On the Quebec Student Strike


Student protest in Quebec, March 22, 2012. Photograph by Tina Mailhot-Roberge

by Justin E. H. Smith

On April 23, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lilian Radovac aptly described the past few months of upheaval across Quebec as “the biggest student uprising you’ve never heard of.” This movement, which began building from early February of this year, has at its peak involved over 300,000 students across the province. A demonstration on March 22 attracted over 200,000 participants to the streets of Montreal. There have been scores of arrests.

The official reason for the movement is student opposition to the announcement from the government of provincial prime minister Jean Charest of its intention to raise university tuition around 75% over the next five years, to a little under $4000 per year. At the end of this period, Quebec tuition will still be the lowest of all Canadian universities, which are in turn much less expensive than all American public universities.

In spite of what many outside of the province consider a deal too good to complain about, one frequent demand of the demonstrators is for something even better than what Quebec students had before the hikes: free university education for all. This is of course a tall order, and that it can be made at all has much to do with the unique place of Quebec in North American society, and with the sense of many in this province that it is a society based on a different set of values, and a different set of choices, than those of the rest of the continent. As Sameer Zuberi wrote recently in the Huffington Post, “Quebecers have made a societal choice to keep education accessible to all, regardless of income.”

One question right now is whether Quebec will in fact be able to hold out against the consumer model of education that is sweeping the world around it. While it may be that the global economic forces behind these changes are too powerful to be resisted, many Quebec students believe that theirs is a special pocket of the world, one where there remains some hope that things can be done differently. This belief is utopian and traditionalist at once: in addition to insisting on a future for the university that any business model of this institution would deem unrealistic, it also insists on holding to a conception of the university that the business model supposes to be of no value in today’s world.

The attitude of the government, and of university administrations, is stubbornly ‘realistic’, a realism that manifests itself in consistent unwillingness to engage in dialogue with the student demonstrators. Instead, university administrations have largely preferred to let the police, and in some cases private security firms, do their speaking for them, in the language of force. This is surprising, particularly after a pepper-spray incident at McGill University last Fall seemed to most in the Quebec university community to drive home the point that universities are better off handling their own affairs, even when these involve tremendous discord, rather than calling in outside force to do so.

Whether Quebec can hold out against broader regional and global changes or not, it is not difficult to see that there are larger social factors behind the discontent, of which the hikes are only one symptom, concerning the value of education and the future of the university. Many of the most engaged students, and many of the most vocal defenders of the strike among faculty members, are based in philosophy departments. It is difficult not to notice that it is the vision of the university that philosophers tend to hold –as a sanctuary for disinterested inquiry, and as a place where one begins a life-long process of cultivating wisdom and character– that is currently under threat, and that this threat is part of the broader set of reasons that have brought the student movement into being.

To put this last point a bit more pessimistically: it is growing ever harder to study, to teach, and to do philosophy in North American universities. One has the sense, in fact, that from a high administrator’s point of view, the humanities in general must appear as a sort of vestigial organ upon the university, something it hasn’t yet lost fully through the process of evolution, yet something that no longer contributes to the central mission of the university. That mission is, increasingly, to ‘partner’ with the private sector. Among other things, this partnering requires that academics learn to speak, or to imitate, the language of the men and women of business. And this in turn requires that the short-term pay-off of inquiry be immediately evident, even, or especially, to those who are not participating in the inquiry.

Until recently the slogan of my own university was ‘Real Education for the Real World’. That always rubbed me the wrong way, for a great part of philosophy is dedicated to the systematic investigation of the problem of the real world: of whether it exists, of how we can know whether it does, and, if it does exist, of its nature and ultimate causes. Philosophers can’t assume at the outset that they know what sort of world one ought to be preparing for, and in this respect any philosophy that pretends to be preparing students for some pre-given, clearly defined ‘real world’ is fake philosophy.

Of course, by ‘real world’ what is implicitly meant is ‘business world’. Late in March, Guillaume Charette, a law student at the Université de Montréal requested an injunction against the strikers on the grounds –often rehearsed by Quebec university administrations– that students are not unionized workers and so it is literally impossible for them to strike; they are in fact consumers, who are only ‘boycotting’ a particular sort of service (and one for which they have already paid). Carl Bouchard, a history professor at the Université de Montréal, noted in response that on this narrow definition, we would also have to redescribe hunger-strikers as ‘food-boycotters’. But the bigger problem with Charette’s argument is that it misconstrues education as something that can be consumed, something that can be purchased, rather than as a process of self-cultivation, with which the university and its faculty are much better able to assist when the students do not take us to be serving them in the same way flight attendants or Starbucks employees do.

Ostensibly in the name of ‘better service’, universities are cutting corners and streamlining in a way that is jarringly similar to the recent upheavals in, say, the airline industry. Like almost every industry in recent years, more and more of the university experience is moving online. One often hears that the fate of the newspaper industry is the best guide to what will happen, with perhaps a decade’s delay, to the university. I recently learned that my own university will soon be offering students the choice of submitting course evaluations (that is, assessments of my ability in introducing them to philosophy) by mobile phone. The student evaluation, once a necessary counterweight to the sometimes arbitrary authority of faculty members, is now reduced to a convenient iPhone app, a streamlining of the educational product that directly parallels the appearance of mobile-phone-based boarding passes. Both the educational and the travel technologies are meant to be used with equal casualness and insouciance.

One way to understand the current movement would be to suppose that there is a dawning awareness that being given handy new apps for submission of course evaluations is not at all the same thing as being listened to. At every turn, the Quebec government has reacted to the students’ requests to open up lines of communication with something approaching contempt. The government’s line has been that there is nothing to discuss, since the budget is already a fait accompli. But what this misses are the broader concerns about the fate of education. It also misses the value of the students’ sincere effort to think about radically different –and, yes, unrealistic– models of the fate of universities in an era in which the consumer model threatens to infect nearly all varieties of human social interaction.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website