Archive for November, 2012

Will we ever see Norman Cornett at McGill again?
The administration’s unjust firing of the popular prof needs explanation and redress

Over three years ago, McGill dismissed without a word of explanation a knowledgeable and dedicated teacher, Norman. Nevertheless, his case has not been forgotten, because too many students still feel inspired by his creative methods. There has been a growing number of letters in The Daily (22) and the Tribune (16) demanding his return.

Thus far, McGill’s only response has been an open letter from Provost Anthony Masi published in Le Devoir (“McGill honore la liberté d’expression,” July 13). It must be recalled that the decision to fire Cornett was taken with undue haste – he was given only a half day’s notice to clear his office. This is chillingly reminiscent of the speed with which wartime executions are carried out for treasonous behaviour. Such worries were expressed by a former student: “Cornett’s story creates a climate of fear among university and college instructors.” Isn’t it time to ask which structures and mechanisms at McGill were involved in treating Cornett as the worst enemy?
At the lowest levels, some administrators might have become resentful after being overshadowed by Cornett’s growing popularity among students, top artists, politicians, and religious figures. His platform for transformative educational experiences connecting the most intriguing personalities with a young generation was working successfully and with great impact, but he arranged it without using McGill notables as interlocutors.

In doing so, he didn’t allow them to share the spotlight – especially when he invited such guests as a former prime minister or provincial premier. Instead of bruising their egos, he dared to outshine them from behind. Apparently, Cornett wasn’t aware of our administrators’ conversations at Senate and Board of Governors meetings about their personal chats with ministers or foreign eminences – or of their jealousy in such matters.

It is quite typical for go-getting people to boast about their strong networking. They simply feel less secure, and in McGill’s case, they try to develop closer links not only with superior institutions, but also with transnational corporations that are above politicians and governments. We can accept this approach; McGill might even profit from such individuals, if they are exceptional at lobbying for our school at higher levels. Unfortunately, such “achievements” are unstable and short-lived.

Similarly questionable are ineffective efforts to adopt corporate practices in running the university that usually disturb the work of more creative and independent members of our community. Their free spirits and nonconformity too often challenge McGill’s centralized power structures, composed of many well-connected but not necessarily competent administrators. This might explain the exodus of many autonomous thinkers and scientists over the last seven years, who went on to shine outside McGill’s walls. Unfortunately, among those eliminated was Cornett, who now organizes his amazing “dialogic” session in many places – but not at McGill.

So far, practically no one at McGill has addressed this problem, and only the francophone media have reported on how costly these departures have been. Now it’s time to correlate them – whether imposed or voluntary – with McGill’s significant drop in university rankings, revealed last week (though this trend was already noticeable in a smaller way since 2007). Our administration must learn to not control the community with structures – they must learn that by respecting and humbly serving the members of the McGill community, they will promote the key elements for potential improvements.

Allowing Cornett to return to McGill would represent a proper first move in the right direction of greater inclusiveness that can start healing many old wounds in our community.

Slawomir Poplawski is a technician in the Mining and Materials Engineering department. Contact him at slavekpop@yahoo.com.


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The decline of broader education

Today’s world recognizes the importance of societies’ educational excellence in economic growth. It is even treated as a measurable commodity and some international agencies have established education rankings by country based on results of students’ tests for reading, science, and math. Asian nations are leading and Canada is at the bottom of the top ten. Should we be worrying about this?

This approach narrows the notion of education to the transfer of knowledge and skills in a few utilitarian fields at the expense of the liberal arts. Ignored is an increased transmission of values when pursuing a well-rounded education. Canada, with rich didactic traditions, is nowadays similarly overwhelmed by the promoted unification of educational systems, which makes it easier to enforce efficiency in teaching key fields, but compromises diversity. Similar processes are occurring at the university level.

McGill’s Humanistic Studies program, created forty years ago in the Faculty of Arts, was cancelled last August. The fate of a planned similar program, called Liberal Arts, is unclear. Nobody protested the cancellation, which indicates that now, even at the university level, people are paying less attention to a broad education. It is tempting to say that the ruling financial spheres that control the Board of Governors aren’t interested in investing in the arts and humanities, because they would rather see even the best universities as a production line of narrow-minded specialists. Humanities programs focused on exploring the meaning, purpose, and goals of human existence are not only expensive, but also make the masses more difficult to control. Consistent with this approach, we now see administrative technocrats converting McGill into disconnected research units that produce alienated specialists.

However, we must be careful with such generalizations and the demonization of political elements because even debates about pedagogy and the structures of our educational institutions are fraught with ethical uncertainties. Education is treated as a career-oriented and market-driven tool. It is very sad to see gifted students avoiding each other as competitors instead of developing warmer social bonds. Yet once the students are lured into never-ending dogfights, they are more susceptible to many social manipulations. In the present world, even Nobel Prize winners are often treated as flashy marionettes in the hands of the media and bureaucrats who control research centres or universities. Do the most educated and wisest people play key roles in our modern, globalized world? If not, what kinds of people control the masses and which criteria are used to select these people?

The most worrying is a devilish spirit of educational rivalry implanted in the earliest stages of education that pervades the entire school system. Unfortunately, many children from poorer families are more likely to fall into this trap of studying for a specific skill or profession, while a few richer students are more likely to select well-rounded studies designed to develop intellectual growth. The rivalry encourages top students to learn more, but simultaneously narrows their horizons and subdues the development of beautiful and free human minds. As such, many schools start specializing kids even from the middle of high school to maximize their educational achievements in narrowed fields. The consequences are catastrophic.

It transforms the student into a repressed, highly stressed, robot-like entity, who is easily pushed around by market fluctuations.

It is never too late, and these negative changes can be significantly defused in our universities by reinvesting in the arts and humanities. The Humanistic Studies program created in 1970 allowed students to build their own liberal arts program out of the humanities and social sciences. Unfortunately, their influence gradually eroded because of underfunding, and because of the diminishing interest of students, who began pursuing narrower specializations that offered them more stable careers. People with a well-rounded education can more easily predict and avoid dangerous future developments, but are also more tempted to lure others into such traps. Is it not clear that this system is built to exploit human weakness to enhance the fastest profits?

Before directly fighting the many deep social injustices at work here, we need to transform the army of alienated specialists into insightful experts united by complex knowledge of our world. This can be achieved by hiring more people like Norman Cornett who “marry” arts and sciences, and even engineering. Proof: Our top-ranked McGill Medical School in recent years prefers students from a unique “Arts and Sciences” program at Marianopolis.

Slawomir Poplawski is a technician in the Mining and Materials Engineering department. Contact him at slavekpop@yahoo.com.

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An open letter 

Dear Mr. Strople,

I would be more careful with accusing students of negligence and making essential errors in their graphical depiction of the McGill Board of Governors (BoG) as you expressed in your Daily letter “Errata-city up here” (Commentary, Letters, November 12, page 7 – http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2012/11/letters-30/). Alongside the table’s picture it was clearly stated that they provided only profiles of “the fifteen that come from outside the University.” It should be asked, why? Let’s think logically.

Students represent a new generation that is smarter, thinking faster, and much better at filtering essential information than the previous generations. It has always been like that in our evolving civilization. If the students “neglected to include the ten representatives of students, faculty, and administrative and support staff” it should be carefully examined why they did so before attacking them.

In this case, students only wanted to know about those external members that are truly powerful and can present freely their opinions shaping McGill strategies. This approach simply protects their brains from unimportant details about those paid or graded by McGill BoG representatives. This minority is easily manipulated and in the last thirty years we have never heard about such representatives being forced to resign after opposing certain policies or presenting alternative views.

Loudly expressed different opinions with dynamic changes are only seen in more democratically organized administrative structures. At McGill, we enjoy something ‘better’ than unity – it is total silence. We never hear about elected BoG representatives meeting openly with their colleagues to present their reports or consult their future policies in this highest governing body. In this way, we have to fully trust the Secretary-General about their “invaluable contribution to the Board.”

How much more trust is needed at McGill without us compromising the value of tuition and salaries?

Slawomir Poplawski  Published in Daily on 15.11.2012 – http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2012/11/letters-31/

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“Weinstein talks Campaign McGill” (News, October 15, page 6) should be seen from a perspective of two main achievements that can be used for further PR promotion of the University.

The first success concerns “the University’s five-year, $750-million fundraising campaign” that can be easily portrayed as the best in the art of begging in Canada and Quebec. This questionable ‘education’ starts in our public primary schools, where pupils are asked to collect single dollars among close neighbours or family members. It is continued in high schools with the teenagers collecting many times more dollars in shopping centres. At McGill, students learn that the art of begging for education can reach unlimited levels of top millions with a proud conclusion that the best achievers are supposed to represent the best university or vice versa.

The second success is that such competitive fundraising on all levels can be strictly correlated with the salaries of the principals on the all mentioned above and gradually raising levels.

The point is that after accepting this perspective we should feel proud that our principal Heather Munroe-Blum has the biggest salary and even demand a raise for her.

—Slawomir Poplawski

Published in McGill Daily on 12.11.2012 – http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2012/11/letters-30/

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