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Is the culture war destroying ‘the central purpose of universities’?

  • 13 December 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

the main burden for resisting the slow destruction of a cultural and educational heritage lies with academics themselves, but it is they – some of them, at least – who pose the main threat. They pose it, not because of any particular position they hold, or thoughts they are thinking, but rather because many have stopped thinking for themselves at all and are content to follow the herd, regarding any views that go against the grain as vulgar and contemptible. Indeed, it is hard to become an academic today without holding these views.

John Marenbon, The Battle for Britain’s Cultural Identity: Against the New Normal, 13 December 2021, p.44

If is very often claimed that UK higher education is monocultural and closed off to some debates that swirl around the rest of British society. If that is so, we should listen in to the conversations that we’re missing out on.

That’s what Public First recently did so powerfully and it is why I made my way to the Royal Over-Seas League last Thursday to listen to John Marenbon, a Philosophy academic at Cambridge, speak about his new paper on the culture war and education that is published today by the think tank Politeia. He was speaking at a session entitled ‘What Traditions, Whose Culture, What Curriculum? The Battle for Britain’s Identity’ alongside the Cambridge historian David Abulafia and the MP for Christchurch, Sir Christopher Chope, who has been chairing the parliamentary Committee on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

It was different to most higher education policy events. For example, regular faces were absent but ConHome and ConservativeWoman were present. I don’t mean to be rude when I say the proceedings were less a breath of fresh air and more a blast of traditional oak-lined, fireside gentleman’s club air.

Below is a summary of the speakers’ remarks as I heard them. It is not a verbatim transcript but, rather, a summary of what was said. (To avoid endless repetition, I have not generally bothered saying ‘he said…’ each time.)

John Marenbon

John Marenbon explained how – in his view – people who were once regarded as extremists have recently moved into the mainstream. The ‘new normal’ assumes there is ‘terrible discrimination all the time’. But this is not, in fact, ‘real discrimination’ and those who believe it is plan to tackle it by introducing their own new discrimination.

He argued removing statues is as much about forgetting the past as remembering it. Besides, most people don’t look at the statues around them or know who they are of, so why make a fuss of them? The Government’s ‘retain and explain’ strategy for controversial works of art is good but still comes with a risk of ‘vilification’.

As the UK lacks an official set of national values and a written constitution, history in schools is more important than it is in other countries: school history has to prepare people for being subjects of the Queen. And the Government has got it broadly right on History in schools, thanks largely to Michael Gove’s time as Secretary of State for Education.

The school History curriculum is prescriptive in its broad thrust and liberal in its detail, leaving room for teachers’ professional judgements. People who say there’s not enough Black history, for example, cannot complain about the broad thrust; they are left complaining the curriculum is not prescriptive enough.

Decolonising the curriculum seems to mean removing the emphasis on the canonical authors of English literature and shifting to global history from British history [HEPI’s own paper on decolonising the curriculum is here, Ed]. On the one hand, ‘the glory of universities’ is that they allow you to study all sorts of obscure areas. However, Peking University is a world centre for Chinese literature and you’d expect Oxbridge to be a world centre for English literature.

Part of the challenge is a battle over ‘western culture’, which people want to vilify and link to oppression. Yet there is no unified western culture – for example, western culture and Islam have some joint traditions.

Some people now want to politicise study rather than pushing academic study on its own terms as a search for the truth. In doing so, they seek to ‘destroy the central purpose of universities’. Political campaigning is a worthwhile activity for people’s own free time, but it should never be the purpose of academia.

David Abulafia

People in Sheffield have recently opposed the changing of some street names connected with slavery but, in Bristol, there continues to be enthusiasm for changing the names of places (like Colston’s School). It’s the ‘Sovietisation’ of thought, reminiscent of old books from eastern Europe in which authors felt they must quote Engels and Marx.

The interesting new book Free by Lea Ypi encapsulates the phenomenon of ‘bad biography’. While we’re not at the level of Enver Hoxha’s Albania yet, we are moving in that direction, with measures like preferential treatment in university admissions for first-in-family students [first-in-family students will be the topic of the next HEPI report, out in January, Ed]. But contextual information does not always help you select the best candidates.

Woke activism relies on a particular view of the past: a view that assumes White people have been oppressing Black people. Everything becomes the product of the slave trade, as in Eric Williams’s old book [Capitalism and Slavery] on the Industrial Revolution. It is an argument that was proved wrong but the argument has come back.

Original sin is seen to rest upon the shoulders of all White people. Yet White people in the UK today are more likely to be related to miners or mill workers than to slave owners. On the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? Pixie Lott discovered her ancestors had spent time in a workhouse. 

Woke activists don’t even believe there is such a thing as free speech; it is all reminiscent of China. We need to reopen debate rather than shut down free speech. While Critical Race Theory understands terms like racism in particular ways, we now need more Helen Pluckrose and less Robin DiAngelo.

Sir Christopher Chope MP

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is one way we can tackle the issues raised. The draft legislation protects academic freedom ‘within the law and within their field of expertise—(a) to question and test received wisdom, and (b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions’.

However, self-censorship is arguably the biggest threat to freedom of speech, as Trevor Phillips said in his evidence to the Committee.

Intolerance is spreading like wildfire. Even the cross-party Standards Committee in the House of Commons is pushing a new anti-racism Code of Conduct. That is ‘sinister’, undermining the purpose of being elected to the Commons, where you should be able to say what you want without fear or favour. Or take the case of Dr Samuel White who was severely punished for saying things about COVID, some of which have proved to be right. 

I’m not in despair but it is an immense challenge. Tolerance is an abiding British value but growing intolerance can only partially be legislated against – ultimately, we need more ‘peer group pressure’. My first letter in the Daily Telegraph, back in 1969, was on free speech in universities. Soon afterwards, the vice-chancellor of our university left. Now we need to change things so that people can fight back again.

HEPI’s most recent paper, The One Nation University: Spreading opportunity, reducing division and building community by Richard Brabner provides an alternative take on similar issues.

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