Universities can’t save the world

Memo to activists: unis are for teaching, not preaching

Student politics got slightly less ugly last week as the Capilano Students’ Union (at Capilano College University in North Vancouver) reversed a policy denying club funding for anti-abortion groups.

Of course, the CSU didn’t change its mind out of some newfound commitment to free discussion on campus. Nope, the Heartbeat Club, the group that was initially denied status, took the union to the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal on the grounds that the ban violated their religious rights. The CSU tried to have the complaint dismissed, but those efforts were denied.

Considerable controversy has been created regarding the status of anti-abortion campus groups, with student unions denying them status at a number of universities, most recently at Lakehead, where the student union has prevented them from not only being recognized but from handing out pamphlets and starting “unsolicited conversations.”

We are told that allowing such groups on campus creates a hostile environment for women, as if all women are of a unified opinion on the issue. The capacity to cause offence is inherent to a politicized space, and insofar as student space is politicized, people will be exposed to ideas and points of view that will offend them.

But it is not only that women might be offended by the presence of anti-abortion groups on university campuses, but that the presence of such groups, according to the CSU’s website, threatens to deprive, in some way, a woman’s right of “having control” over her body. In other words, free expression is to be subordinated to the fear that some people might actually be persuaded to change their minds.

Similarly, the justification for shutting down a campus debate about the morality of abortion at York University was that the issue had been settled because the Supreme Court said so. We can only hope that student union officials such as these never become elected members of government, where they may be encouraged to promote legislation outlawing interest groups that don’t fit their narrow conception of the world.

Denying club status for anti-abortion groups might seem to some (such as myself) as bereft of any rational justification, but it is indicative of a fundamental misconception of what universities do.

Universities have come to be seen by many a student activist not as a place of inquiry, but as a place where students are to be imbued with the tenets of social responsibility and taught to promote a better world, a place where politics are viewed not as a competition of ideas but as a war of ideologies, and a place to train ideal citizens by inculcating in them a comprehensive worldview.

A competing claim is that because universities should be places of inquiry, students should come away not with a comprehensive understanding of the world, but with developed intellects suitable for critical thought, and thereby for engagement in an advanced democracy. The mission in this case is not to train ideal citizens, but better citizens, and restrictions imposed upon campus debate must be seen as anathema to this conception.

Though the idea of a university as a place for students to learn to engage in a democracy appears to be more palatable than the universalizing mission conceived by those who believe they are promoting a better world when preventing certain groups to operate in student union controlled space, both views are equally misleading, if not outright spurious.

They are misleading for a number of reasons, but two in particular. The first is that they attach too much importance to what are, in reality, extracurricular activities. What the Heartbeat Club and other groups like it seek is not so much the right to express themselves; they aim to be recognized as a legitimate venue or means for participating in student life.

The second reason why viewing the university as a way to promote politics (democratic or idealist) is misleading, is that no matter what a university mission statement says, and no matter what delusions many professors with a romanticized memory of the 1960s have, all that we can expect to gain from a university education is to learn something.

The study of politics, history and society, is just that, the study of something, and is not about learning to be political or learning to be socially conscious, whatever that may mean. Those are character traits that may be arrived at through personal experience, conscious self-construction, or accidental diligence.

And, no doubt, some students will leave university as more engaged citizens, or having developed a comprehensive worldview. However, these outcomes are a byproduct of learning and inquiry, not their chief purposes. At best, these outcomes are a way for universities to justify their existence to the world; at worst, they entail the subordination and manipulation of the true mission of the university as a place for teaching and learning for its own sake, not as a means to something else.

Those who come to the Ivory Tower looking for something more “meaningful” than to become conversant in a defined field of study, will invariably be disappointed. Alternatively, they may come to view their extracurricular activities as the defining experience not only of their education, but of education in general, and not simply as a way to enrich campus life when outside the bounds of the classroom.