Wokism is destroying Canada’s universities. Thanks to the intensifying public discussion over wokism and its components – DIE, critical race theory and so on – this assertion is no longer especially remarkable. But I saw it from the inside as a young student over several years, as wokism was gathering and progressively strangling literature departments all over the West, including at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where I studied English Language and Literature.
Parents pondering spending the tens of thousands of dollars required to put their kids through one of Canada’s “Ivy League” institutions need to hear this: these are not the places you or your parents experienced and fondly remember. (The same warning goes for young high school graduates contemplating going deep into debt to “earn” at least the B.A. or more likely M.A. they’ll need to practice in the fields they dream of working in.)
I did, admittedly, greatly romanticize Canada’s universities as I finished high school, and prepared for my post-secondary years in a humanities program. I regarded literature as a kind of “linking device”, connecting past to present and one individual to the next. To my mind, the magical power of literature went beyond any notion of “the state”; it broke down all barriers that could divide us; it could rescue and restore the world from conflict. I believed that, reading Shakespeare and the poems of William Blake for the first time as a high school senior. I was in awe of the power of such art.
Once at university, I was certain I would study under scholars of the highest calibre, all seeking to discover the truth through free and open inquiry. In my chosen field, this would be through open-minded, unbiased study, unmarred by any political agenda, of the world’s greatest English literature. Authors, playwrights and poets such as Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Milton, Byron, Shakespeare and all the rest.
As I began, earning excellent grades in my undergraduate years, I foresaw a challenging but rewarding path of study, probably culminating in a PhD. I would be able to pursue a life of writing, established with a position as an instructor, later professor. My professors at Western assured me that a promising academic career awaited. I was young then.
It didn’t work. Before I venture into the treacherous political waters of wokism, I want to recap something that should concern any parent or prospective student, something that struck me hard and triggered the process of disillusionment that (this is no exaggeration) nearly destroyed me. And that is the sheer dumbing-down of university study itself. If you are a young person wanting to pursue work in an academic field, forget classes: go to your local library, get a circulation card and start reading on your own.
Many of the students in grad school at Queen’s were on the PhD pathway. Yet they approached assigned readings with a casual indifference at best. With the professors’ encouragement, many dumbed their reading down to a few easy-to-learn, easy-to-apply reading tricks, like “skimming” and “scanning”. As an English teacher in South Korea, China and Vietnam, I’ve taught these tactics to children as young as 11. It’s certainly not the kind of reading one would expect an M.A. or PhD candidate to be doing.
Actually, no one read anything at all half the time. And this clearly showed in the quality of their work. Yet the professors’ feedback made it impossible to distinguish careful reading and decent writing from drivel. The lowest grade a professor was formally allowed to give a student was 80 percent – an A-. It was rare, however, for anyone to receive lower than 85 percent – an A. I’m told this is still the case at Queen’s today.
Every piece of work garnered the professor’s faux-admiration for its “uniqueness of point of view,” every seminar paper reading was “just fascinating,” “fabulous,” “excellent”. The only caveat was the student conforming to certain strict behaviours and a particular ideological point of view (which I’ll delve into in a following column).
Equally unsettling, and increasingly eye-opening, was that our assigned reading lists were not even mostly works of literature. We were not spending most of our time closely reading, experiencing and attempting to understand the great works of the past – Shakespeare’s Othello, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Richardson’s Clarrissa – our understanding nurtured by the professor’s wisdom and solidified through supporting works by acclaimed experts.
Instead, we were assigned recently written theoretical analyses which took an entirely politicized approach to the contents we were supposed to be studying: queer theory, critical race theory, the theory of indigeneity, intersectionality, and so on. I soon realized that these “analyses” all reiterated the same ideas through different phraseology and structure.
The Canadian university as I experienced it over my five years in the humanities is no longer about studying the subject open-mindedly, with the goal of understanding the original material as it was created, and only with the benefit of accumulated knowledge and maturity considering its application to our world. It’s the opposite: everything is done in the service of a political agenda. The literature itself is barely covered, if at all. Nobody actually reads a play like Shakespeare’s Othello; they just rail about it.
Dumbed-down and distorted, a graduate seminar in literature is transformed from an intensive exploration of classical works of the English canon into a cathartic exercise, cloaking itself in compassion administering its second-to-second ideological dose. It’s the force-feeding of pills; it’s a drug that gets mildly bright M.A. and PhD students high. Such students, let’s remember, will soon constitute our country’s intellectual class and, therefore, hold most sway over its political course.
Things have gotten much worse since I graduated and left Canada to rebuild my life in the Far East. The nature of the political agenda at work in Canada’s universities will be the focus of my next column.
The nonfiction novella upon which this column is based is currently being published in three instalments in C2C Journal.
Brock Eldon teaches Foundations in Literature at RMIT University in Hanoi, where he lives with his wife and daughter. A graduate of King’s University College at Western in London, Ontario, and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, he writes fiction and non-fiction and can be followed here on Substack.