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Opinion Universities preach the new religion of anti-racism and anti-oppression

Dalhousie University is having mace issues.

The ceremonial oak-carved staff is customarily used to lead processions into and out of graduation ceremonies. But on the eve of Dal’s 200th-anniversary celebrations, the old mace was deemed too ... oppressive. Now the mace is being redesigned so that it “better reflects the University’s evolving values and commitment to diversity and inclusiveness,” as the PR statement says.

Lord Dalhousie, who founded the venerable old institution, isn’t safe either. He is also too colonial, too male and too pale to be a fitting reflection of Dal’s evolving values. Unfortunately George Ramsay, the 9th Earl of Dalhousie, was none too sound on the slavery issue either, calling black refugees who fled the United States after the War of 1812 “slaves by habit and education.” A scholarly panel has been struck to probe the matter, but despite much deliberation has not yet reported back . Presumably the panel will recommend how Lord Dalhousie’s legacy should continue to be honoured, or expunged, as the case may be.

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The university’s latin motto Ora et Labora (pray and work) should be changed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness – three words that appear like magic incantations in the university’s various strategic plans, PR bumf and statements of principles. For example, Strategic Priority 5.2 is to “foster a collegial culture grounded in diversity and inclusiveness.”

Inclusiveness is so important, in fact, that sometimes it requires shutting people out. Earlier this year Dal advertised for a new dean of students who was “racially visible” (I guess they were too timid to just come out and say “not white.” )

Why is diversity so important? "Diversity is a powerful agent of change,” insists Dalhousie. “Indeed, diversity is an imperative that must be embraced if colleges and universities are to be successful in a pluralistic and interconnected world.”

Actually, I thought that colleges and universities got to be successful through excellent scholarship and teaching. But I guess that’s old-fashioned thinking.

Just to check out the academic side of things at Dalhousie, I decided to look up the offerings in English Lit. I was shocked. I knew the field had fallen on hard times, but little did I realize how marginal it has become. Judging by the meagre offerings, would-be English Lit majors have fled to the greener fields of Social Justice Studies.

Gone are many of the staples of my youth, when I was an English Lit major at a different university. Now on offer is less taxing fare, seemingly designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books: a heavy sprinkling of courses on pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism. I did find one lonely little course on Shakespeare – but it’s not required. One thing you can say for it, though the English curriculum is certainly diverse.

I don’t blame Dal for the changes in the English department. English everywhere has shrunk to almost nothing – a victim of waning interest and also of decades of postmodernist abuse at the hands of scholars who think that the great masterpieces of dead white males are reactionary, oppressive, sexist, racist and irrelevant, much like the 9th Earl of Dalhousie. Dal is for the most part a fine school, with a lovely setting and some great programs. Its obsession with diversity is simply typical of the times.

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But what about another kind of diversity – the part that happens in the classroom? You won’t find much of that at today’s universities, at least in the humanities and social sciences. The left-leaning tilt of faculty on American college campuses is a well-studied phenomenon (at Princeton it’s 30:1). Canada is much less studied, but anecdotally the trends are similar. “The academy has been so focused on attaining diversity by race and gender (which are valuable) that it has created a hostile climate for people who think differently," says Jonathan Haidt, co-author of the new book The Coddling of the American Mind. “The American Academy has – arguably – become a politically orthodox and quasi-religious institution.”

What is that new religion? It’s the religion of anti-racism and anti-oppression. What are its ceremonies and festivals? At Dal, they include (but are not limited to) Pride Week, Respect Week, African Heritage Month, Mi’kmaq History Month, and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Among the High Priestesses is Angela Davis, the former Black Panther and former member of the Communist Party who is coming to Dal this fall to lecture.

None of this has much to do with scholarship, or teaching. But that’s not the point. The point is to produce upright and godly young people, who, armed with the true faith, are fit for moral leadership. Lord Dalhousie surely would have approved.

Meanwhile, the mace is still a work in progress. If you have any ideas, I understand that Dal would like to hear from you.

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