Refuting the ‘silent majority’

A response to Ethan Cabel’s criticism of the modern student movement

The true absurdity worthy of note in Ethan Cabel’s article “U of M budget woes a function of weak provincial leadership,” published in the Apr. 8 issue of the Manitoban, is just how much he claims to know about the demands and realities of the “modern student movement.” To take the most egregious example: “at the risk of over-generalizing,” Cabel states, “in my experience most student union and activist groups are populated with left-wing humanities students whose parents are funding their education or who have incurred some form of government student loan debt” and that “they have prioritized student politics over their academic careers.”

Now, how perfunctory does a remark have to be before it’s unworthy of a response? As a supposed member of the “revolutionary class,” I will attempt to reply to some of Cabel’s claims – although not all, as this would constitute a “laundry list.”

One criticism raised is that the student movement possesses a “fantastical ideal of openness and accessibility.” Here, Cabel must be reacting to the call for the lowering and even elimination of tuition fees. It is patently false to call such an ideal fantastical. Evidence of such a reality is seen in Germany, Norway, Iceland, and Finland in which post-secondary institutions do not collect tuition fees. Cabel also makes the bizarre claim that “members of the student movement dismiss any argument that the ratio of teaching and research for tenured faculty may need to be readjusted to ensure that more students receive first-rate instruction” and that any questioning of such faculty practice is equivalent to “facilitating a neoliberal agenda.” Yes, this ratio may very well need to be adjusted. In fact, this seemingly misaligned ratio is a symptom of the claimed neoliberalization of higher education.

Take the article “The Neo-Liberal University,” published in New Labor Forum, in which it is argued that, exactly for reasons of corporate interest and “global economic competitiveness,” administrators are “pushing for greater faculty productivity in ways that affect faculty’s work units and ways of using time.” Further, Stanley Fish notes in the New York Times that in the neoliberal university where “research partnerships with industry” are common, even secure faculty members “churn out reams of scholarship […] that is increasingly specialized and without a clear connection to the public interest.” In this climate of industry-prioritized research both teaching and traditional scholarship suffer.

On Cabel’s reading, the student movement disregards the idea that “a university education should have any direct connection to the practical realities of the Canadian economy.” I hold that not only is this untrue, but that it becomes distastefully so when combined with Cabel’s previous statement that the student movement does not “seek to lift suffering individuals out of poverty or help give them a leg up in the job market.” So far as I can tell, the prioritization of disadvantaged groups’ access to post-secondary education arises precisely from an understanding of the fundamentality of such education to economic well-being.

It is said that talk of “job prospects” and “practical approaches to education” is met with “idealistic intonations about the ‘inherent value’ of a university education.” An example of this value is the humanities, which, Fish reminds us, exist as “their own good.” However, it is an unfortunate truth that the inherent value of an education must be defended against an unpleasant streak of careerism.

I suggest we could well do with an ever sharper reminder to those making budgetary decisions of the traditional and fundamental purpose of the university. This purpose is to “educate, preserve, create and share ideas and new knowledge for the public good” as stated in the University of Manitoba’s Strategic Plan.

There is no denying the need for education to serve certain practical realities, namely the employability and financial security of the individuals pursuing it. Yet there exists a form of myopia in those who believe that not only are the budgetary choices of administrators to be taken at face value, but also that education for its own sake is no longer relevant.

Against this, I say that education is a good in itself and one to be both prioritized and preserved, and I say this in spite of anyone who might claim to speak for the “silent majority.”