed to be critical. I was a White, middle-class, woman who grew up the oldest of five in a female-led family, with a very strong mother, and who already had some career success behind me when I went back to university for an MA, so I could afford to be critical. That was so unlike Ghomeshi’s position.

I imagine a young Iranian guy trying to fit into a predominantly White Canadian culture, who hadn’t yet had a great deal of experience of Canadian culture outside of our universities, listening to those academic feminist rants about an evil, abusive, Patriarchy, and I wonder, I just wonder, if maybe his misogynist, abusive, tendencies that have come to light in the past week were, in part, Ghomeshi’s way of fitting in. That is to say, a way of being a Canadian man, as he understood Canadian men to be, through doing that minor in Women’s Studies at a Canadian university when he did.

Before all of this Jian Ghomeshi business started, I had been planning to write a piece for this blog simply about the evolution in recent decades of the meaning of the term ‘feminist’. I’d been interested for several months in how many young women today are unabashedly describing themselves as ‘feminist’ (the British actress, Emma Watson, and the American entertainer, Beonce, are prime examples) although most older women, such as myself, are now much more reluctant to use this term. This includes even those women who, in the past, described themselves as ‘feminist’. I wanted to try to make some sense of that.

But, inevitably, I’ve also been thinking in the past week about Jian Ghomeshi and, especially after I learned that he had minored in Women’s Studies, I couldn’t write a piece about feminism without mentioning him. Maybe there is–or maybe there isn’t–a relationship between the Ghomeshi case and the ‘ENIMFIST’ anagrammatic variation of ‘FEMINIST’ from the list of variations at the top of this post. (Most, like ‘ENIMFIST’, aren’t real words, although a meaning is suggested through the meanings of the constituent parts.) I’ll have more to say about the evolution of the meaning of ‘feminist’, and those anagrams, in a later post.

 

Too Polite for Words: Missing Joan Rivers in Vancouver

IMG_2724

I’ve elsewhere recounted in detail a very strange experience I had a couple of years ago when I was using my then-new iPad at my local branch of the Vancouver Public Library, with free WiFi, to catch an episode I’d missed of the TV show, Smash.  The short version is that I didn’t fully push the jack of my headset into its allotted slot so, although I thought I was listening to the hour-long show through the earbuds of my headset, I wasn’t.  The audio portion of the show–including the raucous musical numbers–was blaring through the section of the library in which I was sitting, loud enough so that I could hear it clearly even with what were effectively earplugs in my ears.  But none of the twenty or so people who, during that hour, were clearly positioned to hear the din and to discern its source said anything to me–not even the young, apparently tech-savvy, guy sitting across the library table from me using his portable computer, and not even the young woman, a part-time library employee, shelving books in that section of the library.  (The actual librarians were stationed around the corner, unable to see me and probably too far away to have heard much, if anything.) Both confirmed to me, when I was packing up to leave and discovered the jack was now completely detached from the iPad, that they had heard everything loud and clear.

Out of consideration for me, as much as out of consideration for themselves and for other patrons of the library, someone should have said something to me.  It was an embarrassing situation for me, not only because I was caught in a public place partaking of one of my private indulgences (although, as far private indulgences go, this was pretty tame) but also because I had been doing something really stupid, that goes against the basic principles of public library decorum.  I wouldn’t have minded at all if someone had tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out the problem, or even if someone had told me, bluntly, to shut the hell up.  Although most Vancouverites probably would regard the latter approach as extremely rude, and utterly unacceptable, I think of it more as outspokenness for the greater good. As I see it, it does far more damage to not tell someone something they need to be told than to provide them with the needed information, even in a somewhat harsh, to the point, manner. Thinking of the library incident in particular, a harsh, to the point, approach may actually have been best–followed, of course, by a good laugh by everyone concerned.

Although there are many things I like about my hometown of Vancouver, the excessive politeness of many of its citizens, that sometimes goes well beyond reasonableness, isn’t one of them. I’m not sure if what I have in mind should even be called ‘politeness’, since real politeness seems to require empathizing with others, and it’s empathy that seems to be lacking in these situations. Maybe what really bothers me is that most Vancouverites excel in the trappings of politeness, but a willingness to actually engage with others, or at least with those with whom one is not familiar, seems to be lacking. It’s a very strange, sometimes very disturbing, combination.  Since that library incident, and thinking about what had transpired, I’ve had many other strange experiences that seem to be related.

It’s quite likely that many, if not most, male Vancouverites never have experienced anything quite like my following example–at least on the receiving end of the situation–and, therefore, will find it hard to believe; but I think probably most female Vancouverites, especially those of a certain age (maybe 50 or older), have had many such experiences, although they may not interpret these experiences quite the way I do.  The example boils down to what may at first appear to be merely a widespread ineptitude among Vancouverites, particularly male Vancouverites, in opening doors for others.  You see, if you are a woman, and especially if you are a woman of a certain age, which I apparently have become in recent years, many ‘polite’ Vancouverites open doors for you as you are about to pass through—even if you are perfectly capable of opening those doors for yourself.  It’s a nice gesture–when it is done well.  But so often in this city, I’ve had the experience of someone opening a door for me ostensibly to make my passage easier yet actually blocking my passage, with their body or even with the door itself. It’s usually men who do this, although sometimes it’s also women, usually women younger than myself. It’s so very strange.

I don’t remember any such experiences from when I lived, for extended periods, in both Toronto and Montreal–although I was younger then, and fewer people were opening doors for me.  But even in my more recent travels outside of Vancouver, I’ve never experienced this phenomenon.  It seems to be just a Vancouver thing, to be experienced mainly, if not exclusively, by Vancouver females of a certain age–and, of course, by women of a certain age visiting our fair city, although, during a short stay they are likely to have such experiences only a couple of times at most, and to dismiss these experiences as bizarre anomalies. Take it from someone who lives here year-round, it’s not just an odd anomaly. Poor spacial perception, you say? I think not.  Or maybe just distractedness in a busy, bustling, city? There are other cities bigger and more bustling where this does not occur.  The high cost of housing in Vancouver resulting in Vancouverites not being able to afford proper eye care? That may be part of the problem, although only part of it.

The main problem seems to be a combination of Vancouverites in general excelling in the outward manifestations of politeness, including usually observing the nicety of opening a door for a woman of a certain age, yet not really connecting with the other person to be able to grasp the subtleties, such as that their ‘polite’ gesture of opening the door for someone else is actually blocking their way.

What is one to say in such a situation?  When this happens to me, I’m never really impolite. Although I may be fuming inside, I usually just tell the person in a resigned tone that they’re blocking my way, and ask them to move their body, or to adjust the position of the door, so I can get through.  That could be the Vancouverite in me. What such a situation, and others like them, may actually require is the harsh, to the point, approach, sometimes including even a rude word or two, so that people here will realize that their “kind gestures” sometimes aren’t actually polite at all, but consist merely of the trappings of politeness.

A post about this issue in my blog also may help to some extent; but, frankly, I think a few choice words, repeated at regular intervals over an extended period when such incidents occur would be far more effective.  In other words, we need more outspoken dames here–like the late Joan Rivers, who surely would have had something interesting to say in such ridiculous situations.

 

Back to My Blog & Back to Trinity Western University: My ‘Vote’

My most recent post for this blog was almost two months ago–and that was basically a repost of something I’d written about two years ago. It was a busy summer for me. (We’re still in the house, and my mother is okay.) Also, I was devoting more of any free time I had for social media to Twitter. Twitter is a good medium for sharing basic information and opinions–and, often, having a good laugh. But what I have to say now is more complex, and sober, so I’m returning to my blog.

On Friday, the Benchers of the Law Society of British Columbia essentially implemented a stalling tactic that will allow the Supreme Court of Canada to decide whether or not Trinity Western University should be allowed to operate its own law school. They voted in favour of the general membership of the BC Law Society voting on the issue, and the vote being binding, but with the vote being taken several months from now, when court proceedings initiated in Ontario and Nova Scotia will already be underway. The decision of the general membership will be contingent on what is decided by the courts.

I sincerely hope the Supreme Court of Canada will be able to look at the big picture on this issue, considering not just this single case but, rather, how the case fits into the present state of Canadian universities in general. Looking at the big picture, the Supreme Court should be asking not simply if Trinity Western University should be allowed to operate its own law school but whether Canadian law schools any longer belong in ANY of our universities, as these institutions are presently conceived. There are certain biases within our secular Canadian universities that make these institutions just as unpalatable for many Canadians today, including by no means only members of the religious right, as Trinity Western is for others. (I’ve discussed such biases elsewhere in this blog, including in my most recent post.)

Barring a complete revamp of our secular universities, I think the answer lies in legally and administratively severing the relationship of all Canadian law schools and all of our universities, but, for practical reasons, allowing Canadian law schools to operate on the grounds of our universities, including Trinity Western University, and to draw an appropriate amount of income from them. (As I’ve suggested elsewhere, income seems to be a key reason Trinity Western now wants its own law school.) Being associated with a university should not be seen as a requirement for a law school. Thus, we could see law schools sprouting up across Canada that are completely independent of any university, and that may, eventually, train more Canadian lawyers than any university-affiliated law school.

But whether any lawyers, including even members of the Canadian Supreme Court, who all received their legal educations in universities, and who may still be beholding to these institutions, are able to think in these broad terms, and to vote accordingly, remains to be seen.

University ABCs: Let’s Fix This Mess, Canada

This is a modified version of a post I posted on my blog about two years ago, before I joined Twitter.  It’s something I thought some of my Twitter followers–especially those concerned about post-secondary education–might find interesting.  Also, it provides some clues about the graphics featuring strings of letters that I include with many of my Tweets.   Also, I have another reason for ‘reposting’ this now, that  I’ll get to at the end of the piece.  (The original version of this post was in response to a special Globe and Mail series about post-secondary education that ran in the fall, almost two years ago.  I’ve taken out references to that series for this modified version–although the graphics are unchanged.  If you’re interested in reading the original version, it can be found here.)

 . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The uppermost of the two above pictures is a god-awful mess, wouldn’t you agree?  That’s what happens when you’re tired after a long day at work, trying to produce a graphic for a blog post you want to get up as soon as possible, using graphics tools whose versatility can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help.  I was ready to delete the picture from my iPad; but, when I looked at it beside the original version, essentially the picture below it (the original didn’t have the oval frame around the lettering), and realized that the two pictures together fit in with what I planned to write about in my post, it seemed worth preserving.

A big problem with so much recent commentary about universities is that the issue of underlying philosophical change in recent decades within Western society–including within our universities and towards universities, from an outside perspective–has been overlooked.  In this period of philosophical transition, there are multiple basic philosophical perspectives towards universities, which differentially affect attitudes towards particular issues.  These include attitudes about what should be taught, to whom, by whom, the methods used to teach, and even how university education should be financed.  Beneath the surface, to those who have given some thought to the issue of philosophical change as it relates to our universities, some coherence may be discerned among the diverse views about our universities.  But, on the surface, this commentary, taken as a whole, is likely to appear to many, if not most, to be an incoherent jumble–and not very useful in helping to further constructive change in our universities.

There are now basically three different philosophical perspectives from which our universities, and aspects thereof, may be viewed.  These three perspectives I’ll call here A, B, and C.  A book chapter could be written about each of these perspectives; but, since this is just a blog post, I’ll stick to the basics.

The A perspective is the traditional elitist view that predominated in Western universities until the mid-20th Century.  Until that time, only a small proportion of the population attended universities, and attendees were almost invariably white males, and from relatively prosperous families.  In the second half of the 20th Century, significantly greater diversity among students, and also ultimately among the professoriate, led to a second basic perspective: perspective B.  This perspective may be summed up as being that of the “academic left”.  Although those from the B camp favour a more inclusive approach to university education than those of the A camp, it should be emphasized that members of the B camp do not question the basic activities conducted within universities.  Members of both groups are likely to support traditional university policies and procedures, such as academic freedom (including freedom from interference from those outside universities), academic tenure (or guaranteed jobs for life) for senior professors, the notion of the all-knowing professor as the source of legitimate knowledge for students, and the emphasis on research in the evaluation of professors with little weight given to teaching ability.

By the late 1970s, the basic dualistic and hierarchical framework of Western metaphysics, that had supported Western universities for so long, was crumbling.  Both perspectives A and B were now being challenged–mostly from outside of universities.  Yet it is worth noting here that, by now, there were many more adults studying in universities than there had been in the past, some of whom, especially those studying at the graduate level, already had achieved mid-career status in their professions, who personally brought the ‘outside’ perspective into our universities.  (I was one such student when I was doing graduate work in education.)  This third basic perspective, or perspective C, is the ‘postmodern’ perspective–with ‘postmodern’ defined essentially as it is defined by Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition.  (You can look it up, if you’re interested.)

If, as I believe is the case, the majority of Canadians now possess the basic C perspective (this distinguishes Canada from the United States) a reasonable reevaluation of our universities has to start explicitly from that position.  This doesn’t rule out the possibility of certain institutions and programs catering to those who possess minority A and B perspectives (a Christian-based university, like Trinity Western University,  generally falls into the A category);  but it does suggest that at least the greater part of funding for such institutions and programs will have to come from somewhere other than general tax revenue.

It would seem to be enormously helpful if commentators on our universities would preface their commentary with some reference to philosophical change in our universities. Better yet, it would be fantastic if influential commentators (like the Globe and Mail newspaper) publicly endorsed a postmodern position.  That could be the stimulus Canadians need to really get down to the serious business of reevaluating our universities, and reconstructing them within a non-dualistic, non-hierarchical, framework. But I’m not optimistic.  Generally speaking, our influential commentators seems too beholding to those who support the A perspective–or who at least who pretend to support that perspective–for any such thing to happen.

Which brings me to my final point here.  I’d love to be able to devote more time to this kind of work.  But, for that, I need MONEY.  Is there perhaps someone out there reading this who has more money than they need who might be able to help me with this?  Or perhaps who knows someone else with money who might be sympathetic to my views?  It probably can’t hurt to ask–although I could loose some of my Twitter followers by being so blunt . . . Oh, hell,  I’ll post this anyway.

 

HMMPH: The Humanities Without the ‘U’, on CBC TV . . . if There is Still Any CBC TV

20140714-163454-59694160.jpg

Originally, this post was going to be simply another in my series of “Hmm . . . ” posts, or the “Humanities Without the ‘U'” posts (get it?), concerning Canadian organizations that could play a greater role in humanities education to make up for the declining enrollment in the humanities programs of Canadian universities and colleges.  This one was going to be about the increased role that could be played by Canadian public television–including the television division of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or CBC.  Especially after it was announced in early June that, in response to the recent large loss of revenue for the CBC, CBC-TV’s new general manager of programming, Sally Catto, was going to put more Arts programming in CBC’s television schedule, I was optimistic CBC-TV could play an important role in this area. (This loss of revenue comes from a combination of a reduction in federal government funding and projected TV advertising losses now that a private network will be airing NHL hockey games instead of the CBC, that long held the Canadian TV broadcasting rights.)

That was my original plan. However, a more recent announcement about how the CBC is going to address its shrunken budget has me very worried about CBC television–including its earlier announced greater emphasis on Arts programming.  My “HMM . . .” post turned into a grumpy “HMMPH” post, partly about the increased role Canadian public television could play in humanities education (I’ve already said most of what I’ll be saying in that regard) and a good measure of HMPHing.

Now they’re telling us that much of the money and other resources formerly allocated to television will be allocated to the Internet.  On June 26, CBC president and CEO, Hubert T. Lacroix, announced the CBC is shifting its priorities from television and radio to digital and mobile services.  To quote Lacroix, “We used to lead with television and radio. Web came and then mobility came. We are reversing, we are inverting the priorities that we have. We’re going to lead now with mobility, we’re going to lead with whatever widget you use.”  I can understand now putting more resources into mobility and less into television and radio; but to lead with mobility is taking things too far.

In a 19-page report issued by the CBC that accompanied Lacroix’ announcement, ironically titled “A Space for Us All,” to justify the CBC’s reverse of priorities, statistics are provided indicating changes from 2000 to now in how Canadian consume media.  Some of these statistics seem to me misleading.  For example 77% of Canadians are said to now watch internet video (including Netflix) for 6.5 hours/week.  What percentage of that 77% watch work-related video at work, or education-related video at school, for at least much of that 6.5 hours and, in their personal lives, watch only snippets of video on their smartphones and tablets and, perhaps, an occasional episode they’ve missed of a favourite show, and only when they have access to free Wi-Fi–as do I? Also, what percentage of that 77% has over-reported their internet video viewership to researchers to appear ‘cool’?  Another statistic I question is that 24% of Canadians now watch Netflix for 7.4 hours per week. I’d be very interested in seeing a breakdown of Netflix usage for different  regions of Canada.  For example, I think the figure is probably far higher in Toronto than it is in Vancouver, largely because, in Toronto, you can get many more channels on TV without subscribing to cable than is possible in Vancouver.  Most Vancouverites have cable and, thus, Netflix may be an unnecessary frill, and too expensive in combination with the cost of cable.  24% might be right for populous Toronto, but I suspect it’s much too high for Vancouver, and for other regions in Canada.

I thought the CBC was supposed to be for all Canadians. Until the day we all get internet service for free–which is not going to happen–it seems this newly conceived CBC will be mainly for a relatively wealthy elite, who can afford large internet bills and all the paraphernalia associated with watching ‘television’ on line, and the rest of us will be left with only scraps for our cultural nourishment. I wish they would prove me wrong, but I am worried.

Incidentally,  I’m liking CBC Vancouver’s “Musical Nooners”–a noon-hour outdoor concert series held through the summer on the plaza of the CBC Vancouver building–a lot less now that we know how strapped for funds the CBC is. Is this really a priority for the CBC?  I like the idea of a few free concerts, but this is a six-week, daily series (if you don’t believe me, here’s the schedule), and each of the concerts is attended by a couple of hundred people at most.  (Vancouver’s CBC building is very near where I work, so I can see what goes on there every day.) Even if the concerts are taped to be incorporated in some of the CBC’s radio shows, I can’t see how the cost is justified.  (If taping is a key reason for this concert series, couldn’t these acts be taped when they are playing at other venues, including Canada Day celebrations, where many of these acts also performed?) If the CBC was financially healthy, yes. But it’s not.

20140714-190732-68852918.jpg

And, yet another HMPH . . . What about streaming music for free, that puts the CBC in direct competition with companies that provide the same service? I would think that television, just regular TV, that is accessible to all Canadians, preferable with a good amount of Canadian Arts and other humanities-related programming, is a far higher priority.

 

HMM . . . : The Humanities Without the ‘U’, Within our Public Libraries

20140624-125609-46569718.jpg

I’d be very curious to see a breakdown of the educational backgrounds of public-library users who currently borrow humanities-related material from our public libraries, and who attend public-library sponsored, humanities-related, events, like author readings and book-club meetings. I suspect it’s mostly people who have at least some post-secondary education in humanities-related areas who engage with the humanities through our public libraries–although I could be wrong. Proving this point would seem to be next to impossible since, as I learned when I enquired at my local branch of the Vancouver Public Library about obtaining a record of books that I, myself, had read during a period of some heavy reading (and before I kept a reading diary), for legal reasons, public libraries, at least in British Columbia, don’t even keep records of which books are read by individuals: apparently, it’s considered an invasion of privacy (although libraries always know the titles of the books that you return late).

Although I don’t have the statistics to back me up, my theory is that a humanities education at the post-secondary level whets people’s appetites for more–and that one of the ways (not the only way) adults with an interest in the humanities satisfy that interest is through use of public libraries. Conversely, my theory goes, those who didn’t study humanities-related subjects at the post-secondary level, even if they did participate in post-secondary education, are less likely to engage with the humanities later in life–including through using the humanities-related resources of public libraries. I would suggest that the educational experience is at least as important in keeping people engaged with the humanities later in life as is an early interest in this area that contributed to them studying the humanities in the first place. (At least back in the good old days, when university humanities degrees alone were still a great asset in obtaining employment, it seems many people enrolled in humanities programs more because they wanted the degree than because they were particularly interested–at least initially–in the subject matter. Also, math may not have been their forte, so the humanities it was.)

Also, getting back now to what I discussed my previous blog post, although there are now some serious problems with university and college humanities programs (including cost; career prospects for those who can afford to obtain only one degree; and, last but not least, philosophical and political turmoil), there also are some good things about a humanities education, for the individuals who received such an education and, dare I say, even for our society as a whole. For example, in Canada, that was culturally dwarfed by Britain and the United States for such a long time, a blossoming of Canadian culture, including Canadian literature and home-grown performing arts, occurred around the same time as the major expansion of Canadian universities, including our university humanities departments, in the 1960s and ’70s. These university humanities departments championed Canadian culture, and made it part of the basic curriculum for their students.

The ongoing decline in enrollment in university and college humanities departments may, therefore, have some serious negative longterm consequences–including not only in Canada, although this relatively young and relatively sparsely populated country of ours may need to be more concerned than most–unless other public institutions, such as our public libraries, can help to pick up the slack.

If you’re ready to engage with the humanities, a good public library–like our wonderful Vancouver Public Library–has everything you are likely to need. Obviously, there are all the books, including both hard copies and digital books, available on loan, all for free (assuming you return your books on time). Most public libraries today also provide free access to computers, as well as free Wi-Fi, enabling anyone with just basic computer literacy to do simple research about subjects of interest–including, perhaps, finding out more about the authors of books one has read and what else they may have written. But there is so much more than that, of which I doubt even most regular users of public libraries today are aware. I wasn’t fully aware myself of what our Vancouver Public Library has to offer in this area until I started to look into it in preparation for writing this piece.

For those of you who are interested, especially those of you in the Vancouver area, I would suggest having a good look at the Vancouver Public Library’s website.  All things considered, one could become just as knowledgeable in the humanities though self-directed ‘study’ at a public library like the VPL, perhaps with some assistance provided by its librarians, and perhaps also with some assistance from members of on-line chat groups, as one could through doing a BA in the humanities at a university. Also, as I noted in my previous post, the CNN correspondent, Fareed Zakaria, had mentioned in a college commencement speech he recently gave that improving his writing and oral communication skills were among the things he most valued from his own humanities education–quite apart from the content of the courses he took.  There are opportunities for these things, as well, at least at the Vancouver Public Library.

Our public libraries traditionally haven’t served as cheerleaders for the humanities, as such–although library literacy programs, encouraging and assisting people to read period, can provide a basis for helping them to explore, and appreciate, the humanities. But, now, and heading into the future, perhaps our public libraries need to increasingly take on that role. One possible programming addition (where it doesn’t already exist), is outreach programs to elementary and secondary schools, explaining to students all of the resources, especially humanities-related resources, available in their public libraries, and how they may access them. Also, larger budgets for advertising, in various media, may now be in order. For these kinds of programs and marketing enhancements to exist, however, adequate funding is required–and, now, more than ever, our libraries seem to require that funding.

Incidentally, the above picture is of the interior ‘Promenade’ of the Central branch of the Vancouver Public Library. This remarkable, award-winning, building was designed by the Israeli-Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie, who also designed the innovative housing complex, Habitat, for Expo 67 in Montreal.

Last Friday, the Promenade was being used for multicultural festivities for our upcoming Canada Day–including Scottish dancing.  (My surname, ‘Third’, is Scottish.)  Happy Canada Day everyone!

20140629-133854-49134703.jpg

HMM . . . : The Humanities Without the ‘U’

20140706-130637-47197460.jpg

I’ve been thinking in the past few weeks about the possible negative consequences for Canadian society in general of diminishing enrollment in our university humanities programs, and about how these negative consequences could be avoided, or at least minimized.

Although I’ve indicated in some of my earlier ‘UABCs’ posts in this blog (i.e., posts about post-secondary education) that I believe Canadian students generally should now avoid university humanities programs, this is not to say that I’m against the study of literature, history, and so on. My main concern is with the political turmoil that now exists within our universities, including not only in the humanities but also in the social sciences and related professional disciplines, and how students may become caught up in it, and hurt by it. (If you want to know more about my opinions in this regard, you may wish to have a look at my very first post in this blog, “UHUM(e): No Cheers for the Liberal Arts,” or something more recent, “ACH-U(2): A Comment on Adam Gopnik’s Blog Post, “Why Teach English?“”  Money obviously also is an issue for many students today: for those with limited financial resources, who participate in post-secondary education primarily to improve their job opportunities and who can afford to do only one degree, if that, a humanities degree is not currently a good investment. (Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, and there was a relative abundance of jobs for young people, and university tuition was relatively low, it was still generally a good investment.)

Over the past several decades, certain Canadians who studied the humanities in university have made very significant contributions to Canadian culture, including in the arts, broadcasting, publishing, education, law, government, and so on. Many others who studied the humanities in university have helped in more modest ways during this period to enhance Canadian culture–if only through sharing their interest and knowledge with their families, co-workers, and friends. Then, too, there are various personal satisfactions that have become available to Canadians who studied the humanities in university, such as the enjoyment of literature and other creative arts.

Besides these more abstract, ‘loftier’, kinds of contributions to Canadian society, the study of the humanities in our universities also has positively contributed to Canadian society in more practical, sometimes overlooked, ways. A blog post by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “Why the liberal arts matter,” posted on May 24, got me thinking about these other, often overlooked, contributions.

I don’t normally read Zakaria’s blog posts.  One of the 300 or so people and organizations I follow on Twitter (I have no idea which one) had retweeted the link, that appeared in my Twitter feed. The post basically consists of a restatement of a commencement speech Zakaria recently had given at Sarah Lawrence, a liberal arts college in New York City, that offers undergraduate degrees in the humanities that, here in Canada, would normally be earned at a university. (We don’t have the exact equivalent of American liberal arts colleges in this country.) I started reading Zakaria’s post expecting to disagree with him, but I ended up actually agreeing with his main points.

Zakaria asserts that there are three things he most values from his humanities studies in the United States. (He previously had  studied the sciences in India, which I take to be his homeland.) The first two are closely related: having learned to write well and having learned to speak well. (This is quite apart from learning basic English. Zakaria seems to have had a good command of basic English before studying in the U.S.) Indeed, Zakaria learned to write and to speak sufficiently well that he was able to become a professional journalist, including a television journalist for a major network. The third is having learned how to learn, regardless of the content. Here, Zakaria is a little vague, but he seems to be referring basically to independent learning–of the variety in which one might engage to write, for example, a history essay–as opposed to rote learning, more commonly associated with scientific and technical education. (Zakaria interestingly maintains that learning to think, which is often said to be a key value of a humanities education, cannot be separated from learning to write.)

I did find it disturbing that Zakaria completely omitted any reference to the current political unrest in university humanities programs. Zakaria also neglects to mention that humanities degrees have become financially out of reach for many people because of high tuition fees coupled with a decreased probability that humanities degrees will lead directly, or even indirectly, to satisfying, well-paying, jobs. But I found myself willing to forgive Zakaria for these lapses in this otherwise sensitive piece because he seems to have studied the humanities quite some time ago (probably in the late ’70s or ’80s) and appears to have had little or no recent direct contact with university humanities programs–other than giving commencement speeches.

After reading Zakaria’s post, I thought back to some of my early university humanities courses, and these early humanities courses, especially the literature courses, were indeed helpful to me in learning to express myself with words, whether in writing or orally. This was through a combination of the examples of the material I was then reading for my courses; the various challenges related to writing and speaking that were presented to me as coursework; and the helpful suggestions of teachers who evaluated my work. The learning process continues to this day, but at least a good foundation seems to have been laid in those courses.

(Having claimed that I now know how to write with some degree of proficiency, due in large measure to my university training, I’ve opened up my writing–including the writing in this blog–to criticism. I fully admit that the writing in some of the original published versions of some my blog posts has been flawed, but I always go back to edit, and re-edit–unfortunately, I fear, too late for some readers. Even after over two years of blogging, I’m still getting used to the independent blog format, in which I’m able to publish material whenever I wish, without anyone else looking at. Sometimes, I get too excited about sharing my thoughts.)

Just as the cultural knowledge that many Canadians acquired in university humanities programs in recent decades seems to have infused Canadian society as a whole, it seems the more modest, practical, kinds of knowledge that may be acquired in such programs, particularly in the areas of written and oral communication, can be valuable not only to those who studied the humanities in university but also to our society as a whole. I would suggest that there has been an overall decline in clear, engaging, written and oral communication in this country in recent years, paralleling the declining enrollment in university humanities programs during this period. With the increasing decline in Canadian university humanities enrollment, the situation may deteriorate even further. (If you don’t believe me about the current state of communication in this country, I would suggest you pay close attention the next time you’re reading the newspaper or watching television.)

In the next few posts in this blog, I plan to put forward some of my ideas about how various Canadian organizations and groups could pick up the slack, helping our citizens to acquire some of the valuable knowledge and skills that may be acquired in university humanities programs, or indirectly through family members and friends who have acquired such knowledge and skills in university humanities programs.  I’ll also address how individuals could, to some extent, independently acquire such knowledge and skills.

This is assuming, of course,  further developments on the Trinity Western University law school front do not intervene.  As at least most readers of this blog probably are aware, last week, members of the BC Law Society revoted on whether graduates of the proposed TWU law school should be accepted as members of the BC Bar and, this time, the result was ‘no’. It now looks like the issue is heading to Canada’s Supreme Court. (I believe it could be extremely helpful to look at this case within the context of the political turmoil that now exists within our universities in general.)