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Monday, April 12, 1999Have DNA, will teach
'Hey buddy, I'm in bad shape:" There are times when the long-gone liberal university grabs you like a panhandler who won't go away. A job ad in a recent Canadian Association of University Teachers Bulletin (the virtual hiring hall for academics) belongs in a time capsule about what happened to the "value-free" university:
University of Saskatchewan -- Department of English. Applications are invited from scholar-teachers of Aboriginal ancestry for a tenure-track position . . . to offer courses . . . in Aboriginal literature and teachings. Qualifications will include advanced knowledge of traditional Aboriginal teachings, and the PhD or equivalent qualification.
Scroll to the bulletin's stated rules about the job notices appearing in its columns: "The publisher will not accept advertisements of academic positions restricting applications on grounds of race, national origin, religion, colour, sex, age, marital status, family status, ethnicity, handicap, sexual preference, social origin, or political beliefs or affiliation."
Juxtaposing these items induces "cognitive dissonance." Where is the mental migraine coming from? After all, the post-modern university has been around for a while. The ideologically committed academy stipulating a DNA code for an academic position, the assumption that a single one of the myriad of "traditional knowledge" experiences is the correct one: nothing new about any of this.
The message sometimes comes from what we call the Right; it also comes from what we could call the Left. The song remains the same. "We do not want you just to teach an academic discipline; we want you somehow to embody an ideological stance." This pressure bubbles up on various spots of the academic griddle. A group informs a university that a scholar's examination of the origins of a religious sect is impermissible. It disturbs the community of faith. A scholar's position on gender equity becomes too hot for the university to handle after his/her colleagues accuse her/him of sexism. Somebody else is informed that a project on preferential admissions fails to merit funding because it appears outside the consensus/paradigm of current thought. Fill in new names, change dates and locations. You can cut and paste any number of parallel repressions, some in the column headed Us, others ranked under the one called Them.
That pressure has always been a factor in the academy. The ideology of liberalism itself, however, gave the modern, liberal university a shield (whenever it could come up with the guts to use it) against that conformist drive. Liberalism is an ideological stance, we now know, like any other. But its saving grace lay in its sanctification of resistance to authority and its endorsement of an ultimately unreachable objectivity. The post-modern university scorns that shield, and sees it as a defence of elitism.
The dissonance arises when the academy inadvertently calls attention to the hollow shell of liberalism which once served as the host organism for the post-modern university. That scooped-out stump, passed off as a tree during fundraising, produced the we-can't-touch-some-kinds-of-ads maxim so coolly disregarded in the job ad. The job ad you are reading tells you of the real university, and the real criteria the hiring committee is working from. Usually, the emperor drapes himself a bit less casually.
My thoughts will likely generate the rejoinder that a number of inherently good and universally acknowledged principles dear to all humankind produced the wording of that job ad. If that happens, remember this. Whether it's that whiz-bang veggie cutter you picked on the midway or that quick fix for the economy that you heard on the talk show, no piece of shoddy merchandise has ever been pitched without some version of Amazing Grace humming in the background.
Dennis Duffy teaches at the University of Toronto.
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