Thursday, January 27, 2011

Politicians Attack Toronto Grad Student

This makes me so mad.  I try not to write posts when I am upset, but this really makes me wonder about Canadian politics (and politicians in general.)  The article being discussed comes from the CAUT Bulletin, a resource for Canadian Academics and Academic Freedom.

A Grad Student, Jenny Peto, from the University of Toronto wrote a Master's thesis entitled  "The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism, and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education."  In December, two politicians in the Ontario legislature used a question period to question her choices and denounce her research.

My first issue here is the fact that they are using time to talk about a student thesis as if they should somehow have been involved in the process of its creation.  These politicians expressed concern over the University's acceptance of the thesis.  The following is what Shurman said, in full.  It makes me cringe that this man is in a position of power:
[Shurman describes] Peto’s thesis as a “hateful and poorly researched paper attacking programs that use the horrors of the Holocaust to somehow show the dangers of discrimination and racism by Jews” and asking the minister, “Will you today speak up on behalf of Jewish groups who have been so deeply hurt by this piece of garbage and condemn it, not as an academic paper but for the hate it actually is?”
Are politicians now going to start going over all graduate research and theses during legislative assemblies?  I'm not saying there should be no accountability between Universities and Government, but this is ridiculous.  And even more so for the next reason:  These politicians didn't even read the thesis!!!!

There was no defence of academic freedom or freedom of speech.  There was no discussion of her actual project.  Instead, they took the title out of context and proceeded to call for more talk about growing feelings of anti-semitism related to immigration policy.  This may be a valid concern (I do not pretend to know about the situations and issues at play in immigration policy), but what does this have to do with the thesis?  Nothing!  This is what her thesis is about, actually:
In the thesis, Peto used critical race theory to construct an interpretive framework for examining two Holocaust education projects — the March of the Living and the March of Remembrance and Hope. Peto argued that these programs make political use of the history of Jewish martyrdom and suffering in the Shoah, thereby perpetuating claims to victimhood that “are no longer based in a reality of oppression,” but rather produce effects that benefit “the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state.”
University professor Michael Keefer spoke up about the unfairness and ridiculousness of the situation.  He wrote an open letter (which I strongly suggest you read) to Premier Dalton McGuinty.
He said, “In contrast to your colleagues in the Legislature, I have read Ms. Jenny Peto’s thesis … I believe that the language used by the two MPPs and by the Minister to characterize this thesis is very seriously misleading. It is in my opinion a well-researched study with a clearly-defined ethical focus.”
[Keefer] speculated that a lingering impact will be self-censorship with­in the academic community — causing students and faculty to avoid important research that may be controversial and may elicit political attacks. “If this happens, then we will all be the losers.”  
I sincerely hope that Universities, researchers, and graduate students do not give politicians like Steve Clark and Peter Shurman the satisfaction of self-censoring.  If anything, I hope more research is undertaken in response to and in defiance of such uneducated and ignorant remarks.

What do you think of this?  Have you ever experienced a challenge to your own work because of someone else's ignorance?  Has your work ever been degraded by someone who didn't even bother to read it?

1 comment:

  1. Don't get me started on post-colonial theory and the hegemonic old-boy guilt of British academia...

    Apros pos of this issue, while "a lingering impact will be self-censorship with­in the academic community — causing students and faculty to avoid important research that may be controversial and may elicit political attacks," such self-censorship is already alive and well in academia. It is only the very strongest of students--morally, psychologicall, and emoitionally--who are able to stand up to even the powers of the Acdemy, never mind the government. While this adds a layer, I think that the discrimination and oppression within academia actually might prepare some students to withstand this sort of onslaught. After all, in this case, the thesis was passed...