I hope university teaches me to think, but I’m not so sure it will – 15/07/2020

Oscar Wilde once said that ‘the Oxford manner’, is ‘the ability to play with ideas gracefully’. All being well with my (teacher assessed) A-Levels, I hope to begin my time as a student at Oxford this October. I couldn’t be more excited about this, but recent trends regarding the free exchange of ideas at universities worldwide, and the current political zeitgeist we find ourselves in, have made me wonder if university will actually help me become a more able and independent thinker.

What’s made me apprehensive? A few things. Firstly, a tendency to place limits upon the free exchange of ideas has become a creeping trend in UK and US universities for quite some years now. And Oxford leads the way. In 2018, Spiked Onlines Free Speech University Rankings placed Oxford alongside Edinburgh as the most restrictive institution in the country for free speech. Official OUSU policy includes a commitment to prohibit advertising by pro-life campaign group LIFE, the discouragement of ‘bad taste’ party themes (whatever the hell that means), and a proclamation that all OUSU events ‘should consider trigger warnings, content notes and pronoun circles to be regular practice’. In 2015, a new student magazine called No Offence, which sought to ‘promote debate and publicise ideas people are afraid to express’ was promptly banned from being distributed at Fresher’s Fair.

Similar examples can be found across American unis, with Ivy League institutions like Yale and Brown among the worst offenders. Why is this happening? The transformation of students from budding intellectuals to a monetary commodity certainly has something to do with it. The introduction of tuition fees in the UK has pushed our academic institutions down a path of lazy capitalism, where a new customer service mentality dictates that students must have a good time, lest a Uni gain a reputation for demanding work and exacting scholarship.

Of course in the Ivy League this has been true for some time, and it is borne out by new university marketing which emphasises the comfortable ‘homely’ atmosphere of institutions. The weight placed on the student experience inevitably necessitates the elimination of any offensive argument or idea, stifling free debate.

However, those of the academic old guard know that this new system does not work. Hannah Grey, President of Chicago University between 1978 and 1993 has this to say:

‘Universities have increasingly come to be seen as paternalistic welfare states. Education is not supposed to make people comfortable, it is there to make them think.’

Ruth Simmons, who was President of Brown University between 2001 and 2012 and the first African American president of an Ivy League institution goes further, stating that ‘learning is the antithesis of comfort’. She is so right. To learn is to expand our knowledge into murky, unknown waters, and we are likely to make mistakes and feel out of our depth. But exploring new ideas is what improves our capacity to think deeply about the world, and to entertain arguments we might be opposed to, without railing violently against them. It is this clash of viewpoints which allows universities to fulfil their sacred role as identified by another Chicago President, Robert Maynard Hutchins, namely, ‘to develop intellectual power’.

It’s important to acknowledge that this is no easy skill. My sense is that it does not come naturally to our tribal sensibilities. It must be learned, and thus taught. It’s no accident that Aristotle remarked that ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’. But safe spaces, supposed micro-aggressions, and the cancelling of invited speakers do nothing to cultivate this valuable skill. When encountering a controversial idea, instead of being taught to ‘entertain it’, students are encouraged to either ignore its existence, or silence those who advocate it. This does not teach young people to think, only to oppose ideological diversity with tyranny.

Our academic institutions play a crucial role in turning know-it-all teenagers into mature adults. Breaking down the presuppositions of adolescence is fundamental if a willingness to consider new arguments and ideas is ever going to thrive. I know, I’m an opinionated and argumentative 18 year old who often needs taking down a peg or two. But I’d like to think that I recognise the process of debate and confrontation as one of growth, where bad arguments are discarded and better ones chiselled into shape. This (often painful) mechanism allows me to become a better thinker.

But if institutions do not provide students with the opportunity to challenge opposing views, and instead cocoon them in the prevailing liberal zeitgeist, then it’s quite possible they will be less capable of engaging in meaningful discourse when they leave Uni than when they arrived. They will have been, as Douglas Murray is fond of saying, ‘educated into imbecility’.

A climate of conformity and censorship is not just boring, it’s entirely unlike the real world. To quote that great moral philosopher Sylvester Stallone, ‘the world is a mean and nasty place’ – it is. Encountering people with whom who profoundly disagree is very likely. You may well come across bigoted and racist people. But do you think you would be better prepared to defeat their arguments if you had confronted their ideas before, and picked them apart in rigorous debate, or if you had pretended they did not exist at all? This is one of the great tragedies of declining ideological diversity and the rise of cancel culture on campuses: In seeking to create ideological conformity, our academic institutions make it less likely that genuine bigotry will be challenged effectively.

And the decline in ideological diversity is real (especially in the humanities). Research by Professor Jonathan Haidt and the Heterodox Academy (which works to counteract a lack of viewpoint diversity on US campuses) have demonstrated that conservatives in social research fields are underrepresented by about 80% when compared to broader US society[1]. Haidt also quotes a 2007 study (Gross and Simmons) which found that 80% of psychology professors were Democrats, outnumbering Republicans by nearly 12:1[2]. There is no reason to believe the trends are different in the UK. This lack of differing opinion in universities undermines the goal of teaching students to consider a wide variety of ideas. If dogmatism is reinforced by conformity among academics, then no one is being taught to think. Robert Maynard Hutchins was right to champion ideological diversity at Chicago when he said that ‘if everybody thinks it’s great, then the chances are it’s going to hell’.

How should we combat this? Well students themselves must be willing to open up to new ideas, but the administrative bodies of our institutions could do a lot more to stand up to the illiberal tendencies of their radical student unions (it’s just that at present, the income from tuition fees is so enormous, that universities fear upsetting their woke cash-cows).

Today, as the BLM movement sweeps across the UK and the USA, activists are making strong arguments on police reform, the legacy of slavery, and the memorialisation of our history. These are crucial debates to have, but if they are to be meaningful, everyone must be included within them. In Oxford, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, like the wider BLM movement, also includes attacks on meritocracy and capitalism. A few days ago, RMF told me via my social media that I should no longer use the word ‘exotic’. Will I be able to challenge these views at Oxford? I hope so. But I am increasingly concerned that many students are unwilling to acknowledge that their ideological adversaries might be well-meaning, instead believing that they are evil by nature. If we are unable to disagree well, or to put it another way, ‘play gracefully with ideas’, then civil discourse cannot function.

The consequences of the breakdown in dialogue between opposing groups are already visible: A more polarised political and media environment; evidenced just this morning by the departure of centrist columnist Bari Weiss from the New York Times[3]. This is not good for democracy (speaking of which, Jonathan Haidt has predicted that in ‘in the next 30 years we will have a catastrophic failure of our democracy’[4]). Again, Robert Maynard Hutchins was bang on the money: ‘Education is a matter of life and death to any society’.

These are the stakes. Universities must reclaim their sacred position as outlined by the 1975 Woodward Report, as places to ‘think the unthinkable’ and ‘challenge the unchallengeable’.

So Oxford, please teach me to think.

Further Resources:

Jonathan Haidt’s fascinating TED-Talk on ‘The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives’. https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_the_moral_roots_of_liberals_and_conservatives?language=en#t-1100410

Rob Montz’s series of documentaries on campus free speech in the US:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5uaVFfX3AQ
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xK4MBzp5YwM&list=LL9rFW6s8_6iTGYa0vMmiexg&index=1684
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFShZMJhdOA

[1] Musa al-Gharbi, May 23rd 2018 –  https://heterodoxacademy.org/why-should-we-care-about-ideological-diversity-in-the-academy-the-definitive-response/

[2] Gross and Simmons – 2007 – http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~ngross/lounsbery_9-25.pdf

[3] https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/bari-weiss-twitter-is-editing-the-new-york-times- Bari Weiss’ resignation letter.

[4] Kelly, Paul, ‘America’s Uncivil War on Democracy’ – July 20th 2019, The Australian https://www.theaustralian.com.au/subscribe/news/1/?sourceCode=TAWEB_WRE170_a&dest=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theaustralian.com.au%2Fnation%2Fpolitics%2Fvery-good-chance-democracy-is-doomed-in-america-says-haidt%2Fnews-story%2F0106ec1c458a0b5e3844545514a55b5a&memtype=anonymous&mode=premium

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