Last week like a lot of Canadian parents I dropped my eldest daughter off at university for her first year of studies. On this occasion the university was King's College in Halifax, a smallish undergraduate institution attached at the hip to Dalhousie. What's endearing about King's is their slightly eccentric attachment to Anglo traditions stretching back to the college's founding as a loyalist institution at the end of the 18th century. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, King's marks George III's birthday by giving their students the day off.
The other thing I like about King's is that the first year arts undergraduates all read from the same syllabus. It's a Great Books program proceeding chronologically starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh, plowing through the Bible, Plato's Republic, Dante, Shakespeare, Martin Luther, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill and finishing up with Freud and de Beauvoir.
Now the pedagogy undergirding all this is a bit above my pay grade but one thing is clear; each successive wave of intellectual foment disagreed profoundly with that which preceded, ie if there's a through line it is dissent. Dissent is the necessary though not sufficient precondition for critical thinking. That we disagree is obvious and ultimately trivial. Why we disagree is what matters. I'm hoping a year reading and debating these texts will give my daughter a solid grounding from which to pursue the lessons it takes a lifetime to learn.
Which brings me to a short conversation I had with a fellow named Olivier Lanctot outside the courthouse in northwest Toronto where he'd just been arraigned on conspiracy charges stemming from the G20 protests last June. Olivier is a second year student at UQAM who was arrested early on Sunday morning, June 27, along with a bunch of other students in a makeshift dorm at U of T. He claims the cops invaded the dorm with their weapons drawn. I asked him what motivated him to come Toronto to protest at the G20. "I am," he said "against the principles of capitalism" and he added somberly: "I thought, who will [protest]if I don't"
The cops claim Lanctot was involved in torching one of the three police cars burned to a crisp that weekend. Lanctot claims that he was nowhere near any of the violence and that he "feels like Joseph K in Kafka's The Trial." His case was held over until October when he'll have to interrupt his studies in Montreal in order to face these charges. I'm going out on a limb here but I'm willing to bet that Olivier Lanctot didn't commit the crimes of which he is accused. What he is guilty of is being young and possibly naïve, of imagining that dissent requires no justification beyond the content of his own intellect and conscience. He is in short every parent's son or daughter searching for a way of being; of asking the questions it takes a lifetime to answer. Criminalizing dissent the way the federal, provincial, and city authorities did during the G20 was more than just a temporary suspension of civil rights. It was a violation of the fundamental covenant between youth and experience. If we let this slide we will fail ourselves and our children.