For 2014's annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, University of Calgary political scientist Rainer Knopff organized a round table in honour of Janet Ajzenstat, professor emeritus of political science at McMaster University, celebrating her distinguished career and the publication of her latest, largely autobiographical, book Discovering Confederation: A Canadian's Story. As a former student of Janet's, I was invited to participate on the panel, for which I prepared the following remarks as a testament to her as a teacher not only of undergraduates but also of Canadians generally. Janet has dedicated herself to the study of Canada's constitutional history
In diligently returning to the original documents that articulated the forms of our regime so as to re-articulate their beginnings and their ends, you might say that Janet is Canada's premier reformer, precisely speaking, even though she usually counsels against what is commonly called reform. She teaches Canadians to love Canada well, against those who would belittle or misrepresent its past or exaggerate its imperfections.
Janet's brand of political science defies stereotypes regarding political theorists and empirical scholarship regarding law, institutions and public policy. She bases her analyses on a recognition of the rootedness of our practices in ideas. You cannot be a good student of Canadian politics without being a student of the history of Western political philosophy and the other ideational sources out of which our way of living together has emerged and flourished. Political theorists, in turn, ought to situate their thinking within the context that surrounds and concerns them, and learn to speak to it.
One may infer by the way she practises political science that you cannot carve the scholarly sub-fields and academic disciplines off from one another — or perhaps you can, but you shouldn't. They must be considered and analyzed in conjunction in order to understand them and sensibly recommend (or discourage) political change.
As readers of the ancients understand, every regime is undermined when its own principal principles and proclivities are extended indiscriminately throughout society and take on extreme properties. Thus, the friend of any regime must argue on behalf of societal features in tension with the forces that most drive it to preserve it against its own tendency to burn itself out. And so, in a society that nowadays too much draws inspiration from and judges itself in accordance with an imaginary standard, a fanciful fantasy about the future, Janet corrects us by drawing us back to our past through a respectful yet critical engagement with our actual, documented history.
Janet's emphasis on historical groundedness should not be mistaken as a defence of the way things are or have been simply because they are old or because they are ours. Rather, it represents a retrieval of the reasons and arguments for why they are good, or at least relatively good under the circumstances, given human propensities and possibilities and given observation and experience, because the defence of what is admirable about Canada on conventional bases alone will falter.
To be sure, Janet's philosophy is political: it's about politics; she has her political preferences; she endeavours to persuade; she has both friends and adversaries and is not afraid to pick a fight; plus, she is strategic about how she proceeds. Her method and style embody an appreciation of the opportunity that living in Canada affords — that political discourse may be advanced in one's own name in broad daylight. Conscious of the extraordinary blessing this represents, she strives to keep alive the possibility of dissent. She has been a courageous spokesperson for freedom of speech in the Canadian Political Science Association itself — one place where you would hope that freedom of inquiry would prevail, yet where it is nevertheless under threat by those who would stifle it supposedly out of respect for difference.
Of course, a student of the classics in political thought should not be surprised to discover the temptation to tyrannize among those who fancy themselves just and wise. But Janet is not only critical of her opponents; her research issues an accusation against those who are, as it were, on her side but who are ignorant of what is needful in order to best articulate and defend the values and institutions they cherish. People who know better ought to know better! So, she works not only to expose the disingenuous or the misinformed but also to educate her allies so they may better stand on guard.
One thing that should not go unmentioned is the way Janet conveys her arguments in a highly accessible, readable style, unburdened by sophisticated jargon. Some political theorists treat their readers with contempt, rendering their arguments difficult to follow, but Janet regards her readers as participants in a conversation and as potential friends. Her writing exhibits a dialogical quality, as if she could facilitate a conversation with you by enacting a conversation with herself. She supplies her own Glaucon to complement her inner Socrates, as it were.
Janet has been a teacher, mentor and friend of mine for 20 years now. Formally, I took only one undergraduate class with her, a survey course on the essentials: you know, the Republic and the Ethics, the Prince, Leviathan and the Second Treatise, ending with the first two Discourses of Rousseau's, that great villain in Janet's account of modernity. However, she also offered me critical feedback on work I submitted in other courses. I remember when she gave me what for for not giving the feminists what for in my feminist theory course. (Here, I thought I was being prudent.) Janet graciously served as second reader on my Honours thesis, too, on Nietzsche's ethics and his doctrine of "perspectivism."
I had taken to Nietzsche at the age of 16. Nietzschephilia is a dreadful disease, and I credit Janet for helping me to purge and cure myself of it by 22. By the time I graduated, I remember her asking me, "Would you encourage another 16-year-old boy to read Nietzsche?" I replied, "Only if I really didn't like him." I had been a stereotypically angry young man in high school and during my college days. Unfortunately, many professors believe that their mission is to fix the world — a task that implies much destruction, which they euphemize as transformation (a rather metaphysical word for this-worldly sorts to use) — and to that end they need passionate, ambitious and gullible youth ready to wield an axe in whatever direction they're pointed. If only more angry youths had professors like Janet to temper their anger rather than foster it.
As her student, I started, in time, paying attention not only to what Janet taught but how she taught. From her, I learned a little about cultivating a more cultured personality. When I first enrolled in her class, I was rough and green — straight out of leaving a chemical engineering degree halfway finished. Having been a math and science kid in school until then, I was mostly self-taught in philosophy, religion and political history — which is to say, mostly bumbling. Janet encouraged me to become better educated.
Janet was patient, too. In retrospect, I can only imagine how trying I must have been, considering the many things I have said in her presence with disproportionate confidence and excessive irreverence over the years. Philosophically and politically, Janet convinced me to identify as a liberal and a patriot. Our society doesn't do enough to raise young Canadians to be proud of the Canada that was and is, rousing them instead to pledge allegiance to the Canada that someday might be and the global community to which it shall belong. I had never really thought of myself as a liberal until Janet called me one. She probably detected that I was insufficiently liberal and needed to be commended for being more liberal than I was in order for me to gather that I ought to become more liberal: a liberal in the sense of a friend of democratic liberty, that is, not a proponent of Machiavellian liberality.
A good teacher also has to be a tactical critic, and Janet mixes vinegar with honey in her teaching. Students in an era of empathy and entitlement don't like being made to feel uncomfortable — nowadays they want "trigger warnings" on their syllabi — but the fact remains that discomfort is a sine qua non of learning. No matter how bright or well-intentioned, young people need to know that they aren't that smart and they aren't that good — while being given a slight nudge in the direction of self-improvement, as the motivation to improve must be internal if it is to find success. Moreover, there's nothing wrong with including a modicum of shame in that criticism. Janet will usually tell you plainly and directly (quite bluntly, actually) how your arguments and evidence fall short, but she also has a chilly way of expressing disappointment through silence — causing one to muse, "Hmmm. Apparently I've messed up again... What did I say wrong this time?" She won't alleviate you of the responsibility to re-evaluate yourself, discover your flaws and make amends.
In addition to changing my mind on a number of subjects, Janet also has shrewd personal advice to offer her friends. When I indicated my interest in pursuing political philosophy as a career, Janet suggested that it wouldn't hurt to start taking my lunch at the med school cafeteria. After all, I might happen to meet someone nice there. But as Grand Pabbie the Troll King tells us, "the head can be persuaded" but "the heart is not so easily changed." So, I married a musician instead of a doctor. I did follow one piece of advice that was decisive for my career path. Early on in my senior year, she asked, "Have you ever read the philosophy of Harvey Mansfield? No? I thought not. It's not a theory that Canadian political scientists would teach you." I followed her advice and submitted an application to Harvard's doctoral program. My best hunch remains that it was Janet's letter of recommendation that gained me admission, making of me a somewhat unlikely advisee of Harvey's.