It’s time for another Profile in Nonconformity. In this series I look at people who are challenging authority and changing the world in unique ways.
The Professor in Handcuffs
How does a tenured, full professor lose his job? First, he throws out the grading system by deciding that every student gets an A+.
Next, he tells students to rebel by showing how they, collectively, have more power and authority than any of the administration. Then, he gets arrested and taken away in handcuffs by the police just for showing up for a film club on campus.
Denis Rancourt is the professor, and I first read about him from the Globe and Mail, Toronto’s largest newspaper. I tracked him down in Ontario and he agreed to answer my questions – but he responded with the qualifier, “Hope this does not overly frighten your readers.”
Hmmm, what do you think… are you frightened? I didn’t think so – but be sure and read the notes at the end for a reminder about unconventional thinkers.
OK, here is the interview.
How is it possible to give every student an A+? Don’t we need some kind of evaluation system?
You put “A+” in the box where it says “student grade.” It’s quite easy. And with that simple move, you remove the instrument of power and oppression in the classroom. My job description says nothing about rank ordering students for employers or graduate school. It says “optimize education.”
You talk about students accepting an inferior system out of the desire (or need) for a degree. What can they do to change the system?
Students have as much power as they want in the classroom. They can impose whatever syllabus or grading system they want. Try it and see. If you are the only one in the class to openly challenge the professor’s absolute control then you will also be the only one to get an education. Better to learn freedom than to degrade yourself by obedience to an absurd order.
When you returned for the film session, were you expecting to be escorted off the campus in handcuffs? What was that experience like?
No, I did not expect it. I did not expect the administration to be so bold as to have dissidents arrested in an auditorium full of students and community members. I did not expect the police state mentality to extend to white male professors.
My main reaction to being cuffed was noting how gentle and polite the police were compared to how I have seen them cuff and arrest students and community members on campus, always under direct orders from the upper administration. I actually think they have special “prof cuffs” that don’t cut and hurt your wrists. I have seen what the regular cuffs do.
What is your vision of higher education?
Liberation. Independent thinking. The present prison system of education is a concentration camp that first teaches obedience, followed by indoctrination at the graduate and professional levels. Farber’s essay from the 60s The Student as N—– is dead on in my book, only it has gotten much worse since the 60s, as explained in Churchill’s essay Pacifism as Pathology.
If you are really an anarchist, what would you say to someone who argues that rules and social order are necessary in an institution like the academy?
I agree. Anarchists are not against order and organization, but they fight impositions of undemocratic structures. Anarchy is not chaos. Anarchists are against illegitimate and self-preserving power structures (hierarchies).
What do you expect will happen next in your case?
The present media debate will be stifled as soon as the other side senses that some people risk catching on, as soon as the Lie begins to be exposed.
Many of us feel threatened by unconventional ideas. Whenever I mention Ayn Rand, for example, several people always send me notes expressing their concern or disappointment in me.
My response is that you don’t have to be afraid or threatened by controversial ideas. If your belief structure is threatened by someone else’s ideas, then it probably wasn’t very strong to begin with. If you still feel threatened by alternative ideas despite having a strong belief structure, then perhaps the alternative ideas contain more truth than you initially want to admit.
I’ve got a few other features like this scheduled for the rest of the spring. Among other things, we’ll look at passive versus active resistance, objectivism, and the life of Malcolm X. For now, the point is that we can learn a lot from people who are unconventional or controversial. When a member of an elite group (tenured professors) appears willing to forfeit his position over the right to teach as he sees fit, I think he’s worth paying attention to.
Speaking of Professor Rancourt
I’d love to know what you think of Denis Rancourt’s ideas. If you have any additional questions for him, post them up and we’ll see if we can get him to respond. To track the status of his legal case against the University of Ottawa and watch a recent press conference with him, head to AcademicFreedom.ca.