A spark smothered
A funny thing about us Canadians is that while we think we’re exceptionally open minded, we flee from real controversy. There are certain topics on which it is fashionable to have a “controversially progressive” opinion, although I often can’t tell who we think we’re challenging or offending. Worse, when someone makes a genuinely controversial statement, we get out the rhetorical pitchforks and chase the troublemaker away.
An example occurred this week, when the usually rather timid University Affairs published an opinion piece titled “Internationalizing the Canadian campus: ESL students and the erosion of higher education.” In the piece, Norm Friesen and Patrick Keeney argue that the recent influx of ESL grad students into Canadian universities has significantly lowered the level of classroom discourse. With uncommon candour, they remark, “There is no sugar-coated way to say this: many of those who are welcomed at our universities are simply unprepared for the rigours of the university classroom.” Their claim is refreshingly bold, clear and obviously controversial (although not perversely so).
The question that arises from their statement is, to borrow some terms from the world of finance, are Canadian universities going long on subprime ESL grad students? If so, will this investment pay off indefinitely with increased cash-flow and international prestige, or will any short-term gains will be outweighed by long-term declines in both quality and reputation?
I don’t know the answer. I even think I might disagree, or that the problem extends far beyond the university classroom and possibly can’t be solved. I’d love to hear a debate on the issue. This will not happen, however, because the voices raised against such a debate will employ, as some of the commenters on this article do, pejorative keywords like “xenophobic” and “racist.” The term “xenophobia” perhaps once had meaning within a clinical context, to describe a pathological and irrational hatred of foreigners. Now, it’s used so loosely and abstractly that it encompasses everything from the mild disapproval of particular values of other cultures to raging race-hatred. The spectre of “racism” is routinely invoked in situations unconnected (or only tangentially connected, for of course racism is embedded in all discourse!) with the issue of race. Such terms are meant to stop a debate in its tracks.
And, sadly, as is the fate of all real controversies in Canadian academia, this one will fizzle out before it has a chance to grow. Nothing and no one must be disturbed.