McGill graduate Norman Cornett taught religious studies at the university for 15 years before he was fired without explanation in 2007. His unconventional teaching ethics, views on learning, and unprecedented dismissal were portrayed by filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin in the documentary Professor Norman Cornett: Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer? The film screened yesterday at Université de Montréal.
After the screening, Cornett took time to field questions from the audience and speak to The Daily about his unique vision for education.
“I started out normal. I would give quizzes, midterms, and final exams. But when a gifted 21-year-old male student comes to your office and literally breaks into a nervous meltdown, you start telling yourself that there has to be another way,” he said.
Cornett recalls being exposed to innovative ideas on education as an undergraduate student.
“Before coming to McGill, I had studied at the University of Berkeley where the sky was the limit in terms of education,” Cornett told The Daily. “I see education as a field of dream. For me, the classroom became a theatre of learning with no restrictions, no boundaries: uncensored, unedited, and unplugged.”
Cornett was very clear about his views on education at university.
“An undergraduate degree should not teach you a vocation, it should teach you how to live. As a teacher, I feel entirely responsible for giving to my students the peripheral vision and the confidence they need to face life once they graduate. Life is not a straight line. We should bring to our students life as it is,” he said.
As a result, Cornett developed over the years what he calls a “theatre of learning.”
“As I liked to tell my students during the add-drop period, my class was an academic version of Survivor,” he said.
In the documentary, former students described the class and testified to the merits of their professor. Classes were composed of a mixture of creative writing, fieldtrips to various artistic events around Montreal, and rigorous dialogues with distinguished figures such as politicians Paul Martin and Lucien Bouchard, author Harry Rosen, musician David Amram, and actor Ethan Hawke.
“The classroom became a community. The students were empowered and free to express themselves, to voice out their thoughts, even in front of a former Prime Minister,” he said. “As a teacher, I wanted to teach the students to have the confidence to validate their own convictions, and to engage in a mutual dialogue. The rest is academic BS.”
Cornett also spoke to the importance of creativity in education, which he believes is not implemented enough. His classes involved creative writing exercises, and required the students to choose a pseudonym, which would be used to refer to them all throughout the semester. Examples from the film included “Unintentional Matchmaker,” and “Little Mermaid.”
McGill’s dismissal of Cornett, along with the administration’s refusal to justify their decision, shocked many students, family and friends, who denounced the institution as being “too rigid” and “unable to take risks.”
Cornett’s dismissal is currently under review by Quebec’s Commission des normes du travail, although Cornett says his return to McGill is “unthinkable to the administration.”
Despite losing his job, Cornett still believes in the realization of his dreams about education. He continues to “walk the talk,” and energize the debate on education practices by orchestrating open dialogic sessions in Montreal with worldwide figures.
Information about Prof. Cornett’s dialogic sessions can be found at have