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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2009

The Politics of Engagement

By Dennis Desroches
Teach Them to Challenge Authority: Educating for Healthy Societies, Gregory S. Prince Jr. New York, NY & London, UK: Continuum, 2008; 256 pp; ISBN: 9780826491381, cloth $26.95 US.
This book belongs to that species of reflection on the state of the university found most commonly among retired university presidents, whose experience, they intuit, makes them experts on the broader ideological, philosophical and moral questions facing tertiary education. Such texts can, in fact, be valuable for a number of reasons, although not exclusively for the reasons their authors suppose. This is also true of Prince’s book.

Prince uses his experiences as president of Hampshire College, an elite New England liberal arts college, to speak out against the creeping “neutralism” of neo-conservative calls for greater discipline for “liberal” faculty, a largely American problem that, nevertheless, is not without relevance to Canadian academics.

He argues for an “engaged” university, one which seeks explicitly to model the behaviour it wants to reproduce in its students, over against the neo-conservative desire to compel professors to simply dispense information “neutrally,” thereby creating a context in which a student can “decide for herself” the merits of a particular intellectual position. Put otherwise, the neo-conservative position believes students best learn to think for themselves when professors avoid thinking at all. So Prince is right to point out the contradiction at the heart of the neo-conservative project, that is, that this desire for a “neutral,” non-ideological professoriate is itself an ideological position.

His rejection of this position includes fascinating case studies on the institution of conceptually progressive, even risky, new universities in South Africa, Belarus, Bangladesh, Singapore and Bulgaria. These model for Prince the necessity for universities and their students to engage their local politics of intellectual life — the very ability to undertake intellectual critique being something, he rightly notes, we in North Ame­rica too often take for granted.

But there are significant problems with the text, both rhetorically and conceptually, and these have to do with an untheorized attempt to speak to the question of institutional authority in the academy. Prince wants students to challenge authority, but to do so both “ap­propriately” and “constructively.” These two words are repeated so many times — “constructive” is repeated five times on pages 35 and 36 alone — that they are enervated to the point of cliché.

The result of deploying such terms without theoret­ical referent is that Prince can call for the challenge to authority without ever asking the question of what it might mean to challenge an authoritative interpretation of what is appropriate or constructive (one cannot help but wish Prince had some passing familiarity with Althusser on this, or with Foucault or Žižek).

As a result, his rhetoric allows him to infantilize students precisely by claiming to treat them as adults — to treat one as an adult is to acknowledge in the simile that one is not an adult, so that on page 37, for instance, we see Prince explicitly analogizing the professor-student relationship as that of a parent to a child. Such thinking threatens the very nature of a university classroom, which must avoid this kind of infantilism at all costs.

And the fact of the matter is that aligning critical thinking with a moral responsibility to be constructive and appropriate, as Prince does, ignores — even prohibits — the possibility that any challenge to authority worthy of the name is by definition inappropriate and largely destructive. This is true particularly when the authority in question is responsible for determining the limits of propriety in advance.

Prince attempts to determine those limits, with what he calls the “Principles of Discourse,” seven guiding principles for any act of confrontation. (p. 17) It’s true they all have at their heart the idea that knowledge is best produced, and change is best effected, when we are civil to each other. It’s an idea I believe in. But it’s rarely true on the ground, and the fact remains that Prince’s own experiences, as narrated throughout the book, attest precisely to the failure of this ultimately sentimental position.

For example, “principle seven” says the end never justifies the means (clichés are the inevitable result of his sentimentality). And yet, at least twice in the book, and seemingly without being aware of it, Prince narrates moments in the life of Hampshire College where students act “inappropriately,” but manage to get their way nonetheless; that is, where ends do indeed justify the means. In these examples, he unconvincingly paints the board of trustees as haplessly bullied into accepting students’ demands despite the “destructive” means used to attain them.

It’s also notable that while one of the “principles” includes language about refusing to participate in personal attacks, that language is conspicuously absent in an open letter he pens to his college community where he cites those principles. Instead, he chooses to aggressively personalize his response to the “inappropriate,” and specifically anonymous, behaviours of some students around the 9/11 attacks. (p. 94)

In effect, his letter dramatizes precisely why it is still sometimes necessary to preserve anonymity in the face of authority. For these students, acting out against the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks was not simply a challenge to authority, but a challenge to an interpretation of propriety, of what an appropriate response to the attacks might be — not an easy thing to do in the climate that prevailed in the days, weeks and months following the attacks. His vaguely threatening letter is perhaps the best evidence of how he misconstrues the nature of the authority he possesses as college president.

So it’s a curious, at times moody, book. There is wisdom here, thoroughly anecdotal as it may be. And it is valuable for its international outlook. But it lacks the self-reflection it claims to want to instill in students. And the sentimentality of its arguments for teaching students to challenge authority fails to address crucial ideological and philosophical questions about the nature of institutional authority itself.

In the end, I think this book will reward reading, but not always for the reasons the author had in mind.

Dennis Desroches is associate professor of literary theory at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, a past president of the Faculty Association of the University of St. Thomas and vice president of the Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations.