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A Tale of Two Cities: Students Protests in Columbus, Ohio and Montreal, Quebec

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by Julian 

Is student loan debt a ticking time bomb? At $870 billion dollars, the money owed on student loans in the United States now surpasses total credit balances. In Canada, the average student debt for a university graduate totals $27,000. Two million Canadians now owe around 20 billion dollars in student loans. Growing levels of student debt in both countries represents part of a larger phenomenon of governments passing off educational costs to individual students rather than funding them as part of the public good.

While part of an international trend, I’ve witnessed how much response to these tuition hikes can vary from place to place. In 2005, I moved from Montreal to Ohio to complete a master’s degree. Even then, tuition rates were rapidly expanding at Ohio’s state universities. The apathetic response to tuition hikes that I encountered among students amazed me.  The reason for my surprise was because at that exact same moment in my native Quebec, over 200, 000 students had gone on strike. They had done so because the provincial government had cut loans and bursaries. Even with these cuts (which were unsuccessful due to student mobilization), Quebec tuition would still have remained about half of what it was in Ohio.

Today, the gap between the student movements in Ohio and Quebec seem just as stark.  In Ohio, average costs for state residents at the main campuses of four-year universities stands at $ 9,600 a year (a 56% increase over the past decade). Ohio State, which has increased annuals charges by 72% over the past decade to $13, 081, even warns its prospective students that they should expect to pay an additional 5% to 10%  every year that they attend. Three weeks ago, around 100 Ohio State students marched in protest.  In contrast, three days ago in Montreal, tens of thousands of students showed up for a demonstration that spanned over 50 city blocks. They were protesting the Liberal government’s plans to raise annual in-province tuition fees from $2,500 to $4,100 over the next five years. Since mid-February, more than 300,000 students have stopped attending classes to challenge this policy.

Montreal demonstration against tuition fees , March 22, 2012

Although many believe that college education is an investment into one’s future—which individual students should play a substantial role in paying back themselves—upon closer inspection the arguments for state tuition increases don’t sound very convincing. Increased fees deter financially disadvantaged students from applying to university, lead to worrisome debt loads for anyone whose family isn’t already well off, and neglect the obscene growth in administrative salaries at college and universities in recent years (which actually do waste money). They also tend to encourage the view that higher education is nothing but a commodity designed for individual advancement, rather than a system that promotes the common good through its original research and teaching.

In cases such as Quebec’s, the tuition increases also represent a drop in the bucket when compared with overall spending on higher education. The tuition hikes seem designed less to pay for needed expenses than to encourage the principle that individuals—rather than society as a whole—should bear the financial burden every time they use a government service. That is, in the name of austerity, they should get used to more regressive taxation.

As the size of student protests in Ohio and Quebec demonstrate, student culture matters in shaping responses to tuition increases. While the Canadian media has relentlessly reminded its readers that Quebecers pay less in tuition than anyone in Canada, they have neglected to highlight to that they also pay considerably higher income taxes in part because they expect more social equality. Since the late 1960s, Quebec students have launched a number of successful petition drives, strikes, occupations, and mass demonstrations that have helped keep costs down. This commitment to student solidarity helps explain why Quebec’s student debt load is by the far the lowest out of all of Canada. In Ohio, on the other hand, not only do you find a political culture that places less of a premium on social equality, but you also have a complex system of higher education that makes organizing protests much more difficult.

Culture and institutions, of course, are malleable. Many in Quebec support increased tuition fees. Its student movement may very well fail to stop the current government’s agenda (as was recently the case in London). At the same time, they might help inspire others. My own, admittedly utopian, hope is that the activism in Quebec encourages students in places like Ohio (just as the negligible tuition fees in places like Norway and the Netherlands have motivated many in Quebec). As universities around the world consider abandoning their missions of serving the common good for the promise of neo-liberal economic efficiencies, the response should ideally be international as well. Indeed, many in the Occupy Movement have turned crushing levels of student debt into an organizing issue.  While I like seeing 100, 000 people marching against tuition increases in Montreal (or London), it would be a great thing to see in Columbus, Ohio too.


Written by Julian Nemeth

March 27, 2012 at 00:19

Blame Canada (or maybe just its press)

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By Julian 

If you came across a newspaper headline that reported, “remark reveals underlying narcissism, analysts say” who do you think the story would be about? You could be forgiven for assuming the article might profile, Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed world-class historian, moon bases advocate, and “teacher of the rules of civilization.” On the other hand, maybe you’re thinking that the story profiled the recent college graduate who applied for a finance job at J.P. Morgan by bragging about his ability to bench press double his body weight and do 35 chin-ups? Obviously, the headline could describe any number of things uttered by Donald Trump.

If you’re familiar with Canadian politics, however, there’s probably a good chance you correctly guessed that the headline described the psychological condition supposedly afflicting federal Member of Parliament, Justin Trudeau. The son of a famed Canadian Prime Minister, Trudeau received a virtual tarring and feathering in the Canadian press this past week because of some comments he made about Quebec separatism. In the offending remarks, he explained that as,  “I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country.” In short, if Canada ever moved so far to the right that it became unrecognizable, a wintery East Texas on the 49th parallel—well, if that day ever came, Trudeau might be open to the possibility of Quebec forming its own country.  Still, in no uncertain terms, Trudeau rejected separatism. Instead, he argued that Quebecers (who tend to be more socially progressive than the rest of the country) had an important role to play spreading their values across Canada.

Were Trudeau's remarks on Quebec separatism simply a beard for his beard?

The responses to this story in Quebec and in the rest of Canada are instructive. In Quebec, views like Trudeau’s are utterly uncontroversial. In the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, 49% of Quebecers voted for independence. While support for separatism has declined somewhat since then, 60% of Quebecers still identify primarily or exclusively with Quebec.  And these numbers are significantly higher when you poll only Quebec’s French-speaking majority. Even the current Prime Minister, Steven Harper, has officially recognized that the Quebecois form a unique “nation”—with their own language, culture, and history—within Canada.  The only reason Trudeau’s remarks initially received any attention in Quebec was because they avoided the polemical flourishes against separatists, which helped make his father, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, so famous.

If you read the press outside of Quebec, however, you might have thought that had Trudeau called for armed insurrection. In Parliament, Conservative MPs attacked his loyalty. Pundits lashed out at Trudeau’s supposed ignorance, immaturity, and vanity. So did several political scientists: one even went so far as to label his remarks “treasonous.” In Quebec, what looks like a nuanced position in favor of national unity, seems closer to separatist posturing in much of the rest of the country.

Estimated cost to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee 7.5 million. The Queen's picture on a bilingual stamp, priceless.

The context for the “Trudeau Affair” is the fact that Canadians have recently elected their first majority Conservative government in almost two decades. After only a few months in office, the Conservatives have moved the country sharply to the right. The government  has reduced restrictions on gun control, passed a crime bill that relies almost exclusively on harsher sentencing, and have strongly hinted at reducing pensions for the elderly. To defend deeply controversial environmental and Internet surveillance policies, conservative ministers have lashed out at their opponents as agents of liberal billionaire George Soros and child pornographers (I’m not kidding). In terms of Canadian identity, the government has made major efforts to strengthen the country’s ties to the British monarchy (which will probably never be something very popular in Quebec).

Fortunately, many Canadians—not just Quebecers—reject the atavistic impulse to return their country to the halcyon days of the British Empire. While the Conservative Party formed a majority government in the last election, it received less than 40% of the votes cast. It also turns out that numerous law-abiding Canucks don’t like having their ministers accuse them of supporting “the pedophiles” when they  oppose unlimited government surveillance.  In fact, the comment sections on the many articles denouncing Trudeau were filled with citizens from across the country sympathetic to his views. These readers empathized with Trudeau’s frustration at divisive right-wing politics and realized that he was in no way endorsing separatism.

While Quebec might be a distinct society, nation-wide dissatisfaction with the Conservative government may yet provide some hope for national unity.

Written by Julian Nemeth

February 19, 2012 at 22:22

Do Scholarship and Politics Mix? Stanley Fish and Howard Zinn on Academic Freedom

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by Julian 

Scholarship and politics don’t mix. At least not according to literary theorist and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish, who has been arguing for years that professors should “save the world on their own time.” Just last week, he reiterated this point in a column about a conference he attended on “originalism,” the contentious legal doctrine that judges should interpret the Constitution as the framers had originally understood it. Despite the subject matter’s obvious implications for hot-button issues like immigration and the health care mandate, Fish happily reported that conference participants stayed focused only on matters of academic concern. They never waded into the territory of political partisanship.  As he explained,

It would be an understatement to say that these questions provoke heated discussion in the world at large, but at the conference they were not themselves debated; no one stood up to say that he was for or against the individual mandate, or that citizenship standards should be relaxed or tightened. Instead participants argued (vigorously, but politely and with unfailing generosity) about where and with what methods inquiry into the questions should begin. Actually asking and answering them was left to other arenas  (the arenas of the legislature, the courts and the ballot box) where their direct, as opposed to academic, consideration would be appropriate.

While Fish’s insistence on the stark distinction between partisanship and scholarship might strike some as unrealistic, it comes out of his broader view on the nature of academic freedom. From his perspective, academic freedom differs fundamentally from the free speech rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Unlike most workplaces, colleges and universities don’t have the right to fire their academic staff because of their opinions. More accurately, they don’t have the right to do so if they operate under the academic freedom guidelines established nearly a century ago by the American Association of University Professors.

How did faculty members gain these special protections? In the United States, academic freedom began to gain institutional support during the Progressive Era, a period in which many placed a high value on the ability of disinterested expertise to solve social problems.  Academic freedom was originally designed to advance such expert knowledge. The AAUP argued that faculty members needed professional autonomy in order to remain free of the corrupting influence of business interests, religious groups, political parties, and labor unions. To advance knowledge, only accredited specialists could judge the merit of academic work: this explains the necessity of peer review.

By politicizing their work, Fish argues, faculty members weaken these philosophical justifications that protect academic freedom. If the broader public believes that professors at the universities they support promote a political agenda—rather than disinterested scholarship—the public will then have reasonable grounds to insert itself into decisions about research and teaching that had once been reserved for academic experts. The rationale for academic autonomy crumbles.

Not long after reading Fish’s recent column, I happened to come across a speech on academic freedom written by the militant historian, Howard Zinn. As anyone at all familiar with Zinn’s work will have probably guessed, the speech promoted a vision of the academic enterprise diametrically opposed to the one articulated by Fish. Delivered to an audience of South African academics in 1982, the speech implored all scholars to fight against the temptations of political complacency. For Zinn, academic freedom had

always meant the right to insist that freedom be more than academic –that the university, because of its special claim to be a place for the pursuit of truth be a place where we can challenge not only the ideas but the institutions, the practices of society, measuring them against millennia-old ideals of equality and justice.

From Zinn’s standpoint, any understanding of academic freedom that urged scholars to remain aloof from contemporary social struggles remained hollow to the core. Professional autonomy might have its place, but at what cost? 

American higher education, Zinn insisted, had historically served the interests of wealthy elites that dominated the worlds of big business and the state. As long as faculty members quietly went along their business—training the middle managers and professionals that would keep the deeply unequal society running smoothly—the powers that be would grant them a degree of autonomy and prestige. Should scholars really be content with this state of affairs?

Zinn also maintained that in attempting to remain apolitical, academics actually performed a disservice to scholarship. Under the guise of objectivity, academic standards often masked support for the status quo. These standards encouraged social scientists to put on blinders when they examined issues of racial, sexual, and class inequality. In the name of supposed neutrality, professional disciplines such as engineering and finance often eschewed questions of values all together. This kind of thinking, he believed, helped encourage the mindset that led American academics to play important roles developing weapons and providing expertise for the Vietnam War.

Zinn used his own experience teaching courses at the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s and early 1960s to illuminate the limitations of a narrow view of academic freedom.  The Spelman campus, he remembered, was beautiful. Ideas were openly discussed within college walls. However, faculty and students were expected to publicly remain silent on segregation.  If they had publicly expressed themselves on this issue, it would have caused a scandal and threatened the college’s vaunted autonomy. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Zinn explains, a critical mass of students and faculty stopped self-censoring themselves. They had realized that a measure of academic freedom within the college meant little if it was not accompanied by the right to fight for justice and equality on the outside too. In stark contrast, to Fish, Zinn concludes,

I did not think I could talk about politics and history in the classroom, deal with war and peace, discuss the question of obligation to the state versus obligation to one’s brothers and sisters throughout the world, unless I demonstrated by my actions that these were not academic questions to be decided by scholarly disputation, but real ones to be decided in social struggle.

Zinn practiced what he preached. He served as a faculty advisor to SNCC in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, he engaged in sit-down strikes with campus workers at Boston University. In 1980, he produced one of the most famous and contentious works of revisionist scholarship in American history.  Throughout his career, he devoted his writing and public life to exposing injustice. Due to his outspoken activism, he was trailed for decades by the FBI and at least one high-ranking member of his university tried to have him fired.

Is there a middle road between the radical commitment demanded by Zinn and the academic formalism celebrated by Fish? It seems to me that academics often produce first-rate scholarship that also happens to promote a political agenda. There are many works based on meticulous research and judicious reasoning that also make clear interventions into contentious public debates.  Just in the past year or two, this appears to be the case in books as varied as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Takes-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, and, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. The authors of these books have all received praise (and criticism) from their peers in academia, while also making important and pointed contributions to debates of major public significance.

Fish is right to the degree that the academy shouldn’t be a place that promotes political propaganda. On the other hand, it would be a sad state indeed if at least some academics didn’t also heed Zinn’s advice. We need more, not less, rigorous works of scholarship that deepen an often shallow public discourse on issues of crucial concern.

Written by Julian Nemeth

February 10, 2012 at 12:54

A CFP We Can Believe In

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By Julian 

Do you own dog-eared copies of David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition? Do you get into heated arguments with your philosopher friends about the continued relevance of the pragmatist tradition? Did you consider a career in finance, but instead opt for the much more sensible life choice of writing academic articles about the social history of ideas? If you answered yes to any of these questions, there’s a good possibility that you might be interested in putting together a panel for the Fifth Annual United States Intellectual History Conference next November in New York City. The Call for Papers has just been posted here. This year’s theme is “Communities of Discourse.”

Speaking of intellectual networks, and in the interest of full disclosure, three out of the five of us here at PhD Octopus have presented papers at this conference in the past. There’s no doubt that our own communities of discourse have expanded as a result. Since I began attending the meetings four years ago, I’ve always come away impressed with the conference’s sustained growth, the quality of scholarship on the panels, and its organizers’ tendency to highlight innovative historical work that also has obvious contemporary relevance. Besides all that, it’s nice to attend a meeting where the participants actually seem happy to be there, rather than nervous about the anxiety-inducing job interview to come.

Written by Julian Nemeth

February 1, 2012 at 22:20

The Deep Roots of Conservative Victimhood

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The roots go much deeper.

By Julian

Last week, Newt Gingrich reinvigorated his presidential campaign with a fiery appeal to conservative victimhood. Questions about his past infidelities, Gingrich explained, reflected the liberal media’s efforts to destroy the conservative movement. “I’m tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” he thundered. Cue the multiple standing ovations from the rapt audience of South Carolina conservatives. Never mind the fact that Gingrich had helped build his career by denouncing Bill Clinton’s commitment to “family values” while he himself engaged in extra-marital affairs. For those in this audience, all that mattered was that they had found a politician willing to voice their grievances against the all-powerful liberal establishment.

The right-wing populism that Gingrich so effectively marshaled at last week’s debate is often contrasted with a more reasonable brand of conservative thinking that supposedly flourished in a past golden age. In this declension narrative, touted by Mark Lilla in his controversial review of Corey Robin’s new book, The Reactionary Mind, a sophisticated conservative intellectual tradition has recently descended into the swamplands of populist demagoguery. As Lilla explains, “Most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will and the ascendancy of new populist reactionaries like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and other Tea Party favorites.”

The problem with this view, as others have pointed out, is that American conservatives have been bashing the “liberal elite” now for going on six decades.  It’s part of their DNA. William Buckley Jr., the most influential intellectual in the postwar conservative movement, might have rejected the conspiracy theorists at the John Birch Society, but he also supported massive resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, wrote a book defending Senator McCarthy, and praised the fascist government in Franco’s Spain. While he could be witty and charming, Buckley was also merciless in attacking a liberal elite that he believed had come to dominate (and enervate) American society since the New Deal.

In fact, Buckley launched his career in 1951 with a book that claims liberals had used “academic freedom” as a tool to monopolize higher education and suppress conservative thought. During a period in which over 100 professors lost their jobs because of the Second Red Scare, Buckley asserts that conservatives were academia’s true victims. In God and Man at Yale he also calls for the elimination of peer review and tenure in favor of a system that would allow those who pay for colleges and universities—typically parents and alumni—to determine their ideological content: “For in the last analysis, academic freedom must mean the freedom of men and women to supervise the educational activities and aims of the schools they oversee and support.” Universities needed to be run by the people who paid for them, not a band of unaccountable academics. It’s hard to imagine a critique more populist in character.

To be fair, right-wing appeals to populism explain why conservative intellectuals helped inspire a mass movement rather than a club for disenchanted, antediluvian curmudgeons. Still it’s worth remembering that intellectuals such as Buckley gained fame and notoriety by providing learned support for causes such as McCarthyism, Massive Resistance, and the firing of liberal faculty at Ivy League Universities. They provide a blueprint for today’s Newt Gingrichs, not an antidote.

Written by Julian Nemeth

January 25, 2012 at 21:39

Psychiatric Scandals

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By Nemo

Whatever happened to the couch?

If you haven’t already read Marcia Angell’s two review essays on the state of psychiatry in the New York Review of Books, I urge you to do so now. They are absolutely devastating. Angell, the former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, provides so much evidence of systematic corruption at the heart of the profession that it might just give you a newfound respect for the Church of Scientology. (Okay, maybe not.)

Others have documented the growing number of seemingly common forms of behavior that psychiatrists describe as mental illness, the increasing prevalence of drugs over talk therapy as a preferred method of treatment, and the vast sums of cash that pharmaceutical companies spend marketing their wares. Angell ties these phenomena together. She also raises serious questions about the quality of research that justifies the prescription of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications.
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Written by Julian Nemeth

July 6, 2011 at 20:23

The Wire, Treme, and the Sociological Imagination

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By Nemo

Am I the only one out there who prefers Treme to The Wire? While reviews for Treme have been mixed, many critics have dubbed The Wire the best television series of all time. Everyone seems to love The Wire’s epic portrayal of the drug trade in West Baltimore.  Pundits from across the political spectrum blogged about it. Top legal scholars and sociologists have used it as a teaching tool. President Obama called it his favorite television series. Attorney General, Eric Holder, requested a sixth season (probably to his embarrassment). In 2010, the show’s creator, David Simon, even won a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Grant. By contrast, the critical response to Treme, Simon’s recent series on post-Katrinia New Orleans, has been much more reserved, with viewers complaining about its supposedly slow pace and irritating characters.
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Written by Julian Nemeth

June 20, 2011 at 20:04