Too Cool For School

Social Justice Discourse and Ideology as Knowledge

Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator, not re-creator.

— Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968)

As a scholar who has spent my professional life reading, writing, and teaching university students, I have come to realize how lucky I was to have been fully funded for my graduate studies and likewise received into departments around the world where my scholarship was welcomed by scholars from countries whose compatriots, when they immigrate to the United States, Canada, and the UK, are often not given a reciprocal reception.  More than this, however, I have seen how education is so highly prized by students from these very same backgrounds.  Although I have taught middle and upper-class Americans and Canadians for whom education is not something you struggle for, it has been challenging to see how so many white, middle-class students have come to regard education as a right unique to their worldview.  Compare this to poor Americans and Canadians and most every immigrant student, and education shifts from being a right to a privilege.

In the early 1990s when I taught at the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco, I was stunned initially when I discovered that the students and I all had to share all the texts in the university library for each of the plays I was covering.  The course had approximately 15 students in it and ten different plays to study with the library holding one copy of each play.  So we had to time-share the texts throughout the session. My Peruvian students appreciated this course I taught on Avant-Garde theatre so much that I do not remember one complaint from any of them regarding our having to time-share the texts.

And more recently, while working on a child trafficking project in Haiti, I would spend my “off day” working on ecological projects in Port-au-Prince where I ended up in the Ministry of the Environment where several farmers were waiting to meet the Minister of Environment alongside me and my friend, Rodrigo, as we were there to pitch an ecological workshop plan to the minister.  In speaking with these young farmers, we discussed the toxic presence of Monsanto within the Ministry of Agriculture and the methods of collusion between corporations offering “free” agricultural products and the funneling of money to the Haitian government officials.  I related the similarity of what was happening with my work on child trafficking and these young men, both around 24 years of age, were not surprised by the facts, but rather shocked that I knew who in the government was the puppet master.  When they realized that I was a university professor, they both said, “I want to study with you.”  There was a certain respect for knowledge that actually involved learning from historical facts, scientific accuracies, and not the ideological spin that people from developing countries identify far more readily than most Canadians and Americans.

At no time in my career have I witnessed education being taken for granted so completely as I have in recent years where critical masses of students from the University of Toronto, New York University, Stanford  University, Princeton, Yale, and beyond have turned the classroom from the locus of debate and discussion and into the space of sacred political ideology.  Indeed, the classroom in North America and the United Kingdom has become the place where nobody dare question, think, or respond less students and professors alike are made into the objects of pile on culture. And the students who are silenced by these tactics come away with far less direct aggression given that the general model today used against professors is to attack their livelihood and demand that they be fired, to contact their publishers and demand that their words be censored or withdrawn entirely, and in more severe cases, to harass and threaten these individuals and their families.

A product of the student rebellion culture post-1968 which changed the direction of politics on and off campuses around the planet, I grew up knowing that power was always to be questioned and education to be respected.  The child of an immigrant father from India, the importance of education was hammered into my head as my father would talk of his own childhood when he would have to read his texts for school with the aid of lamps fueled by mustard seed oil. And he would tell us these stories not as a means of bringing down the learning he engaged in as a small boy, but to show his pride for the time and effort he exerted to read the texts his teachers assigned to him.

Skip to the present day, and many universities in the UK are actually asking professors not to have their students read and write.  Instead, using online applications that give the students PowerPoint presentations has become the surrogate for reading and writing. And many professors who do insist on asking students to read and write and refusing to pass undeserving students, are being punished for so doing.  I was personally asked at two different UK universities not to have my students write and I was told to not have them read at one university.  Is it any surprise that students today are struggling to read entire books?  Is it any wonder that the very students who are being so unchallenged by a curriculum which is positing political correctness as the “task” of the semester (above and beyond the learning of any factual, historical, philosophical, and literary texts) can no longer evoke any coherent critique of why they are joining in protest of the latest SJW-fabricated victim du jour?

And we are already seeing the effects of a generation which is being educated by in-class visuals which are set up to replace reading and where note taking is now comprised of students using their mobile phones and clicking a few pictures of the onscreen “lecture.”  Indeed, students are not being asked to read or to think — they are being asked to become ideological vessels in the very same way that the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire warns in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed when he discusses the dangers of education where there is no labour or thinking involved simply because the student is expected to regurgitate everything she has been told.  The classroom becomes a quasi-religious space where this parroting of ideas is expected of the young student and the university structure is cast as the space for the young to rebel, to protest, and even to question why they are being asked to read at all, especially if they are engaged in protest.

The larger problem is that university campuses have been turned into political spaces with the assumption that the students who scream the loudest are, in fact, the morally superior and the judicially correct.  And as the establishment of “safe spaces”, “privilege checking”,  and “trigger warnings” over the years have also been ideologies which have formed part of the current hijacking of education towards political ends, one must wonder about the legitimacy of these mechanisms.  For all the banging on about “privilege checking” some of these students are quite economically privileged despite their screaming at professors about their need for “safe spaces”.  While there is a sizable body of students across these three countries who depend upon student loans and online loans to receive an education, reducing the problems of class inequality, racism, and sexism to “privilege” ignores the real life core of why these very real structural inequalities exist.  In short, attacking every white male professor is not going to change—much less address—the structural problems.

Just a quick read through some of the incidents that have occurred against scholars who are posing their students serious questions and the backlash is palpable. Just ask Jordan Peterson, Michael Rechtenwald, Bret Weinstein, Rebecca Tuvel, and George Ciccariello-Maher. And one can easily leave the walls of academia and find the likes of Katie Herzog and Natasha Vargas-Cooper who have faced serious retaliation for their writing in recent months.  Largely led by students at university campuses, the problem posed by this notion that only one type of thought is acceptable in and out of the classroom, the social justice warrior movement is quickly being revealed as a massive formation of largely privileged students who embolden the historical outrage long associated with the right-wing’s notions of the sacred.  Where rational debate was once the pillar of education and academic exchange, today the concept of breeched safe spaces and hurt feelings have become the hallmark of this era which replaces safety pins as symbolic talisman for critical thinking.

Professors are not the only ones growing tired of the social justice culture of political purity.  There are students who are paying a very high price for studying subjects deemed the the “SJW politburo” as threatening.  And in one case in the UK, a university is engaging in intellectual gatekeeping by preventing a Masters student from undertaking a specific line of study for his thesis simply because his topic of choice is unpopular.  He is now crowd-funding his legal challenge to Bath Spa University for the right to undertake his Masters research.

And while many writers have long recognized the dangers of the social justice movement, there is now a shift in the tide.  In recent months, students at Princeton have been pushing back as have students at the University of Toronto.  And what is most troubling to witness is when the students actually have the opportunity to engage with the object of their hatred, such as this video of one such interaction with Jordan Peterson, it is painfully clear that these students do not have the academic dexterity to engage in thoughtful debate. The conversation inevitably turns on straw man, false accusations of violence, and the theatre of anger that fizzles out because it is clear that the many students of color surrounding Jordan Peterson view this SJW movement as endangering their access to education and thoughtful dialogue.

Aside from the acts of violence and verbal aggression reported from Evergreen State College recently, there are now calls for Weinstein to be fired because he was interviewed by Tucker Carlson earlier this year.   And Bret Weinstein’s recent evocation of the events that have transpired over the past six weeks should be enough for any reasonable student or scholar previously aligned with social justice movement, to step far away and rethink their position.

While most of us would love to live in a world that is “socially just”, the first step in understanding social justice ought to include the first bit about the “social”.  After all, this term invokes society in general, and not only the select few who scream the loudest or who claim purity within their mantra. We cannot pretend to speak truth to power if we deem massive tracts of our shared society as unworthy of being heard, of forming opinions, or of publishing their thoughts.

If those of us on the left scapegoat critical thinking as bigotry simply because it conflicts with our world view, then we are not really engaging the social whatsoever.  While those who take such a position to silence dissent have historically belonged to the religious right, it is not the rule. The left has had and is now fully engaging in its own culture of political censorship.  And it is our obligation to challenge some of the vacuous attacks by those on the left who require an allegiance to a pre-conceived “social justice” orthodoxy.  Even if driven by a progressive desire for social and political equality, anti-intellectualism and bullying simply does not make one’s political position any more reasoned.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.