Kingston, Ont., resident Ken Cuthbertson’s latest book is 1945: The Year That Made Modern Canada. He is a graduate of Queen’s University and spent 28 years as editor of the Queen’s alumni magazine.
My late father, a no-nonsense, blue-collar Kingstonian and a Second World War veteran, used to rant about the behaviour of Queen’s students. “Educated idiots,” he sometimes would fume, and not totally without good reason.
After Golden Gaels’ football wins on sunlit Saturday fall afternoons in the 1960s, thousands of gleeful students often would march from the campus into the downtown. Once there, they’d form a conga line that snaked for blocks down the middle of Princess Street, the city’s shopping thoroughfare. This invariably would snarl traffic, set car horns honking and move the locals to mutter words that aren’t fit for a family newspaper. In retrospect, a conga line on the main drag was small potatoes, certainly nothing to get excited about – let alone to prompt civic officials to read the riot act and call in the army to “break heads,” as my father demanded. As they say on the playing field, “No harm, no foul.”
Times have changed. So, too, has the level and coarseness of student misbehaviour. In recent years, it has become much rowdier and mean-spirited, more destructive and infinitely more troubling – particularly during the annual homecoming weekend at Queen’s University. Take last weekend, for example.
Despite repeated warnings and impassioned pleas by university administrators, public-health officials and city police, a rowdy crowd estimated to be as large as 8,000 students and hangers-on gathered last Saturday evening for an unsanctioned street party on Aberdeen Street. Nearly 150 fines were given out and three criminal charges were laid, and one police officer went to hospital after being injured in an arrest scuffle. The Aberdeen Street party was broken up by a line of police in riot gear. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Nor was the street party’s aftermath, when thousands of young people trashed nearby Victoria Park.
While the Saturday night unrest in Kingston has set the whole town talking, the sobering reality (pun intended) is that unsanctioned street parties and student rowdiness aren’t unique to Queen’s. This fall, there have been ugly reminders of that at universities far and wide – at Western, Ottawa and Acadia, to name just three.
The reasons this is happening are as varied as they are complex. That said, there are specific steps that could be taken by academic administrators and civic officials in Kingston – and perhaps elsewhere – that could help curb some of the more problematic behaviour. Here in Kingston, Queen’s University and its alumni association could remove the focal point of the trouble by ending the debacle that homecoming has become. Or they could move the event to spring, after the students have gone home at the end of the academic year. In addition, Queen’s could – and should – stop insisting it has, at best, a limited role to play in regulating off-campus student behaviour, or that homecoming weekend problems are caused by “outside troublemakers.” What nonsense. Both excuses are weak-kneed cop-outs that simply aren’t credible. They make the senior administration and its communications people seem tone deaf and out of touch.
Curiously, while Queen’s has long touted extracurricular activities and the virtues of life in this medium-sized city as important aspects of the “Queen’s experience,” the powers-that-be at the university have been reluctant to hold students accountable for off-campus misbehaviour. When they enroll at Queen’s, all undergraduate students agree to adhere to a Code of Conduct, a 27-page document that was updated and approved earlier this year. Whether the university administrators like it or not, there’s no debating that Queen’s students are the school’s junior ambassadors; they represent Queen’s – on and off campus. It’s high time Queen’s stopped dithering and got serious about enforcing that Code of Conduct pledge. Failing to do so sends the wrong message. Not only does it tarnish the university’s reputation, it decreases the value of a Queen’s degree for all alumni and current students alike.
City officials in the Limestone City also have a role to play in discouraging the kind of misbehaviour by a minority of students that frustrates and angers residents while wasting taxpayer dollars. For one thing, city planners could back-pedal or at least rethink the notion that intensification of downtown neighbourhoods invariably is smart civic planning. Allowing deep-pocketed absentee landlords to buy housing and pack students into each and every room or to build monster extensions in the backyards of these houses is destroying the fabric of long-established residential neighbourhoods. This, in turn, is giving rise to myriad problems. Living in the “University District” as I do, I see ample evidence of this any time I step outside my front door.
When the pandemic raged, neighbourhood streets were relatively clean, and the nights were blissfully quiet. All that changed this fall, when the students returned. Cue the noise, litter and vandalism. Oh yes, and the screeching tires, blaring party music and sirens 24/7. That incessant cacophony again became the soundtrack of daily life. Were the students responsible for this sea change? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to answer that question.
This much I can tell you for certain. University District street signs again are disappearing faster than city work crews can erect them. So, too, are stop signs; they’ve have gone missing four times in the past two months at busy intersections near the aforementioned Victoria Park. It’s dismaying to think that some of those young people who may be “tomorrow’s leaders” are mindlessly decorating their walls with stolen stop signs.
Such behaviour is widespread nowadays, and its causes are deep-seated. I’d argued that at least in some measure they’re the product of a lack – or is it a loss? – of student awareness that attending university is a privilege. Sure, tuitions are ever-rising. But tuition fees cover just a small portion of the total annual cost of educating a postsecondary student. All taxpayers foot the bill, yet all too many young people seem to be oblivious to that aspect of funding.
At root, where student misconduct is concerned, I fear the nub of the problem is the erosion of the notion of the social contract. While that may sound like a concept for ivory tower philosophers, it’s not. What I’m talking about is the simple acknowledgment that we’re all in this life together and that by doing what we can to ensure the collective good, everyone is much better off.
In young people, selfish behaviour – immaturity really – that ignores this fundamental truth leads to the kind of trauma that scarred Queen’s and Kingston last weekend. In older folks, this “me-first” attitude gives rise to the anti-vaccine mentality, climate-change denial, the increased polarization of politics and the erosion of civil social discourse. While it may be impossible to change ossified minds, there’s still hope where the young ‘uns are concerned. I’d argue it would be an excellent idea to make a public service credit a compulsory component of every undergraduate degree (as it is to earn an Ontario high-school diploma).
All this said, I can’t help but wonder how my late father and his peers would react to the anti-social behaviour of today’s “educated idiots.” When the generation that endured and came of age during the Great Depression was called upon to stand up for what was right and good and to put their lives on the line to defeat the evils of Nazism, they did so at no small price.
And when the veterans came home, many of these selfless men and women were keen to take part in government programs that enabled them to attend university, something most of them never could have afforded to do otherwise. They understood how privileged they had become, and after graduating and establishing their lives and careers, they gave back. In spades. Veteran alumni opened their wallets as no generation before them ever had, providing scholarships for needy students, funding innovative programs, establishing chairs, and even funding new buildings on campuses across Canada.
Will that feckless contingent of today’s students, those who – as they did in Kingston last weekend – got drunk or high en masse, ignored physical-distancing guidelines, pelted police with beer bottles, urinated and puked on people’s lawns, hung misogynistic signs on the front of student houses, trashed a city park, stole stop signs, and unabashedly flaunted their sense of privilege – one day come to behave that benevolently?
I hope so.
But I do wonder.
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