Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Professors Keep Secrets and So Should Our MPs

Just a brief post today, because I am still doing my marking (and enjoying every minute, let me assure you). ;-)

As one might imagine, professors keep many, many secrets. An important part of teaching is designing great tasks and then assessing the quality of student work. My assessment is a professional judgment based on defensible criteria drawn from established criteria and external standards. While I provide a summative assessment of performance over a semester to a student and to the Faculty of Education, I do not, can not, and must not broadcast my professional assessment of an individual student's performance to anyone else - it is not my secret to tell, and it would be an unforgivable breach of privacy.

So, professors keep secrets. In order to carry out my teaching, research and service work on various committees, I interact with student teachers, graduate students, academic colleagues, school teachers, school principals, school boards, fellow researchers, university administrators, and individuals from across organizational and industrial contexts; I serve on examination committees for masters and doctoral students; I observe students and teachers carrying out the educational work of learning and teaching in classrooms; I serve as an external examiner for tenure and promotion decisions; I blind peer review articles for journals; I peer review research proposals for provincial and national funding agencies; I serve as an expert advisor on various faculty and university committees; I bear witness to excellent teaching in classrooms in schools and on campus, and I also bear witness to many things that can be improved. Therefore, in my role as professor, there are many things that I SEE and DO, but do not TELL, TALK or TWITTER about. Professors keep a lot of secrets, and so they should.

Therefore, I was interested in this newspaper article and the question:
Should elected Members of Parliament have the right to know every secret in Canada?

This question arises in the context of the uproar over how Afghan terrorists were handled by the Canadian Military in 2006. However, the request by one political party for completely unfettered access to any type of information at anytime should worry all Canadian citizens no matter what political stripe they wear.

According to a Liberal back bencher, cited in this CBC story, "the government is obliged to supply to the committee whatever information it requests in the performance of its mandate from the House". Defence Minister Peter MacKay has said the material [about Afghan detainees] needs to be checked by the Justice Department to ensure nothing is disclosed that could pose national security risks. Levant writes that Canada’s laws about state secrets are clear: the Security of Information Act (the successor law to the Official Secrets Act) makes it illegal for a Canadian diplomat, soldier or spy to tell a state secret, even to a curious MP. TWOOPS: the same liberal backbencher calling for open season on state secrets broke the law and was caught TWEETING about confidential house meeting information. So, some MPs could learn a thing or two about keeping secrets.

"Whatever information" a tweeting MP requests, eh? Do I want MPs to have unfettered access to my professional and personal secrets? Do I trust politically charged and rabid back benchers with provincial and federal secrets that may pose a security risk and put Canadian citizens in danger? I have to say, I agree with Levant on this one: "That's nuts". Giving Curious MPs access to state secrets can turn them into "omnipotent snoops, destroying privacy in every field from military affairs to international trade to criminal convictions". That is just too Curious George Orwell for me.

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