The recent proposal to rename Ryerson University has alarm bells reverberating throughout the university community and beyond. Events leading up to this decision have precipitated a growing wave of fear and anxiety that what we see unfolding is a much wider and troubling phenomena. Two things stand out in the Task Force Report “Standing Strong” that led to the decision. The purpose was to enforce and maintain “today’s more inclusive and humane value system”. The potential enrichment to knowledge and learning facilitated by historical perspective was ignored.
As a media education consultant my focus over the years has predominantly been on how trends in media have had an impact on the evolution of education theory and practice. With the arrival of television in the home, parents, teachers, religious leaders and other authority figures have experienced diminishing influence on the minds of the young. These trends have had a multiplying impact from one generation to the next. Those of us studying the subject have pointed to the blurring boundaries between education, information and entertainment media. Catch phrases such as infotainment and edutainment illustrate the point.
In recent decades, profit driven marketing executives have been given free rein to target and exploit the very young, reinforcing these influences. Social media has accelerated the trend, as Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and other variations have led to niche markets with algorithms directing our eyeballs toward our detected preferences. This has resulted in media consumption bubbles where only the like minded converse, fostering divisiveness and polarization of opinions. It has also given rise to the alternative fact. Fake news is now an established feature in our mainstream news on social and political issues. The early enthusiasm for citizen journalism, irrespective of any ethical criteria or boundaries around reporting practices, has morphed into disillusionment. Some have argued that unbridled freedom for everyone to impart, share and consume media has not only resulted in an explosion of “alternative facts” but given rise to an age of entitlement.
These trends have taken root within our institutions of higher learning as well as the community at large. Rhetorical demands for politically correct references to gender, ethnicity, and equality have led to intimidation and the silencing of debate, a key hallmark of learning. Historic revisionism is now predominant. Demands for truth and reconciliation reflect an arbitrary approach with a careless disregard for meaningful assessment of ancestral ways and belief systems that predate current interpretations of values. Ryerson University in Toronto has fallen victim to these developments. The criteria by which Egerton Ryerson’s life and legacy has been evaluated has resulted in poorly reasoned accusations of wrong doing. The toppling of his statue followed by the conclusion that the institution should be renamed amounts to an egregious distortion of the facts. Historical data is being recontextualized to fit a predetermined narrative. Misinformation will not result in genuine truth and reconciliation but foster resentment, hatred and further polarization. Ironically, the habits and sins of the colonial past are being appropriated and reapplied in an entirely new context.