We milled about, laughing nervously, carefully selecting our seats, attempting to appear nonchalant. This was to be our first lecture in Theatre F of the Old Basic Science building, demolished last year in the grander scheme of the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. (Mayes 2017) Even at that time it felt old, smelled old and conjured up images of past grandeur. Later in life I visited the Ether dome at the Massachusetts General Hospital, the site of the first successful demonstration of ether anaesthesia in 1846, and felt the same eerie nostalgia. But that demonstration in 1846, according to the single description that survives, was a sensational and lively experience. We, the newly minted class of ’64, were subdued and there was good reason for our anxiety; our lives were about to change in ways we could hardly imagine. Forty-five first year medical students, 41 men and 4 women, we were gathered for our first lecture in one of the fundamental medical sciences (along with anatomy and biochemistry) that made up the first year curriculum. Not without forewarning though; we had been sagely advised by our older and experienced comrades, those who had survived the first year. Physiology was the core of medicine but they would rather face the Spanish Inquisition than repeat the course. We were to live, breathe and dream physiology for the next year.
The initial impression of our Professor was of a rather austere figure: tall, thin and dressed in a plain black suit. This was belied by his laconic bearing. He sat on a bare wooden table gazing up at his audience, idly smoking a cigarette. Perhaps sat is not quite the right description-he rested his right buttock on the table, left foot on the floor, and his omnipresent cigarette in his left hand. During pauses he flicked through the pages of a notebook with his right hand. Except for a piece of chalk, the notebook was his only prop. It was not his lecture notes; it was the photos and names of the freshman class seated, oozing trepidation, in the rows of seats stretching above him. This was Physiology I, our introduction to medical science, and our lecturer was Professor Joe Doupe. Though we interpreted his gaze as piercing and carefully searching for his targets, it may actually have reflected his difficulty in associating the faces above him with the photos in his book. Joe had severe diabetes, which he treated carelessly, and which probably affected his vision. Perhaps that explained why he generally directed his questions to the front rows.
Joe Doupe was a teacher of the Socratic school. Now Socrates is long dead and the Socratic Method is only known from Plato’s Dialogues, Socrates wrote nothing himself. In The Dialogues Plato describes Socrates’s discussions with his friends in which he leads them, by systematic questioning, to new insights. The Socratic teacher does not lecture, he asks probing questions. The object is to guide the student towards a critical examination and better understanding of his ideas. The Socratic method of enquiry does not presume there is a final answer or an absolute truth; no statement is exempt from further questioning. And no topic is sacred provided that the proposer is willing to expose his beliefs to critical scrutiny. It is the foundation of the scientific tradition, the basis for critical enquiry and for the empiric system of reasoning.
Joe possessed a brilliant, insightful intellect and his questions were penetrating. His lectures were brief and to the point; he used the blackboard only occasionally to highlight crucial points, but his method of critical enquiry was the catalyst for learning. Learning physiology with Joe was a journey of self-discovery. His style became the intellectual foundation of the Medical School and in the process he became a role model for hundreds of medical graduates. His intellectual shadow still dominates the School and, for us, it was a glimpse into the future.
When we graduated from Physiology and finally from Medical School we were convinced that we were the vanguard of a new intellectual revolution. We would complete the Age of Enlightenment begun by Francis Bacon and John Locke in the 18th century. Our world would be governed by reason and rationality. Science, based on critical enquiry, would show the way and politics, religion, and economics would surely follow. The basic principles were simple: critical enquiry, intellectual honesty, open and questioning minds. The empiric methods of science and reason would lead us to, if not to Utopia, at least to something akin to Plato’s Republic.
That optimism still comforts us but is slowly being chipped away by the realities of politics and the social media. But surely, we have no cause for despair, we can trust our universities to preserve the enlightenment traditions. We can be confident that more than 150 years after Darwin our students will have ingrained the scientific method of thought so firmly that the fuzzy thinking of politics and social media will be irrelevant. Unfortunately that is not so obvious! Critical enquiry and open discussion are not flourishing; it is the new social ideologies that dominate University discussion. Marxist-Leninism is still alive but being challenged by gender diversity, social justice, feminism and animal rights. The ideologies vary from one university to another depending upon what issues the activists, faculty and students, have found immediately compelling. But the reports are numerous enough to conclude this is the new norm, often humorous but too often simply pitiful.
A recent article by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail of 20 March, 2017 (Wente 2017) was entitled why campuses are ditching free speech. She reports that student activists at Wilfred Laurier University, supported by faculty advisors, forced cancellation of a talk by a female lawyer who was prominently associated with the successful defence of a recent notorious sexual assault case. The ironic reality is that she had not intended to talk about sexual assault but about the challenges facing women lawyers. Two distinguished psychologists have written an illuminating review titled The Coddling of the American Mind in The Atlantic, Sept, 2015 (Haidt 2015), and state, “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.” Free speech, critical enquiry and debate are being subjugated to political and social correctness.
Our age of enlightenment is threatened now, just as it was in the middle Ages, by a style of thinking that emphasizes validation, not questioning, of current beliefs. Social media has made truth irrelevant, an insight beautifully summarized by Sarah Kedzior in another Globe and Mail editorial (Kedzior 2017), “it is not merely the message of the lie that matters, but its shameless delivery, as it implies that both public reaction and truth itself are irrelevant…” Even those who attempt to defend the role of the university, and therefore the role of the university professor, have bowed to public opinion. In another Globe and Mail opinion piece Éric Montpetit, Professor of political science at the University of Montreal (Montpetit 2017), wrote “In this post-truth period, in which falsities have become alternative facts in some circles, universities have a particular duty to protect their status as institutions that produce valid knowledge.” Unfortunately, the issue that Prof. Montpetit has chosen to defend is another example of the university’s choice of political correctness over freedom of discussion. The issue concerns an article written by Andrew Potter, How a snowstorm exposed Quebec’s real problem: social malaise, for Macleans Magazine (Potter 2017). Admittedly this article is socially controversial and treads on some very sensitive toes. It contravenes a self-image of many Quebecers that they are a socially distinct society, cohesive and self-sufficient. McGill University chose the politically easy path; it forced Potter to resign.
This is a complex world we navigate. We need folk heroes to lend us their identity. We need social values to give us direction. Unfortunately we find some choices much easier than others. Charismatic folk heroes who offer simplistic and absolute solutions are attractive to many. Social values reflect the interests of vocal minorities who are righteous in their beliefs and scathing in their condemnation of detractors. These are compromises that take us backwards, not forwards. Both treat facts as a commodity to be manipulated. The world still needs men and women who question, who never accept a statement without evidence, and who don’t offer easy solutions – we need more like Joe Doupe.
Haidt, G. L. a. J. (2015). The Coddling of the American Mind. The Atlantic. New York.
Kedzior, S. (2017). At long last, a forum where Trump cannot escape the truth. The Globe and Mail. Toronto.
Mayes, A. (2017). “Old Basic Science gives way to planned green space.” from http://news.umanitoba.ca/old-basic-science-gives-way-to-planned-green-space/?utm_source=umalumni&utm_medium=email&utm_content=rfhs&utm_source=Alumni+eNews&utm_campaign=2d2ec9e674-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_04_18&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ca832db3e9-2d2ec9e674-40483443.
Montpetit, E. (2017). Universities: Media pool or knowledge centre\/. The Globe and Mail. Toronto.
Potter, A. (2017). How a snowstorm exposed Quebec’s real problem: social malaise. Macleans Magazine.
Wente, M. (2017). Why campuses are ditching free speach. The Globe and Mail. Toronto.