A Modest Proposal to the Students At York

The Strike…

Education, Losing a Year, and Eternity…


   Providing you ignore the bleakness of the setting and the turpitude of the architecture, such is the frequency and predictability of strikes at York University, that it’s rather like having a little corner of France right here in the northwest reaches of Toronto. In the socialist republique of York, as in France, one can be sure that at least one major sector of the labour force will be on strike at any given time.

   Since York’s student body has overwhelmingly supported the strike—university students overwhelmingly support every strike–, one can be forgiven for taking a soupcon of pleasure from the fact that its principal victims were the students themselves. Of course, once they calculated that they might “lose their year”, as they put it, their proletarian ardour began precipitously to cool. So much for the selfless idealism and devotion to social justice with which the “younger generation” is so often credited.

Why, in any case, should the students at York have “lost their year”? Library workers weren’t on strike. Free of the burden of classes, essays, and exams, why didn’t York’s students redeem the time by venturing boldly in, moving past the banks of computers, and ascending into the stacks, where those pre-Internet repositories of wisdom known as books are located? There they might have achieved what few degree recipients are required to achieve these days: a broad liberal arts education, and a critical appreciation of a Civilization that formerly counted a passing familiarity with its great writers and thinkers an essential human virtue.

Having begun with the study of the civilizations of the Ancient Near East and progressed through that of Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, to the modern era; having become conversant in the works of the major poets, dramatists, essayists, philosophers, theologians, composers, and artists of the past four thousand years; then, if the strike were still in progress, York’s undergraduates might have had a reason to complain about their enforced idleness.

But whenever strikes drag on at York and students begin to panic, reading Homer, Plato, or St. Augustine is rarely uppermost in their minds. The delay they fear is that of the timely commencement of their careers; the loss, that is, of a year’s pay. Having listened for years to politicians and bureaucrats trumpeting our federal and provincial governments’ generous “investments” in education as the incubator of a “highly-skilled workforce” and the engine of a “modern economy”, it is hardly surprising that students should now think of universities as upper-class vocational schools.

As with so many other institutions, the modern state has managed to radically re-define education while pretending that its neoteric definition has always been normative. It hasn’t. From classical antiquity to the 1960s, the purpose of education has been to make young adults full heirs of the cultural and intellectual patrimony of the West, which was regarded as their universal birthright as members of the human race and citizens, pre-eminently, of an eternal Cosmopolis of the mind. (During that time, only Spartans and Communists attempted to suborn education for the narrow military and economic interests of the state.) As the American conservative columnist Joseph Sobran has written recently, “Few of us seem to notice the totalitarianism implicit in the assumptions that children’s minds belong to the state and, further, that they must never be taught eternal truths.”

One doesn’t have to know the Bible or the Greek myths, the pagan Platonist Apuleius or the Christian Platonist Origen, to get a high-paying job; merely to enter into the human conversation as it has been conducted over the span of three millennia. (Origen was the father of a fifteen-century tradition of biblical allegory, but I doubt that either Dalton McGinty or Stephen Harper has heard of him.)

Less than a hundred years ago, grade school children would have been introduced routinely to these subjects. Today, few university graduates know them. Even still, we smugly proclaim their generation the brightest and most sophisticated in history, on the basis, apparently, of their fluency with Windows.