Queen’s University was merely five years old when, in Brussels after being expelled from France and of an age not much greater than our activist students today, Karl Marx collaborated with Friedrich Engels on a ragtag collection of essays that came to be known as The German Ideology. It was a work deeply suffused with an awareness of far-reaching social and political change, which is partly why its publication, long delayed, eventually came during another period of great instability and social ferment, the 1930s.
In The German Ideology we find an early articulation of some of the mature Marx’s most distinctive insights, not the least of which is that in any given epoch the values and ideas of the dominant or ruling class appear – or are made to appear – natural and universal, and for that reason not subject to challenge except on terms that do not threaten its dominance.
That lesson is worth remembering today, as the university finds itself caught up in local as well as global currents of social, political and cultural dispute – all magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has not only made us more aware of social and economic disparity within and between societies, but also reminded us that a thriving economy can come at a cost that, in some circumstances, must be reckoned in human lives.
This is a turbulent time for Queen’s, as it is and must be for all institutions that derive their authority and identity from the dominant culture, from tradition and history, and from their alliance with prevailing ideas about the economy and the state. I say this because there can be no true path to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and no satisfying response to students who have experienced racism or homophobia at Queen’s, without the university recognizing its complicity in the broader oppressive and exclusionary structures about which protesters complain.
Universities are to varying degrees capable of admitting their mistakes and apologizing for acts of unintentional or even intentional discrimination. They are also increasingly sensitized to the systemic operation of these things. And sometimes they are able to make significant operational changes that prove satisfactory to the individuals, or classes of individuals, affected. At the same time, however, calls for real and fundamental change typically persist beyond measures of this sort, to which a common and largely rhetorical university response is to decry racism and homophobia as alien invaders that must be driven out.
If these problems are sometimes alien they are always also endemic, implicated in and sustained by other aspects of the university ethos that we treat as natural and universal – organizational discrepancies in power, for example, that we ignore in declaring freedom of speech an achievable and unquestionable good, or an understanding of academic merit that presupposes the possibility of entirely objective assessment, something by definition impossible to achieve when it is a human subject doing the assessing.
That universities in the Western tradition have been around for nine hundred years certainly makes them interesting, but it is evidence neither of their perfection nor of their timelessness. Queen's today looks nothing like the University of Bologna in 1088: like that first Alma Mater Studiorum, it has been shaped by its culture and by time, has answered the needs of its community, and reflected in its values a cultural and political consensus from which some aspiring members have always felt excluded. Paradoxically, one component of our institutional identity as it has emerged during this process of construction is a tacit belief in our “unconstructedness,” as if many of the things which define us are the natural and universal attributes of a university, not the result of human choice at a particular historic moment.
When students are strengthened by the Black Lives Matter movement and emboldened to speak out about their experience of racism at Queen’s, they are reminding us that we construct the university through the choices we make andtherefore have the potential to remake it according to the principles of equity, diversity, inclusion, and Indigeneity. When Indigenous and LGBTQ+ students tell us they do not feel safe on campus, they are demanding that we think beyond CCTV cameras and heightened security – important though those things may be – and question some of the founding assumptions of our institutional being, interrogate what most of the time we accept as natural and universal.
I implied at the outset that there is a form of questioning that is envisaged by – and therefore unthreatening to – the status quo. Universities take that to the level of high art, declaring the asking of questions and the pursuit of answers the essence of their mission. At the same time, however, the terms within which questions must be asked and the forms of evidence that can be adduced in answering them are circumscribed more tightly than the academy would typically care to admit. In particular, they are constrained by epistemological assumptions derived from mainstream European thought and notions of intellectual decorum that are unimaginable except as facilitated by social and economic privilege. For us to make progress as an institution – not just in matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion but in our broader mission of teaching and discovery – we will have to recognize those constraints for what they are, and acknowledge the benefits we derive, as well as the marginalization others suffer, from their perpetuation.
That recognition will not lead to the dismantling of the institution, as some fear, because to acknowledge that we made Queen’s by our choices does not require us to disavow or cancel our past. It does require us to be accountable for redeeming that past, however, opening us to the realization that we are the agents rather than the victims of history and therefore capable of making choices for a more just, equitable, sustainable, and globally relevant future.
Originally published in the 2020 Issue #3 of the Queen's Alumni Review.