Mark Mercer
Saint Mary’s University

What about academically strong children? Are our public schools doing enough for them? Can our schools do more for them—without, that is, diverting resources away from either struggling students or the students in the vast middle?

One thing schools could do to help academically strong children to realize their potential is to set aside their prejudice against allowing them to skip a grade.

A more liberal use of academic acceleration would be great for the children who are languishing in their classrooms. Allowing children to skip will not cost a cent, and identifying those children who would benefit from skipping would take even less time, effort, and money than do current ways of accommodating academically strong children.

By “academically strong” children, I mean children for whom reading, writing, and calculating come easily. They are the children who didn’t need to be taught these skills in the early grades, but who simply picked them up by watching and experimenting. They enjoy collecting facts and contemplating theories. They reason well. They want to understand things, and they will work hard to understand them merely for the sake of knowing.

Academically strong children stuck in classrooms with their peers-in-age are often bored and restless. While their classmates are trying to place the names of the provinces on the map, they already know the capital cities, if not the populations and chief industries as well. As their classmates are learning to add two-digit numbers, they’re figuring out how to multiply them.

It’s not just that they are bored and restless, and sometimes disruptive. Because they are not challenged to learn, academically strong children occasionally fail to learn how to learn when the matter is difficult. When school finally becomes hard for them, in, for instance, grade 11 or 12 math or science, they find themselves at a loss, not having developed the study habits and attitudes of mind that their classmates developed years ago. Keeping them among their peers-in-age not only prevents them from flourishing; it can, in fact, cause them to slide backwards.

The experience of running up against his native limit can be profoundly troubling for an academically strong teenager, because so much of his self-identity is bound up with being bright enough to succeed without really trying.

The Nova Scotia Department of Education hasn’t out-and-out banned skipping. As with failing, though, skipping is a practice the department strongly discourages. A child may skip a grade only if it is absolutely clear that he or she has exceeded all learning outcomes during the year. This is a wrong-headed approach, for it makes skipping a grade a reward, like a gold star. Skipping should, rather, be used to facilitate a child’s education. The question to ask of an academically strong child isn’t what his or her grades are, as a child’s grades might be low because she’s bored and doesn’t care, or because of sloppiness and inattention, traits often found among bright children. The question to ask is simply whether having the child skip a grade will help that child to develop as a learner.

Right now the policy at schools is to devise an Individual Program Plan (IPP) for each academically strong child, one that adds topics to those in class or that directs the student to go deeper. This policy is not serving academically strong children well. The IPP is not usually drawn up and implemented until December or January of the school year. As well, because students, even into grade six, are required to be under the eye of a teacher, students typically have to pursue their IPP in their classroom, while the teacher is talking or their classmates are involved in an activity. This is at least distracting for the student, and one has to wonder whether having a child ignore his teacher promotes good manners. It’s also the case that even academically strong children don’t want to have to do more school work than their classmates.

But even were these problems ironed out, IPPs would still run a distant second to putting the child up a grade. That is because with an IPP, most the child’s day is still given over to mastering information she has already mastered and acquiring skills she has already acquired.

The research of which I’m aware does not show that skipping an academically strong child from grade 1 to 3 or grade 2 to 4 causes that child academic or other difficulties down the road. Critics of skipping like to say that it isn’t good socially for a child to be younger than his classmates. But, in fact, academically strong children make and keep friends more easily among older children, for older children are more likely to share their interests and value their abilities. And, of course, children mature socially, sexually, and every other way at different times and rates. Whatever stage a child who has been accelerated is at, there are bound to be others in his new grade who are also at that stage.

Letting academically strong children skip a grade will help children to reach their potential and won’t put anyone at disadvantage. The schools really ought to get over their prejudice against it.

Originally published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, 15 April 2014, under the headline “Grade-skipping a bright idea”

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

On 11 March 1990, after seventeen years in office, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down from the presidency, having lost a referendum on his government a couple years earlier. Pinochet returned to his former post as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean army. He retired in March 1998 and was named a senator-for-life, as required by the constitution he had helped to write. Pinochet died in December 2006.

On 18 June 1982, Leopoldo Galtieri, the final leader of the Argentine military dictatorship, was removed from power by the other members of the junta. Soon after his departure, the junta let itself be replaced by an elected government. Galtieri died in January 2003.

Pinochet was a brutal dictator, responsible for the murder of at least 3000 people and the torture and wrongful imprisonment of many more. Galtieri, for his part, rose through the ranks during Argentina’s Dirty War, between 1975 and 1978, in which more than 10,000 people were murdered by the government.

Neither Pinochet nor Galtieri worried much during his time in high office about being indicted for the crimes he was committing. It wasn’t only that neither thought he was committing crimes. Pinochet and Galtieri could not have feared prosecution or imprisonment because they believed no institution of justice existed that could hold them accountable. The same was true of many of their compatriots in torture and murder. None of Francisco Franco, Jorge Rafael Videla, Idi Amin, and P.W. Botha feared ending up in jail, for none knew of any legal system that could touch them. They feared assassination, of course, but not robed judges.

Now certainly these days the people of Chile, Argentina, Spain, and South Africa—especially South Africa—have many concerns and fears. But they do not have to fear being brutalized or disappeared by their government (knock on wood), as their countrymen did just a generation ago. As transitions from dictatorship to democracy go (or from restricted to full democracy), each of the four cases I’ve mentioned was as orderly and peaceful as one could hope.

Uganda, sadly, is not (yet) a democracy, and it took force of arms to oust Amin, who, in 1980, was received by Saudi Arabia, where he died, in 2003.

Now let’s imagine a very different 1970s and 1980s. Let us imagine that as their regimes waned, these ugly torturers and killers were being watched carefully by an international court of human rights, a court that had reach and muscle. Each president in our imagined world knows, as the actual president did, that he is losing power and running out of time. But the presidents in our imagined world cannot expect to retire to a country estate or even to a small house in the suburbs. They don’t, of course, believe that they have committed any crimes. Yet they know that the human rights court will find them guilty—and that the court will almost certainly get its hands on them.

I would think that in our imagined world the presidents would cling to power as long as they could and would take down with them as many other people as possible. With nowhere to retire to, they would have option but to go out fighting. Happily, all things considered, the dictators in the real world were offered sanctuary, and they accepted it.

It’s appalling to think of Amin resting comfortably in Saudi Arabia, and Pinochet strutting around in his general’s uniform. But better that, I think, than that one more person be tortured or killed.

I might be wrong about that, though, because recently quite a number of sensitive, thoughtful people have been arguing for strong and active systems of justice that will find war criminals and violators of human rights and bring them to account. Erna Paris, for one, tirelessly champions strengthening the world court. In the Citizen, Shannon Gormley argued that democratic governments should assert universal jurisdiction, so that “the worst kinds of criminals can run, but they can’t hide” (“Getting tough on war crime,” Ottawa Citizen, February 15, 2014).

As moving to us as the prospect of Bashar al-Assad facing formal justice might be, or Joseph Kabila, Omar Al-bashir, or Robert Mugabe, I can’t help wondering about the extent to which that prospect itself has reinforced the determination of these men to remain in power. If lives can be saved by granting al-Assad or Kabila immunity from prosecution and setting him up in a nice condo in Victoria, BC, then to his condo let him go.

There are, of course, more theoretical or principled objections to institutions of trans-national justice such as the world court or universal jurisdiction. The most significant, I think, is that such institutions must lack democratic legitimacy. The great thing to say about democracy, at least when the franchise is widely held and civil liberties such as freedom of expression are respected, is that it is fair. Each of us in a democracy may make our views known and press publicly and through our votes to have our views expressed in the laws under which we live. Even if our views do not prevail, we must recognize that we had our fair chance to convince others, and indeed that we continue to have a chance.

The international forum is not like that at all. The world is not a democracy, we individuals have not had our say with respect to any international institution. For that reason, no international prosecution can enjoy the fairness than a prosecution under national law might.

That is to say, since brutal dictators could not have had the opportunity to participate democratically in determining international human rights law, trying them under such law violates their human rights.

What we are left with, perhaps, is the position George Jonas argues: offer the brutal dictators a way out, so that the brutality might slacken; if they don’t take the offer, then, summary execution (or life incarceration?) should they be captured.

We can leave the more theoretical considerations for another time, though. Right now I want to urge that ending the atrocities should take precedence over justice, even if, as I doubt, international courts could dispense justice. We all want that the brutal dictators run. But they are not going to run unless there is somewhere to hide.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, 23 February 2014

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

It is curious, and depressing, that in the thirty-two pages of the Arbitrator’s Award on the dismissal of Denis Rancourt, there is no discussion of the role final course grades play in education. When administrators are quoted on the value of final grades, they talk about their usefulness to graduate schools and employers, not about their value in teaching or learning.

Denis Rancourt was a professor of physics at the University of Ottawa until 31 March 2009, when the university formally dismissed him. Rancourt grieved that dismissal through his union, the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa. Just last week, the arbitrator in the case, Claude H. Foisy, found the dismissal to be justified and denied the grievance. (“Arbitrator upholds University of Ottawa’s firing of tenured professor,” January 28, 2014.)

The short account of the case is that Rancourt was fired for giving each student in his Solid State Physics course, twenty-three in total, an A+. The short account isn’t entirely accurate. Rancourt was fired for violating a requirement to evaluate students’ performance objectively and in a manner appropriate to the course. That all his students received an A+ was cited in evidence that Rancourt did not grade objectively, but wasn’t in itself the grounds for his dismissal.

Interestingly, the arbitrator differed from the dean who began the dismissal proceedings on the matter just how Rancourt violated the grading requirement. The dean held that Rancourt used a student-centred grading approach that wasn’t objective. The arbitrator held that Rancourt assigned final grades solely on the basis of attendance, thereby failing to grade the performance of his students. That the arbitrator was concerned to show that Rancourt was not using a student-centred approach but grading solely on the basis of attendance would seem to indicate that if Rancourt had been grading as the dean alleged he was, Rancourt’s grievance would have succeeded.

Rancourt, for his part, maintains that he did not grade by attendance but used a student-centred approach. In his telling, for each student, Rancourt would, in consultation with that student, determine the student’s learning potential; Rancourt assigned final grades on the basis of how close a student came to realizing her potential.

What divided Rancourt and the dean, then, was whether this method counted as objective under the language of the requirement. Though the Award itself doesn’t tell us what the dean thought “objective” means, we are probably right to suppose that his conception involved measuring performance against a common standard of mastery of course material. Objective, then, implies one standard for everyone.

Rancourt, though, says that his method of assigning final grades is also objective, in that it is an objective matter to what degree a student has risen to her potential as a learner in a course. A standard can be objective whether common or individual.

Academic freedom with respect to teaching is relevant here if Rancourt’s dismissal depends on how the objectivity requirement is to be interpreted. Since Rancourt’s interpretation is a fair reading of the words on the page, academic freedom would leave him free to grade according to that interpretation. If others at Ottawa U do not approve of his method of grading, they should seek to have the regulation made more specific, so that it cannot be interpreted to allow student-centred grading.

But, again, the arbitrator found that Rancourt violated the regulation by failing to assign grades on the basis of performance. On his finding, questions of objectivity needn’t be asked.

One issue that this case raises for all of us is just what grading should be for, particularly what role it should play in learning.

I’m sure that all teachers at all levels agree that grades, final grades, especially, can get in the way of learning. Fears of getting a low grade can bring stress and cause a student to perform badly. A student’s sense that getting a high grade in a particular course will take a lot of time and effort can convince that student not to take that course, for, she thinks, a low grade will look bad on her transcript. (Students avoid philosophy courses for this reason.) Even as universities begin to stress collaboration, collaboration itself becomes corrupted, as the ability of students to collaborate becomes itself an object of competitive grading.

High grades are rewards external to the pursuit of understanding and intellectual development, and the psychologists tell us that people who look to external rewards rather than to the rewards internal to the activities themselves are unhappy and unpleasant. Writers on education like Alfie Kohn think it amazing that there are any students at all at university who care about education for its own sake, after twelve years of having been herded through a school system by nothing but carrots and sticks. We university professors can assure him that there aren’t many.

There are, I think, plenty of good reasons from the point of view of learning to seek different ways to assign grades, or to go with simple pass/fail schemes.

What is there on the other side? Well, there’s the idea that without a bit of external reward, few students would be motivated to try at all, and even the students who do value internal rewards would lose momentum over the four years of degree study.

In the Award in the Rancourt arbitration, what we hear from the side of administrators is the fear that unless we all grade according to a common standard, grades and universities will lose their status as credentializing agents. Universities, this worry implies, are to train students for employment and citizenship, and to let people know who has been well trained and whose training is just adequate.

Whatever one thinks of the method of grading Denis Rancourt says he used, if one cares about education one cannot be indifferent to the problems he thought he was addressing. The University of Ottawa, though, in its response to Rancourt, does not seem to care about them at all.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, 9 February 2014

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

One recommendation of the Report from the President’s Council at Saint Mary’s University is that Saint Mary’s develop a university-wide code of conduct, to be enforced with “meaningful consequences” for those who violate it, whether they be students, staff, administrators, or professors.

I can’t see anything in the report that shows Saint Mary’s to need a code of conduct. I think, moreover, that adopting a code will harm the university by weakening academic culture on campus.

The President’s Council, recall, was convened last September soon after three hundred in-coming students and student leaders performed a rape chant during orientation week. Saint Mary’s University president Colin Dodds directed the Council to find ways to prevent sexual violence on campus, inspire respectful behaviour, and create a safe learning environment.

To have any code of conduct at all is inconsistent with a university’s best values and its ideal of itself as a community of scholars, scientists, artists, and students. Yet, rough seas might require throwing precious cargo overboard, just to stay afloat. Whatever code of conduct a university adopts, though, should be only so wide or detailed as survival of the institutions requires.

How is that codes of conduct are inconsistent with university values and ideals? Well, at a university we seek to found our beliefs and values on our own good reasons. “On our own good reasons” means by way of evidence and argument, and evidence and argument only. If we are to found our beliefs and values on evidence and argument only, then we must be free of all extraneous pressures, whether fear of punishment or expectation of reward. But codes of conduct are, precisely, instruments of pressure. And so they are inconsistent with the university’s ideal of leaving people free to make up their own minds.

Notice also that universities are places of intellectual community, places in which people gather to discuss ideas, any ideas that occur to them. They discuss ideas, moreover, in order to evaluate them, to determine which ideas are weak and which are strong. In order to discuss ideas and evaluate them, people have to be willing to listen to others, and to take their arguments seriously, even as they criticise those arguments. That looks a lot like respectful treatment of each other—the very goal assigned the code of conduct.

University people, then, do not need to be held under a code of conduct, for treating each other respectfully, as our fellows in an inquiring, argumentative community, is internal to the project of intellectual community.

Those who recommend creating a code of conduct note that not everybody at university is a university person, in the sense I’ve given. Some members of the university community do not value critical discussion and, so, are not at Saint Mary’s in order to participate in intellectual community. They do not have an internal motivation for treating others respectfully, and, thus, need the incentives a code brings with it.

For the rest of us, we should be happy that a code is in place, for without one we won’t be able in confidence to go about our business of discussing and arguing with each other. At any moment our peace could be interrupted.

What is the evidence the President’s Council has that things at Saint Mary’s have got so bad? Well, there’s the rape chant. And recently we’ve been informed that some members of the football team had made obnoxious tweets.

As far as I can see, that’s no evidence at all. What would interrupt the peace of scholars and scientists is violence or cruelty. The chant and the tweets are disgusting, certainly, and those who engaged in them were clueless or callous. But they weren’t themselves assaults.

It is true that not everybody at university is a university person, but that’s surely most often because so many members of the university community are new to it. They don’t yet know what type of life we strive to live. It’s for the professors to initiate them into our way of life. We need to redouble our efforts.

If the code of conduct is meant to prevent people at Saint Mary’s from performing rape chants or texting ugly messages, then it really will make things worse. Rape chants and ugly tweets are expressions, expressions of ideas and values. If we are going to be the sort of place at which any idea or value can be engaged critically in discussion, then even rape chants and ugly tweets must go unpunished. That is required by our need to be candid with each other. And it is a requirement of respectful treatment—that we don’t interfere with what others might say, though we are keen to go on to evaluate it.

An academic wants to believe truly and to value soundly, but she also wants, even more, to believe and value for her own good reasons. We may well want to study and discuss on a campus unstained by rape chants and obnoxious tweets, but as soon as we outlaw such expression, those who would engage in them are no longer free to change their minds for their own good reasons, for we are applying pressure to them. That, in turn, means that we are not treating them with respect as members of our intellectual community.

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

“The Nepean Eagles”—much better than the obnoxious and embarrassing “Redskins.”

It’s puzzling and sad that officials of the Nepean football club had earlier resisted attempts by locals and fans to have them change the team’s name. Indeed, it’s puzzling and sad they didn’t change the name off their own bat long ago.

Word is, though, if I’m hearing correctly, that the team changed its name not because it finally saw the light, but only because a complaint had been filed with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, and it figured its back was against the wall. Team officials might even have thought that they would prevail at the tribunal, but only at the cost of public support, to say nothing of time, energy, and buckets of money.

I’m surprised to discover, though, that the Tribunal would have considered such a complaint. The name didn’t deny anyone a job or schooling or a house or a hospital bed or police services. One would have thought obnoxious or even racist names are not within the mandate of a government body, especially as Parliament repealed Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act last summer. That was the section that gave the Canadian Human Rights Commission authority to investigate complaints of hate speech. Perhaps the provincial and territorial human rights commissions and tribunals will seek to pick up the slack.

Since, as it seems, the tribunal actually has the power to order a name change, we need to ask whether we want it to have that power. Do we want a body possessed of the coercive force of government to be in the business of telling people and groups what they can and cannot name the things that belong to them?

My answer is no, though I certainly sympathize with Ian Campeau, the person who brought the complaint against the name to the tribunal. Campeau and others had for two years been trying to persuade the officials to change the team’s name, and the officials would hardly give them the time of day. No doubt Campeau felt frustrated, and so he chose a different strategy.

Nonetheless, we should rather put up with the obnoxious and insulting names that clueless, callous, or cruel people favour than accept a regime where we can be told under penalty of sanction to watch our words.

One argument for this claim, a strong one, though maybe not in the end decisive, is that institutions of censorship can always be used against your own words or paintings or music. When you set up an agency to police the expression of others you put at risk your own freedom.
This argument of prudence might not be decisive because partisans of laws against hateful expression can respond that these laws could be tailored to resist abuse, and the people who administer them trained to apply them carefully. Well-written statutes thoughtfully applied will block only the harmful hate, or at least that’s the claim.

The question then becomes how reasonable is it to expect in this field only well-tailored laws that are always applied conscientiously? Evidence from the Canadian experience to date certainly isn’t reassuring, but partisans of censorship can always say we just need to try harder.

Not only can we do better than the prudential argument against censorship, though. I think we must do better, for among the partisans of censorship is a significant group of people who aren’t interested in limiting freedom of expression at just the hateful edges, but, for the good of society and equality, everywhere.

The deeper argument stresses the value of a strong civil society and the sort of people it creates and sustains. By “civil society,” I mean the web of relations among us as we go about our daily business in and out of our homes, in and out of our places of employment, in the schools, among friends, among strangers on the street. When civil society is strong, people look to each other for help and support, and come together to solve the problems that inevitably arise when different people, with different goals and values, share the same spaces.

Civil society is weakened when we turn to institutions, and institutions of government in particular, to impose order on our daily interactions. We risk becoming rule bound, and inclined to look for official and authoritative rulings rather than coming to agreements with each other or, when agreement can’t be found, fashioning accommodations.

Now, of course, we could not survive without regulations and laws backed up by force. Yet we should want to have as few as possible, and only when matters as serious as life, limb, or livelihood are at stake. Every regulation that applies to matters of dress, comportment, association, or expression moves us away from our personal dealings with our fellows in their and our freedom. It narrows the scope of civil society, and makes each of us more isolated and smaller.

We can be happy that the Nepean football club no longer has an obnoxious name, though it is unfortunate if that’s not because club officials finally perceived that the old name was obnoxious. We should also be concerned, though, that the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal possesses a noxious power.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, 24 January 2014

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, 10 January 2014

Just about everyone, including the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board, thinks that the York University incident in which a student asked for special accommodation is properly understood as a conflict between religious rights and our desire for a non-discriminatory society. Even the professor of the course thinks of it that way, as do the university administrators who ordered the professor to honour the student’s request.

But a conflict of rights is not how we should conceive the case at all. We should think of it entirely in the context of university education. The only question a professor should ever seek to answer when asked to make a special accommodation is whether making that accommodation is consistent with the educative goals of her course.

Media reports tell us that back in September, a student at York asked his professor, Paul Grayson, to be exempted from a group project because the group included women and working in physical proximity with women was against his religion. Dr Grayson considered his student’s request and denied it. The Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, though, has ordered Dr Grayson to accede to the request, arguing that failing to do so violates the duty to accommodate religious belief.

That Dr Grayson himself thinks the matter has to do with a conflict of rights or a conflict between a right and a social goal is clear from the fact that he solicited opinions from religious authorities about the request. He denied the request only after his authorities informed him that neither Islam nor Orthodox Judaism prohibit men and women from working together in person on scholarly projects.

Presumably, he would have granted the exemption had he learned that working together was indeed prohibited. Or maybe he would have denied it anyway, thinking that aiding sexism was worse in the case than making it difficult for a person to practice his religion. Either way, Dr Grayson thought himself engaged in a balancing act, seeking the proper path between two competing ideals.

Finding a balance among rights or ideals might well be fine when considering seating arrangements at a political event or dress codes for police officers or school children. The request in this case, though, had to do with an assignment in a university course.

Dr Grayson must have thought the group work had pedagogical value or he would not have assigned it or graded it. If the assignment has pedagogical value, then not completing it is to the detriment of the student’s education. As well, making an exception for a student—that is, allowing that student to skip a piece of work without his grade suffering—compromises the integrity of the course. The B of a student not penalized for skipping an assignment is not equivalent to the B of a student who has completed and, thereby, learned from that assignment.

Dr Grayson need not have consulted either experts in religion or his feelings about sexism, for both are irrelevant. All Dr Grayson should have asked is whether the goals of his course would be served just as well by exempting his student. If the integrity of his course would not be affected, then the student can skip the assignment. Indeed, if Dr Grayson had discovered that the integrity of his course would not be affected, he should have made the assignment optional generally, if not dropped it.

The only judgement that should have come into play was Dr Grayson’s own professional judgement as the teacher of his course.

Now one might object that since universities are public institutions, they must honour public values as well as academic and educative values, or, better, they should fashion their educative goals in light of public values. Part of the public value of universities is that they train lawyers, doctors, politicians, business people, journalists, and other elite workers. It’s important that our elites mirror the diversity in our society. Thus, universities should educate in a way that enables people of diverse religions and cultures to take their place within the leading professions.

Universities that understood their social role well would consciously design courses and programmes so that they do not refuse or alienate people with minority religious or cultural commitments.

Well, the relationship between universities and government has always been turbulent and marked by conflicting values and goals. Universities committed to liberal education, to education as broadening the mind and liberating the person from ignorance and conformity, must, though, reject the call to make themselves trainers of the social elite and credentializing agencies. They must keep central to everything they do their commitment to learning and intellectual community for their own sake.

What about the duty to accommodate, one, apparently, written into the Ontario Human Rights Code, as the Dean says he was told it is? The answer in this particular case is that it should be up to the professor of that course how to perform this duty. After all, the course is in service to the teaching goals of the professor. Refusing a request that would compromise the integrity of the course is not to fail in one’s duty, but dutifully to judge the request unreasonable.

The larger answer to this problem is that human rights policy is currently a contested area. As such, it’s open for universities and other institutions to put their own values forward to mould policies so that they do not compromise their mission. Universities have not been doing this, unfortunately, as can be seen in their acceptance of the concept of hate speech and their willingness to construct codes of behaviour inconsistent with civil liberties.

To sum up: Reasonable accommodation in universities should not be understood in terms of conflicts of rights or ideals, or between individuals and groups. It should be understood entirely through the lens of the values and mission of the university as a place of liberal education and intellectual community.