That old question came up again recently, when rogue members of the Ryerson University’s student union publicly demanded their school drop Ryerson from its name.
Egerton Ryerson, namesake of the university and founder of the Ontario public school system, contributed to the development of what eventually became the residential school system, widely understood to have harmed the indigenous communities they were supposed to help.
According to the student protesters, Ryerson’s name disgraces the school and dishonours indigenous students studying at Ryerson.
Predictably, people outside Ryerson rolled their eyes. Kids, lol.
But even those willing to listen to the union probably recoiled, at least a little. The students gave the Ryerson community no choice about the name.
If not Ryerson, then what?
Change is easier when a clear alternative presents itself. Nobody likes to leap into the void. If the union had a better name, one that might’ve pleased everybody, I wish they had mentioned it when they launched their protest. Instead they offered a choice between something and nothing, and asked the rest of us to pick nothing.
The more egregious non-choice relates to the union’s absolutist tactics. The choice was either/or. Either change the name from Ryerson to something else, or else support white supremacy and the legacy of residential schooling. Either do what we say, the union said, or else.
The no-choice option is a no-win situation.
Something similar happened at Duke Divinity School not long ago. Paul Griffiths, a professor in the school, refused to take an inclusivity training course (ominously titled Racial Equity Phase I Training) on the grounds that he didn’t want to participate in what he considered to be a political re-education program.
Griffiths was disciplined for his animated dissent, made a pariah by his colleagues and had his research funding cut. Rather than endure the torment of disciplinary hearings, Griffiths resigned. All for questioning what was supposed to be voluntary training.
I could summon dozens of other examples of the no-choice attitude alive in supposedly intellectually diverse universities. Most people reading have probably encountered this belligerence in their own lives, so I won’t labour the point.
These stories show that universities need to get better at encouraging alternate positions, articulating the differences in these positions, and discriminating between good ideas and bad ideas.
Indeed, there’s a need for a greater confrontation of ideas, a desperate need for people to say what they think. Sameness, groupthink and orthodoxy are killing us. We need more and better choices, and more reasonable disagreement in our universities.
In our politics, too. A thin field of faux liberals in the next election won’t do anybody any good, even the Liberals. The New Democrats, electing a new leader, would be wise to pick a bona fide socialist to lead their party. Similarly, Conservative Leader Andrew Sheer will do his job only if he offers Canadians a truly conservative alternative to the Liberals. We need choice.
Back to the choice at Ryerson. Based on the arguments I’ve heard so far, I don’t think Ryerson should change its name. If the school ever does consider a new name, Egerton Ryerson’s substantial contributions to Ontario education – good and bad – deserve a fair hearing.
But good on Ryerson’s unionists for asking whether Egerton Ryerson deserves to have his name mounted on a university. They questioned the status quo and drew attention to an issue most of us had never considered.
But it would be a shame if they didn’t take a lesson from their name change campaign: Next time, offer an alternative and persuade the rest of us why it’s better than what we already have.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.
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