The Lindsay Shepherd affair at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), which I have written about elsewhere, has brought the issue of political correctness on campus run amok to a tipping point.
Even the reliably left-leaning Toronto Star admonished the faculty and administration interrogators who bullied Shepherd for her attempt to expose students to both sides of a contentious social issue, and called for a “much healthier balance” to be restored to academia.
Key to the massive attention the incident received was the fact that Shepherd’s “interview” – in reality, more like a Chinese “struggle session” – by three university representatives with power over her, and apparent pleasure in wielding it, was (surreptitiously) recorded and subsequently listened to by hundreds of thousands of people, whose rapid swell of expressed indignation exposed WLU to a humiliating backlash..
Social media has been aflame with reactions to the incident. Few people have come to the defence of WLU, but one prominent pundit tweeted that far too much fuss was being made about this particular event because it was a one-off and not “typical” of WLU practices.
He was wrong. Shepherd was not the first academic to suffer injustice in this matter. She was simply the first to record it and disseminate proof of her victimhood.
As far back as 2005, for example, academic Chris DiCarlo endured a similar scenario at WLU, and it’s worth recalling, because the incident demonstrates the Shepherd affair is part of a pattern not by any means confined to WLU: i) earnest teacher exposes students to both sides of a debate on an issue in the classic liberal style of education, or to evidence-based historical facts on a subject; ii) a student is hurt or offended by or opposed to the information brought forward and complains; iii) instead of informing the student that the educational process cannot be guaranteed to make the student intellectually comfortable at all times, the university punishes the teacher.
DiCarlo, much beloved by his students (in 2008, then teaching at another university, he would be named Ontario’s “Best Lecturer”) was at the time on tenure track at WLU and shortlisted as the top contender for a professorship in Critical Thinking. DiCarlo triggered his ordeal by referencing, as factual, in class what was then the scientific consensus regarding homo sapiens’ common origins seven million years ago in central Africa (although more recent evidence-based findings indicate that Europe is also a contender for that honour.)
But that message was displeasing to certain First Nations students, who, in spite of persuasive evidence their indigenous ancestors crossed the Bering Strait some 13,000 years ago, adhered to the belief that indigenous North Americans originated here, which, if true, would make Canadian indigenous peoples not only a separate ethnicity or race, but a separate species – an untenable proposition.
It’s a touchy subject for aboriginals attached to their creation myths (just as evolution is touchy for Christian Bible literalists), and perhaps calls for some delicate stick handling by academics in this therapeutic era, but DiCarlo had done nothing inherently wrong in presenting objective facts any more than Shepherd did in neutrally exposing two opposing views on gender and language.
Nevertheless, DiCarlo was accused by a student of the progressive thought crime known as “stolen legacy.” This is an allegation certain minorities level against white historians employing “Eurocentrist” methods of inquiry into history, which they feel perpetuates a racist or colonialist attitude to minorities by trivializing “ways of knowing” other than traditional scholarship .
(The most famous stolen-legacy case is that of American classicist Mary Lefkowitz, whose insistence that Greek philosophy was invented by the Greeks, and not by the Egyptians, as some black activists claim, ended in a soul-corroding lawsuit.)
According to an interview with DiCarlo on humanistiperspectives.org, one particularly prickly aboriginal student told DiCarlo, “My people don’t believe in what you’re saying.” DiCarlo said he answered him (not sarcastically, but earnestly), “I understand that…and I would maintain that they’re wrong.”
In an email to me, DiCarlo said he then suggested the student “bring in people from Six Nations e.g. tribal leaders, sachems, etc., and I would bring in some scientists so that we could have a dialogue to discuss what happens when cultural beliefs clash with scientific facts. I wanted it to be a genuine teachable moment. The entire class was very much in support of this suggestion.” Instead, the student did not return to class, but complained to the administration.
Two other students complained that DiCarlo was “religiously insensitive” in his (normative) views on evolution. The upshot was that he was passed over for merited academic advancement (WLU actually terminated the position, presumably to preclude dissension over it), and his sessional courses were allocated elsewhere. That ended DiCarlo’s WLU career.
Ironically, DiCarlo’s ratings by his students were always stellar. His refusal to take any ideological position in class allowed for free-ranging discussion, bound only by the inherent rules of logic, evidence and civility. In my era – the late 1950s and early 1960s – DiCarlo would have been a professor held up as the very model of free academic enquiry. No complaint by any student based in offence taken over evidence-based statements or exposure to multiple perspectives would have been taken seriously.
It was DiCarlo’s bad luck to be born in the wrong era, when teaching objectively harvested historical and scientific truths, and exposing students to opposing opinions, can sink a career if complaints arise from victim groups accredited as such by the Left – natives, women, LGBT and Muslims – but when a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and well-documented purveyor of “unhinged anti-Semitic nonsense” can retain his standing at a respectable Alberta university.
After the WLU affair, DiCarlo was able to get teaching gigs here and there, but, his reputation as a troublemaker preceding him, he never attained tenure. Today, DiCarlo teaches a few courses at the University of Toronto, and runs an educational consultancy in critical thinking. He is also the author of several books on the subject. A summary of his latest book, How to Disagree and Get Along – Six Steps to Critical Thinking, can be found here. DiCarlo would love to see it used in high schools, so students would come to university armed with real rules for debate, rather than depending on feelings to decide what is and what is not permissible for discussion.
The ironic title of DiCarlo’s 2011 book is How to Become a really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions. DiCarlo has himself been a really good pain in the ass his entire professional career (that sojourn chronicled in his own words here), but for the last 40 years on university campuses, that is, alas, where critical thinkers’ troubles generally begin.