Opinion: Don’t attack critical thought

Last week, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) in Waterloo was lambasted for showing a video clip to her students that resulted in a very public debacle aimed at reprimanding her. The TA in question, Lindsay Shepherd, was screening a televised debate from The Agenda, a current affairs show on TVO, that included Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor known for his controversial stance against the use of non-gendered pronouns.

In a three-on-one ‘tribunal,’ Shepherd’s supervisor, as well as another professor and university administrator essentially ganged up on Shepherd, claiming that she created a “toxic” and “problematic” environment that violated the school’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy. According to various media sources, they also tried to (falsely) convince her that she had broken the law. During the tribunal, she gutsily asked if she was supposed to shelter students from controversial ideas, as evident from her own recording of the tribunal. According to the recording, Shepherd was told that not taking sides, and maintaining a ‘scrupulous even-handedness’ was part of the problem. By facilitating intellectual debate, this young 22-year-old was vilified by those much older than her. A columnist from the National Post, Christie Blatchford, aptly surmised the exchange, calling it “the modern-day equivalent of a Mao-era struggle session.”

What transpired was, evidently, one of the most blatant displays of disregard for the importance of critical thought that I’ve seen during my time at university. It’s relevant to keep in mind that Shepherd is a TA for a first-year communications class, and chose to share this clip to generate debate within a class geared towards helping its students better understand how to articulate themselves around various topics, controversial or not.

Apparently, according to one of the professors in the recording, “students don’t have the critical toolkit to understand these things.” Her supervisor went so far as to say that it was like neutrally showing a speech from Hitler. Ignoring the unprofessionalism, and the vitriolic nature of comparing Peterson to someone as reprehensible as Adolf Hitler, I cannot for the life of me understand this statement. As a student, I think this to be antithetical to the spirit of what any university stands for—a sentiment echoed by Shepherd. In this circumstance, it is a laughable claim to call what was intended to be a neutral discussion, the creation of an “unsafe learning environment.” That would be true only in some Orwellian dystopia—prompting thoughtful debate on a controversial topic is a learning environment.

Sadly, what the faculty’s rhetoric seems to support is more in line with indoctrination of long-held beliefs, rather than the welcoming of new ideas and rational analysis. Choosing to share content with a class should be based upon its truth, its validity or its salience and not on whether it may or may not be deemed “controversial.”

It is worth saying that WLU has come out and apologized to Shepherd for the unfair treatment she received. It bears in mind to note that this was with a proverbial gun to their head as numerous alumni threatened to pull their funding. While they apologized, they also failed to speak about the crux of the issue—protecting the right to debate controversial issues.

I would just like to end this by noting that I completely understand that pronouns are a deeply personal subject—like Shepherd, I’m of the opinion that if someone has a pronoun they want people to use, I would respect their wishes. But, could anything be too personal to be debated academically? To me, I thought that was what the university environment existed for—to push our boundaries and to cultivate critical thought.

If a class of university undergraduates cannot be exposed to three minutes of debate from a Canadian public television program without involving a tribunal, then academia has lost its way.

Photo by Meagan Casalino