Universities are the backbone of our society, strengthening collective identity in all regions and strengthening hope for a better future in the minds of our fellow citizens.
At the end of January 2022, my mandate as Director General of the National School of Public Administration (ENAP) came to an end and I was struck by one observation: from my first year as a student at the École Ste-Claire d’ Sitting in Quebec and for the next 60 years, education in general – and post-secondary education in particular – have been the main theaters of my working and professional life. The following summarizes the essence of my background and my understanding of the meaning of education.
I believe I learned the basics of education from thinkers like Fernand Dumont, André Laurendeau, Jacques Grand’Maison and Pierre Vadeboncoeur. Their work helps us to identify its purposes: to form an individual conscience, to promote rootedness in a distinct national society, to deploy civic vigilance, to cultivate doubt, to open up to others and to the world.
In political philosophy, I belong to the camp of those who are tired of idealistic certainties and the multiple faces of doctrinaire thought. My references are Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron and Isaiah Berlin. In other words, the school of liberal humanism. To paraphrase Mr. Berlin: A decent society is far from idealistic; there is a constant back and forth between rules, standards and principles.
My involvement in the world of education took place in Quebec and Canada. I have always been a political scientist with a keen interest in intellectual history and constitutional law – digging into these areas to understand the Canadian federal Constitution and the historical and social experience of Quebec. I belong to a generation shaped by the traumatic experience of the debate around the Meech Lake Accord between 1987 and 1990. Alain-G. Gagnon, Alain Noël, François Rocher, Stéphane Dion, Linda Cardinal, Guy Lachapelle and Daniel Salée are the main political scientists of my generation who share this experience. Others will approach the subject with more lucidity and critical distance than me. For many of us, the Meech Lake saga was either a starting point or a turning point leading to much research on asymmetric and multinational federalism, based on political philosophy, public law and political sociology, and always enriched with a comparative approach integrating the experiences of other nations such as Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
My interest in liberal representative democracy, with all its grandeur and limitations, has been more than theoretical. In the early 2000s, after having been president of the party and leader of the political committee, I was a candidate for the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) in the riding of Louis-Hébert and I was defeated. I still remember a striking remark by the philosopher Jacques Dufresne in the report by Groupe Réflexion Québec, which led to the founding of the ADQ: “In the relationship between citizens and the State, it is time to move from cynicism and pettiness cheating on responsibility. In contemporary Quebec in the midst of a pandemic, the government of François Legault must wonder every day about the meaning and depth of this challenge. From the Meech Lake fiasco until today, I have identified with a school of thought rooted in the legitimacy of today’s autonomist nationalism and in the future of Quebec as a distinct national society, seeking a balance between this autonomy and interdependence within Canada.
After thirty years in the political science department of Université Laval, I became director general of ENAP in 2017 and I served almost half of my mandate during a pandemic. For me, universities are the backbone of our society, strengthening collective identity in all regions and strengthening hope for a better future in the minds of our fellow citizens. In Quebec and across Canada, universities can be proud of the work they have accomplished throughout the pandemic. At ENAP, we have also endeavored to contribute to the development of dedicated and competent graduates integrating a notion of public service attentive to the needs of the population.
When it comes to language teaching, I argue for an approach that combines passion with the discipline needed to master irregular verbs, for example. Passion and discipline will guide me in the years to come as I continue my reflection on education.
Guy Laforest was Director General of the National School of Public Administration until January 31, 2022.