Universities and the Left

By Livingstone, D. W. | Canadian Dimension, May-June 2002 | Go to article overview

Universities and the Left


Livingstone, D. W., Canadian Dimension


Over the past century; continuing, streams of progressive grassroots movements have contested capitalist exploitation and other forms of oppression in Canada, and mobilized for greater human rights. The first half of the century saw the democratic demands of trades workers for collective bargaining rights, suffragettes for women's rights, farmers for co-operative marketing and popular educators for public broadcasting. These movements played key roles in shaping the political culture of the last half century. All were built through production and distribution of documentary evidence on existing living conditions and open public forums on practical reforms. The electoral successes of the CCF/NDP and the persistence of political diversity in this country are unthinkable without these past' social movements.

The public institutions nurtured through these movements, including the CBC, Air Canada and many welfare-state entitlements, are now being privatized and dismantled. In this climate of continuing state cutbacks, globalization and U.S. domination, progressive movements continue to take root. Current political networking efforts such as the Council of Canadians, the New Political Initiative, the Structured Movement Against Capitalism and the Solidarity Network all build on the experiences of post-WWII social movements for the rights of workers, women, visible minorities and the environment. These new political movements have great potential to appeal to the social problems now troubling the majority of Canadians. These movements are most likely to succeed through strategic alliances with each other, and with larger forces like organized labour. The generation and distribution of evidence sensitive to the standpoints of those experiencing these social problems is also likely to be a pivotal factor. Our universi ties and colleges have great and largely untapped responsibility in this regard. Their potential progressive role in future social change deserves more careful attention.

Challenge and Promise

Producing and widely distributing relevant documentary evidence and creating open public forums has become a major challenge. There is growing corporate dominance of our mass media. Most social research reported in the media is conducted either by private corporations or from management standpoints, with noble exceptions like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Universities were created as elite institutions and have continued to serve mainly the needs and interests of the upper classes. There have always been serious inequities in both curricular and research priorities. For example, our universities generally have large faculties devoted to commerce and management studies but very little provision in the general curriculum for labour studies. Similarly, a vast amount of academic research has been conducted from the standpoints of business owners and investors rather than the standpoints of workers. Our universities rely increasingly on private corporate funding and prohibitive tuition fees to maintain their teaching programs and research agendas. Corporatization is evident everywhere in the university from the boardroom to the washroom. It is little wonder that progressive activists have rarely looked to universities for the research they need, or that progressive academics have felt the need to devote their major political energies outside the academy.

The War Of Ideas

But universities have been relatively fertile ground for debate and exploration of different social ideas. While we are all intellectuals in some sense, those with time and resources to probe social topics in depth in advanced capitalist societies have been most likely to work within these institutions. Especially since the social movements of the 1960s, claims for "value-free" study of the social sciences and humanities have lost their credibility and ideological struggles between different approaches to research have been evident in many university departments. …

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