10 November 2017

Universities: from free speech to closed shop

A difficulty with analysing the ideology underlying current culture is that much of it is covert. This makes it harder to criticise, which may be the intention.

Occasionally, someone gets more explicit. This may not be in the relevant person’s best interests but can be informative.

As an example of what is wrong with contemporary academia, consider the following assertions recently made by an Oxbridge academic in a newspaper article. (I have paraphrased to prevent identification, as I have no desire to generate negative attention for the person concerned. More deserving of disapproval are those who adopt similar attitudes, or are complicit in allowing such attitudes to become influential, but who take care not to reveal their own position in print.)

Universities have political significance.

The election of Donald Trump and the rising dominance of the Right provides an incentive for increased efforts in activism.

Many have queried the white bias on campus which presents bourgeois reading lists under cover of “neutrality”.

The question “What should be done?” is on everyone’s minds.

We must scrutinise our teaching materials. There are excellent schemes which attack class bias in academia. It is our responsibility to implement them.

There is no such thing as an apolitical classroom. We must realise that not taking a stand, or presenting a guise of neutrality, is equal to complicity.

We must agitate and organise so that our students speak up, make the world a better place, and do not become complicit in its evils.

Now many may like the idea of fighting against right-wing, or other ideologically incorrect, ideas. The question arises, however: is campus a suitable place for this?

The purpose of universities is (or should be) to consider ideas by reference to whether they fit with the facts, or are helpful in understanding reality; not by whether they fit with some principle of morality or other belief system.

Note the writer’s assertion that there is no such thing as neutrality. The ostensible effect of this is to undermine the argument I just made against activism on campus. If neutrality is not possible, or its apparent presence is a deception, then one cannot complain about its absence. This may of course be the motive for making the assertion.

“We must agitate”, says the writer. In other words, it is not enough that certain viewpoints may only be discussed as positions to be rejected — we must make it unpleasant for anyone who tries to argue in favour of such viewpoints.

If you want to know why the principle of free speech is being eroded, in universities and elsewhere, part of the answer is clearly: because many ‘academics’ consider it irrelevant.