Canadian Universities, Academic Freedom, Labour, and the Left

Article excerpt

IN 1934 THE UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA classicist William Hardy Alexander used the pages of a recently established left-wing periodical to pose the question: "Will radical leadership emerge from our Canadian universities?" He answered in the negative. "The `successful' way of life in our universities may be equated with the life of conformity both to doctrine and authority."(1) Five years later, Alexander wrote in a Canadian Forum article that there was an agreeable future in academe for the acquiescent, those willing to fit in, but not for those of a critical disposition. Addressing himself to a fictional "young man contemplating an academic career," Alexander noted that capitalism sanctioned "a most painfully unbalanced distribution of the satisfactions and opportunities of life, to say nothin of the bare necessities." But it was dangerous for academics to point this out, he added, for in a state university it was "invariably described as Bolshevism," and in a privately endowed institution the situation was even worse. "An unflinching examination of the defeat sustained by the `good life' in modern capitalistic conditions is regarded as a personal criticism of the benevolent persons who have established the academic foundation."(2)

Most professors wisely did not challenge the economic status quo, Alexander continued: they were easily replaced, and the principle of academic freedom offered them little protection. If such freedom had ever existed in the past, and he did not think it ever did "in things deemed by the ruling powers to be essential to the preservation of their power," it was now in decline. "We affect to shudder at the fate of the German universities without quite realizing the tendency of our own to move towards ... the same silence on `essentials' accompanied by loud mouthings about inconsequentials." Noli episcopari, do not join the professoriate, Alexander concluded, for the universities "are far too respectable either to fight or to tolerate within themselves a fighter."(3)

Alexander was overstating the case, for his "letter" was partly a parody. In spite of an occasional brush with notoriety, he himself had become dean of arts and science by the time he went to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1938. Still, his remarks were rooted in his experiences in Alberta, where he taught for almost three decades. More important, his message has had relevance in other places and at other times. By and large, Canadian universities have not welcomed adherents of the left on their faculties. They have, however, come gradually to tolerate them.

The Canadian universities with which W.H. Alexander was familiar mostly served the needs and interests of Canada's middle classes. They were very largely staffed by men and women (mostly the former) who had been born into professional, business, and well-to-do farming families, and who taught young people very largely drawn from backgrounds similar to their own. Paul Axelrod gave his monograph on student life in English Canada during the 1930s the title Making a Middle Class.(4) This aptly describes the function of Canadian universities throughout their history.

Even during the last thirty to forty years, when student bodies have become rather more socially and ethnically diverse and when young women have become much more heavily represented, especially in the professional faculties, than ever before, the role of the university in "making a middle class" has remained essentially unchanged. The great majority of students have hoped to become teachers, lawyers, engineers, physicians, clergymen, social workers, and the like, or to find management positions in the private- as well as public-sector economy. Although universities may seem like elite institutions, most of those attending them have not expected to join the Canadian social or economic elites.

All the same, members of these elites play a key function in Canadian higher education. …