Faulty reasoning in column on free speech in academic world

Rick Zemanek’s April 11 column The academic world vs. free speech is a welcome expression of free speech, not for the viewpoints that it apparently supports but for its demonstration of partisan reasoning and rhetorical posturing, both of which represent the purported facts for particular ends.

Rick Zemanek’s April 11 column The academic world vs. free speech is a welcome expression of free speech, not for the viewpoints that it apparently supports but for its demonstration of partisan reasoning and rhetorical posturing, both of which represent the purported facts for particular ends.

Such an article is an apparent but ultimately limited opportunity to begin debate and analysis through an examination of Zemanek’s argument, rhetoric, and examples that essentially attempt to discredit the value of post-secondary education as mere training in the jingoism of professional correctness.

The title of his piece sets the tone: it is an adversarial relationship between the “academic world” and “free speech.” To call the academy a “world” is to set it off as its own entity, distinct or disconnected from what I assume he means to be the “real” world. This is the old and incorrect stereotype of the ivory tower. “Free speech,” of course, sounds very good, and few people in democratic societies would oppose such a principle, although there are good reasons to make exceptions to the principle as in cases of hate speech.

The underlying primary source of evidence to discredit the post-secondary system is the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF) that gave most Canadian institutions a failing grade on freedom. If you are unfamiliar with it as I was, JCCF is a private, Calgary-based organization that conducted its own study of the education system mandated, apparently, by nobody but itself.

In its own report, it describes its motivating agenda for research: the JCCF believes that Canadian freedom is “eroded by governments and by government-funded and government-created entities like Canada’s public universities, and human rights commissions.” The institute clearly outlines its initial disagreement with the university and government systems, and, therefore, it is not surprising that it finds the systems to be broken. In research, this is called confirmation bias.

The two examples of “free speech walls” that Zemanek provides are also telling because the JCCF initiates and supports these walls, a fact Zemanek quietly omits. The first instance from Carlton University has a gay rights student advocate tearing down an apparently pro-gay display. Zemanek leaves the contradiction alone, merely inviting the reader to “Figure that one out,” thereby implying the irrationality of a pro-gay argument. The second instance is from Queen’s University, where campus security removed a display that allegedly contained hate speech. The university provost would not repeat the allegedly offending words, a position which understandably raised the ire of the JCCF.

Zemanek suggests that university students have adopted an “it’s my way or no way” approach to issues, a direction perpetuated by rigid and biased universities. Like his title, the structure of the argument is purely divisive. In fact, there is no room for debate. There is no discussion of the public good that universities contribute to Canada; it is almost entirely absent. Like confirmation bias, there is no examination of alternative viewpoints. How or where is the university system to defend itself?

I am neither supporting nor excusing the universities’ actions. More facts are needed to make a judgment. Moreover, what alternatives to the university system might the JCCF suggest?

It is sadly ironic that this column that amounts to a condemnation of the post-secondary system is published right after the Alberta government has made massive cuts to higher education in the province.

When questioned about the cuts, Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said, in a familiar manner, “But this is the reality, this is non-negotiable.”

Meanwhile, educators and academics across the province try to get their voices heard despite this divisive and categorical decision-making process. Attacking post-secondary education is not an effective or productive way to foster critical thinking and open debate, despite the apparent and acknowledged flaws in the system.

In response to Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel’s criticism of Lukaszuk’s cuts, the minister responded with a similar yet meaningless and ineffective rhetorical approach: “I don’t know who pissed into [Mandel’s] corn flakes, and you can quote me on that.”

I am quoting you, Lukaszuk, and in case you are still wondering who did it, you did.

Roger Davis

Red Deer

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