Some columnists, mostly but not exclusively on the right of the political spectrum, never get tired of explaining to their audience all the ways that the modern-day university is failing its students. Here in Canada we have Rex Murphy, who never seems to tire of informing National Post readers all the ways that universities have fallen since the golden age of the 1960s when he led student sit-ins at Memorial University. For example, in 2015, Murphy wrote columns lamenting these “Institutes of Lower Education,” warning his readers that the modern universities risk becoming “cocoons of self-indulgence” and calling on “real” professors to stand up to weak-willed administrators and spoiled and indoctrinated students. While the most prolific, Murphy is not alone, as both Margaret Wente and Barbara Kay have railed against what they perceive as the problematic state of post-secondary education in North America.
However, while these commentators pepper their columns with modern examples drawn from Yale or York University, their arguments about the declining quality of education available to young Canadians, the radical ideas promoted by faculty and the deleterious effects on Canadian democracy and financial prosperity have been rehashed to death throughout the course of the 20th, and now 21st, century. Arguing that universities, which served the writer’s generation so well are now failing in their mandate, seems to be something of a hobby-horse for many politicians and political commentators. As I’ll demonstrate below, the economic and geopolitical turbulence of the 1930s provided particularly fertile breeding ground for arguments that will sound so familiar to present-day readers.
One of the most prominent examples of Depression-Era politicians and commentators lamenting the state of Ontario Universities comes from 1939. As the Globe and Mail detailed in front-page article from April 13th of that year, the radical ideas of Trinity College Classics Professor G.M.A. Grube ended up being the subject of debate at the Ontario Provincial Parliament. Grube, a member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), had spoken at the CCF’s annual convention, arguing that increased defence spending by the Canadian government was, “a waste of public funds in the interest of British Imperialism.” In response, both Liberal Premier Mitchell (Mitch) Hepburn and Conservative Leader George Drew both demanded that Trinity College take immediate action to discipline said professor. While Hepburn offered bland platitudes regarding “the good people” of Ontario, the comments by future Ontario Premier and Federal Conservative Party leader George Drew are more interesting. Not only does he condemn Professor Grube, he also argued that these comments were part of a disturbing trend. Drew argued that:
The statement was a particularly disturbing example of what is constantly being said by people who are in a position to influence the minds of many young people… [Professor Grube was] seeking to spread the seditious poison among the young people he is supposed to teach ad influence.
For Drew, Professor Grube and his pacifist, anti-imperialist politics were not the main problem, rather they were simply a symptom of a much broader malaise facing institutes of higher education.
These comments were not the first time that Drew had criticized Canadian universities en masse for the subversive politics supposedly taught on campus. Before he became the leader of the Ontario Conservatives in 1938 (after failing in 1936) Drew gave hundreds of speeches at various locations around the province. These speeches have been carefully preserved by Library and Archives Canada and offer an excellent insight into Drew’s world view and, more generally, the ideas he thought would resonate well with Ontario Conservatives. In a speech from 1937 entitled “Will Democracy Take It Lying Down” Drew railed against the supposed disloyal elements present in Canadian colleges. In particular, he highlighted a speech by Rabbi Eisendrath at Hart House, the University of Toronto student activity centre named after Hart Massey. In this speech Eisendrath supposedly argued that British re-armament represented a threat to world peace. Even if, Drew went on, such an argument was worth hearing – which it wasn’t in Drew’s estimation – Eisendrath was an American Jew, a “citizen of another country” and not a loyal British subject. Thus, in Drew’s eyes allowing Eisendrath to speak was tantamount to treason.
However, the rabbi’s speech was not, Drew asserted, an isolated event. Rather, it was part of a broader conspiracy against Britain, which Canadian universities were aiding and abetting. The future premier closed his speech with the following comments:
Those who are seeking to undermine our institutions and our faith in the British Empire are organized and active. Those of us who believe that Canada should remain British and that British institutions should guide our destiny should be organized equally well.
In part, these comments help explain Drew’s statements in the Provincial Parliament two-years later. He was politically committed, if not a firm believer, in the threat universities posed to British institutions, such as parliamentary democracy, and the desperate need for loyal Britons to counter this nefarious influence.
For Drew, it really was the future of Canada as a British country and a parliamentary democracy that was at stake. In a speech Drew gave in 1938, shortly before winning the leadership race for the Ontario Conservatives, he argued that “the future of Canada will depend to a very great extent on what young Canadians are taught today.” He went on to state that Canadian democracy was imperiled by the dangerous ideas taught on Canadian campuses. Citing a Globe and Mail article entitled “Tenents of Reds Taught” from May of 1938, he argued that many professors, whose salaries were paid for by profits from capitalist institutions, were actively undermining capitalism itself. Drew stated that “there [is] today in our universities some who are accepting the benefits and reasonable security of democratic capitalism and at the same time are deliberately creating distrust in that system in the minds of our youth.” For Drew, If Ontario, and Canada more broadly, refused to act to curb these dangerous ideas, then capitalism was doomed, and without capitalism – a British invention in his eyes – there could be no democracy.
In fairness to Conservatives (big and little c) in the 1930s, the left was also deeply concerned about the type of education young people were receiving at these institutes of higher learning. A former professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary in Montreal and founder of the CCF, J. King Gordon also spoke about the problems with Canadian universities. King, who by 1935 was a traveling spokesman for the CCF, gave a speech entitled “The University and the Crisis of Democracy.” King argued that universities were failing to produce community minded individuals who were incapable of leading the towns and villages across the country that most desperately needed their leadership. King stated that, “the university is turning out a majority of its graduate without a sense of community responsibility, the percentage of graduates in the districts which are most in need of leadership is pathetically small.” For King, the modern university’s focus on developing individual talents and not civic-mindedness was part of the so-called “crisis of democracy” that he saw. Similar to Drew, for King the failure of the university meant the failure of Canadian democracy more generally.
Modern day pundits and commentators, as well as their historical counterparts, all seem to value the idea of the university, seeing, both then and now, post-secondary education as a means of enhancing civil society and the economy. However, with this belief in the mission of the university comes a deep concern when schools fail to teach students in the manner said writer or speaker thinks students should be taught. While the specific nature of each elder generations complaints changes – not to many are concerned about anti-British sentiments these days – the broader principle, that universities are failing Canadian society and democracy by breeding radicals, remains the same. One would think that having a slight bit of context would possibly lead people like Rex Murphy and Barbara Kay to tone down their rhetoric but I suspect they won’t. After all, if warning Canadians about the dangerous ideas present on campus has lasted this long, it probably will continue another 80 years at least. Besides, the script it already written, just change the names of the actors and the issue at hand and you have all the tools to manufacture outrage for political gain yet again.