Beyond Critical Thinking
Review of Denis Rancourt's Hierarchy and Free Expression in the Fight Against Racism
By Jeff Schmidt
Author of Disciplined Minds
To understand Denis Rancourt and his book, Hierarchy and Free Expression in the Fight Against Racism
, you have to know the difference between critical thinking and independent thinking.
Critical thinking is nothing special. Every college student is taught to do it, to prepare for employment fielding matters for employers. On the job, critical thinking amounts to little more than the ability to say, "The boss isn't going to like this." You don't need your own ideology to say that. You need only understand the boss's ideology and use it to guide your work.
The safest way to avoid making a fatal mistake in such work, and to advance through the ranks, is to adopt the assigned way of thinking as your own. Your life becomes routine and you vanish from history, but you get a roof over your head and more than enough food for your pie hole. It's the Devil's bargain for survival in hierarchical organizations.
Rancourt is having none of it. Having become an activist and thereby having experienced the excitement, exhilaration and fulfillment of helping to shape the society he lives in, Rancourt sees cog-in-the-wheel life as a living death.
As a tenured professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, Rancourt noticed that students were emerging from physics courses without truly grasping the concepts behind the techniques that they were learning. The instruction was more indoctrination than education. Grades reflected obedience and memorization more than real understanding. The system prepared students to be obedient critical thinkers but did not arm them with the understanding required to be independent thinkers. That served employers, who want technically trained employees who don't have their own agendas.
Rancourt became an outspoken critic of the university. (And I was fortunate enough to get to know him at that time.) He blogged about how the institution's undemocratic structure and corporate orientation led to malfeasance at all levels, from the president's office to the classroom. And he worked to promote student activism. In response, the university repeatedly tried to discipline him for various contrived infractions, but the repressive measures didn't hold up upon review. Finally, the university fired Rancourt under the pretext that an unconventional grading system that he used in one class wasn't permitted by the rules, despite its success in getting students to grasp concepts. His dismissal led to one of the biggest academic freedom cases in Canada.
The university continued to try to silence Rancourt even after it fired him. As I describe below, the university used public money to finance a private lawsuit against Rancourt for refusing to withdraw his stinging criticism of one of the university's "service intellectuals" (a term that Rancourt uses incisively).
Rancourt's book is more wide-ranging than its title implies, as it covers much more than the fight against racism. Rancourt argues for student liberation, tries to use biology to explain social hierarchy, discusses how workplace hierarchy is a source of stress and a health hazard, criticizes establishment medicine, describes how the social system works to keep individuals powerless, and discusses the role of collaborators in maintaining the status quo. He brings independent thinking to each topic, often opening up new lines of thinking about long-standing social problems. In this way his book is seminal, and one hopes that he and others will follow through on his ideas and see where they lead.
In a theme that pervades the book, Rancourt argues that the structure of society reflects the state of an ongoing battle between oppressive hierarchy and the individual's impulse for freedom and influence. He says that the hierarchical system needs to disorient and incapacitate us. It uses brutal methods that exploit the dependence of our self-identities on our social status, over which the bosses exercise much control.
In another theme, Rancourt is highly critical of critical race theory. He argues that suppressing the expression of racist opinions prevents real, enlightening debate and thereby undermines the individual's political development and the struggle against racism.
The racism issue that Rancourt addresses arose after the student union on his campus publicly reported a pattern of discrimination by the university. To the embarrassment of the university, the report received much media attention. In response, the president of the university asked a black assistant professor to publicly "evaluate" the student report. In just a few days' time, and with university guidance behind the scenes, the professor produced an "independent" public report, which the university posted on its website, questioning the validity of the student findings.
To present as "independent" an evaluation produced in this way would be considered unethical in science, journalism, government, and even advertising. It would be seen as a gussied-up version of: "I'm not a racist, am I?" "Of course not, boss."[1,2] However, when Rancourt criticized the relationship between the professor and her employer in terms that Malcolm X used to describe similar situations, the university moved to silence him. It hired a top corporate lawyer to pursue a million dollar lawsuit against Rancourt, in the name of the black professor.
But that effort to silence Rancourt backfired. Lawyers usually advise litigants to shut up, but Rancourt repeatedly spoke out about the lawsuit and made its details public; the media reported on it. In the book, Rancourt discusses the suit and critiques the philosophy behind it.
I don't agree with Rancourt on every issue. For example, he says that it is "self-evident" that social hierarchy is natural, a product of human biology. If such biological determinism hadn't been discredited by 20th century history, then I would respond by asserting that the ongoing fight for democracy is natural. And in this I would quote Rancourt himself, for the main thrust of his book is that social hierarchy has to be forced upon people.
But Rancourt's main goal isn't to get you to agree with him on the issues. Rather, his goal is to provoke you to reject the boring, worn-out framework within which the issues are debated in the mass media and academe, and think independently. His book worked for me, as I ended up thinking about important issues in new ways.