On March 7, the Varsity reported on a controversial firing at the School of Continuing Studies. At stake was nothing less than the question of academic freedom at the University of Toronto. Dr. David Ross was at the centre of this controversy. He chose to teach an erotic book, Story of O, in his “Meaning of Life: Then and Now” (a course about the Greek philosopher Plato). Dr. Ross has defended himself by claiming that students in his classes should be prepared to think—with emphasis on thinking (of the free variety). I think they should just know what they are preparing to think about.
As a former student of this course, I stand squarely in the middle of the debate. I like Dr. Ross. He did an excellent job of teaching Plato’s Republic. This is why I took the course. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Plato—both his philosophy and his life. If Professor Ross were teaching a course on Aristotle this term, I would gladly take it.
I found myself at odds with Dr. Ross, however, when he chose to teach two full classes—of only 10—on Story of O. Though this is a sophisticated book, it is not—in my opinion—related to the study of Plato. It would have fit perfectly into a course on 20th-century sexual attitudes and literature. To me, there was never a question of the freedom to openly discuss sex in a university. I came to learn about Plato, not, as Dr. Ross put it, the “erotic evolutionary value” of Story of O (though Dr. Ross did offer a fascinating analysis of the text).
If you intend to teach a course on sexual attitudes, you should be up-front about it. Put it in the calendar. A mention is made of “contemporary texts” in the calendar, but which ones? Dr. Ross could have at least explained this. And a class previous to the discussion of Story of O might have provided a perfect opportunity. I would have shown up for the next class, but some students might not have. At least we would have had the choice, and this whole controversy would likely not have occurred. The fact that some students were offended by the frank and entirely unexpected discussion of sexual acts in the middle of a class on Plato most certainly fuelled the fire that eventually led to his dismissal. In my opinion, Dr. Ross had the freedom to discuss sexual attitudes if he wished, but he also had an obligation to tell his students that was what he was going to teach.
I feel the same way about concerns over Dr. Ross’s communist views. Honestly, I did not care so long as he was talking about Plato. If Dr. Ross were teaching about Marx, I think that would be an interesting and stimulating course. Dr. Ross was quite correct when he said that he should put a disclaimer on his course: “be prepared to think”—but the emphasis should be on prepared. When I go to a course on Plato, I want to think about Plato. When I go to a course on Marx, then I’ll think about Marx.
Bruce Clark was approached by Dr. Ross and asked if, as a former student, he would be willing to speak to the Varsity about the controversy. Surprisingly, Bruce’s name was not on the final list that Dr. Ross submitted to the Varsity. We did talk to a number of students who supported him, however. Makes you think, eh?