Cecil John Rhodes is alive and well, and running my alma mater

Anyone who knows me knows that I think interdisciplinary university programmes that have as their mandate Saving The Planet are bunk, because in such programmes the students don’t actually learn anything except ideological attitude. A little more evidence of the stupidity that grounds such initiatives has now come to light in the alumni magazine of McMaster University, the school where I was trained. Mac is planning to ditch the liberal arts as it has been understood to date, and replace it with “Liberal Arts for the 21st Century” which has as its twin goals (a) “to empower leaders of tomorrow to make a difference around the globe, as well as in their own communities and personal lives” and (b) (more importantly I’m guessing) to make “McMaster… known as the global university.”

The justification for the initiative is an account of a particular student’s experiences in Cameroon. I’m going to quote it verbatim in the next two paragraphs, resisting the urge to provide sarcastic interlinear commentary.

“Catherine Vanner, a fourth-year political science major at McMaster, wanted to get a better understanding of poverty in the developing world so she went to Cameroon, Africa last May to see things for herself. Volunteering for six weeks in a state-run orphanage, Vanner cared for children who had been abandoned by their parents and left to die in the streets, in garbage, and even toilets. In between comforting the children and battling a mild case of malaria and typhoid herself, the Kingston, Ontario native came to some pretty important realizations. For one thing, textbooks don’t tell the whole story of a country or its people. For another, there is no greater impoverishment of a nation than a deficit of critical thinkers.

“The main problem Vanner fond in Cameroon was that citizens were not empowered to think for themselves or to find solutions to social problems from corruption and unemployment to substandard education. But what struck her most was how children were raised in that society. ‘Nobody was asking the children about their homework, nobody was teaching them manners, and nobody was telling them “I love you,”‘ she says. ‘I saw a definite connection between how they were raised and how the society functioned.”

Words fail me. McMaster is shouldering the white man’s burden.


19 thoughts on “Cecil John Rhodes is alive and well, and running my alma mater

  1. Homowork is part of the problem, not the solution!! (I say, as the new school year begins.) But seriously, what a list of deficits she’s come up with! What about clean water, electricity, and internet access?

  2. Yes, clean water, electricity, and internet access. And I’m guessing (just a guess mind you) that someone in Cameroon who’s not a white student on a field trip has thought of these things. The arrogance of this student, and especially of the administrators at McMaster who use her vapid, illogical, colonialist account to justify their conception of education, continue to astonish me.

    Of course I’m of two minds about internet access. I’d like to be able to draw a link between the technocratic mind-set of the McMaster administrators — for whom, I know from long acquaintance, internet access is equivalent to divinity — and the thoughtless sense of global mastery displayed in their rhetoric.

  3. I loved the bit about not hearing “I love you” being a cause of societal failure. By that norm, we need to send a large humanitarian task force into Japan and Sweden, stat!

  4. America, on the other hand, is covered, because the Costco greeters take care of “I love you,” (or soon will, according to Idiocracy).

  5. I dunno. Did you ever read Lawrence Stone’s Family, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern England 1500-1800? I felt like I learned a lot about the English when I read that the aristocracy tied their kids in bandages and then hung them on the walls in wooden crib-boxes.

  6. How’s that different from swaddling kids tightly and hanging them on racks on the wall, the way that some First Nations do/did?

    Ah, but don’t get me started on *Idiocracy*, where stupidity is explicitly coterminous with being Southern.

  7. And I heard the “babies in bags on the wall” story about the Czarist Russians! Do you suppose it’s true about one, or some, or all? Or not?

    But, come to think of it, it probably is. The other day a woman was encouraging me to take gymnastics and when I said “what would I do with my daughter?” she said, “we’ll velcro her to my daughter and shove them in the corner.”

    Hey Meg I did not notice this about Idiocracy. Canadian insensitivity. Lay it out for me if you get a chance.

  8. You missed one interesting tidbit from the new McMaster Times. It seems that Lanna Lee Nakone (formerly Nakoneshny) ’94 is marrying Bradley Robert Cairns.

    In the fuller announcement in the Napa Valley Register the following is reported:

    The bride-to-be has a master’s degree from McMaster University in Canada and is the owner of Organized World. As an organizing consultant, author of “Organizing for Your Brain Type” and “Every Child Has a Thinking Style,” and columnist with the Napa Valley Register, she is working on her third book and finishing chaplain studies at her church.

    The prospective groom received his Ph.D. in cell biology from Stanford University and performed his post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School. He is an associate professor of cancer biology and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the Hunts Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah.

    If there ever was a woman whose scheming abilities needed a broader audience, Lanna is she. And, you might have seen that McMaster Times saw fit a few issues back to give Lanna a couple of pages to help us alumni get organized gratis. I’m sure Lanna is all about the giving back.

  9. Ooo, aah! Lana, sooo, remind me. Is this the hysteric who kept messing up her language exams (comment altered)? Let’s get her to org up our brains!

  10. It has been suggested to me by a helpful friend that I remove the comments at the top of this little comment so that no one sues me. What I will leave in here is the excerpt from Lanna’s website:

    When you go to the library, the books you usually borrow are:

    1. How-to-books on a specific topic and only what you need at that time
    2. Nurturing for the soul, romantic novels, or any type of self-help book that makes you and the world better.
    3. The first things you see that appeal to your need for variety! After a couple of hours, you walk away with as many books as you can carry.
    4. Brief, to the point and written by the expert in the field. Cliffs notes are somewhat ideal!


  11. Wow was I surprised to find this here! I feel I have to write something in an attempt to defend myself. First of all, I was very disappointed with how the article was written because I realized that I came off sounding quite imperialist. I thought that the article they wanted to write about me was a good way for me to share my experiences, but it did not turn out to be an accurate portrayal of my views. I will attempt to explain them better here.
    While I was in Cameroon, I found it was very difficult to assess situations, keeping in mind that I did not want to impose my Western culture, but seeing some things that I felt were absolutely unacceptable. For me, this conflict was the strongest when it came to the discipline which was used with the children I worked with. They were constantly hit, slapped across the head and anywhere else. Usually an object was not used, but once when I was there and one child pushed another down the stairs the former was beaten with a stick. This was also very common in public and private schools. I knew that this was a cultural difference of course, but I also believe in children’s rights, one of them being the right to physical security (Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Cameroon is a signatory). In the end I felt that this was a violation of children’s rights, especially given that this is technically against the law in Cameroon. However I did not speak out against it in the orphanage because I did not see it as my place, given that I was a temporary volunteer from the West. However I continue to wonder whether I made the right choice.
    Somebody mentioned that I should have listed clean water, electricity and internet access as among the necessities. In the interview I was discussing my personal experience, although that might not have been clearly communicated. The orphanage I was working was state-run and had clean water and working electricity. As for Internet access, it was a temporary orphanage for children under the age of 7, so email wasn’t really a top priority for them. At this orphanage, although it was certainly not the case in all, the children were well-fed, clothed and provided with medicine when they needed it. Therefore the thing that I felt was most lacking in their young lives was affection.
    The women who worked there were there because they needed a job – they were constantly tired and cranky from working long hours and never played or nurtured the children. The children were starved for affection, and that is something I feel they deserve and need in order to properly grow. Again, this was specifically the children at the orphanage I was working at and is not to be applied en masse to Cameroonians, which I was frustrated to see that the article did.
    The statements I did make about Cameroonian society were in response to the large problems of corruption, crime, unemployment and poverty.
    In the interview I never said that I was an expert on the subject, I was simply asked about my opinions and the conclusions I had drawn while I was there. I maintain that I think that the public education system, was substandard. I don’t feel that that was an imperialist statement, particularly when you compared the standards in education in Cameroon between the public and private schools. In Cameroon there is free primary education for all, however the children that I met attending public school were not getting a good education whatsoever. Children of 7 and 8 who had been going to school for several years could not even read or write their own names. We were trying to help children prepare for their upcoming standardized final exams, only to find that their teachers had been absent from class, or showing up drunk and falling asleep in class on a regular basis. I challenge somebody to defend this approach to education. The education in private schools was much, much better although of course there were many people who could not afford to attend and so were left with the public school education.
    What I said in terms of thinking creatively was something that I found in both the public and private school systems. The emphasis was on memorization, and as a result the children finishing high school were extremely knowledgeable in many subjects. Talking to my host brother I was amazed at his knowledge of European history. My German roommate commented that he was taught much more about German history in school than she had been. However a difference we noticed in the education of the people we encountered was that they had not been taught to think critically and to challenge what they had been taught. If our observations of the education system from the individuals – teachers, university students, high school students and elementary students, as well as children in public and private orphanages – that we encountered were demonstrative of the education system across the country, then I do think that that is a flaw in their education system, which would have a direct impact on the efficiency of their society. Cameroon is not a poor country by African standards, and I think that this is a combination of their great natural resources and the advancements that they have made in education and health care, such as offering free ARVs and free primary education. However I also attended several speeches where I heard Cameroonian officials express their desire to continue moving further towards prosperity and the eradication of poverty. It was my opinion that if they wished to do so, a strong place to start would be by further improving their education system, so that the individuals coming out of it would be more empowered to tackle the issues of corruption, crime and poverty in their country.
    That said, I also feel that there are many flaws in the Canadian education system, and that those also directly impact the way our society functions. I won’t go into that here because this response has already become quite lengthy. I know that you may still strongly disagree with these views, but I still felt the need to qualify them and explain how I came to reach those conclusions.

  12. No, please, don’t stop, do tell, what are the many flaws in the Canadian education system which directly impact the way our society functions? When the undergrad telemarketing for beer money calls me again, I think I’ve got a new answer for why McMaster will never get a dime out of this alumnus.

  13. Catherine, thanks so much. I’m glad you found this, and glad you wrote. It’s absolutely clear that you’re reflecting on your experience in ways that didn’t come through in the account that was used by the administration. I know from long experience not to trust the Mac admin, but in this case they did a good job of making you look stupid in the same way they are: please forgive me for believing you were.

    Knowing how to go about working to improve the living conditions you describe without cultural imperialism is one of the most difficult questions we face. I’m sympathetic to your struggles, as well as to your impulse to turn the same critical eye on the educational system which trained you. I have no sympathy for the inter-disciplinary humanities programme you’re being used to tout.

    Jack, I ain’t giving Mac a dime either. We’ll tell the young buck we’re sending it all to Cameroon, eh?

  14. hi i am an australian artist, i figured this was worth a try, i met lanna nakoneshny years ago and am trying to reconnect, dont know if this is the right place but if it is be great to say hello thanks gav barbey

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