Monday, April 03, 2017

Why elite universities are so illiberal

The posher the campus, the more likely it will chill free speech

Middlebury College in Vermont has joined the growing list of illustrious universities in danger of becoming better known for hostility to free speech than for academic credentials or notable alumni. One unedifying evening last week saw a guest lecture by Charles Murray, notorious author of The Bell Curve, curtailed by protesting students while, in the middle of the fracas, the professor hosting the event was seriously injured. In the same week, six professors from Wellesley College wrote to faculty arguing for new guidelines to stop speakers who might cause students ‘damage’ from being invited on to campus. The missive was prompted by an invitation issued to feminist cultural critic Laura Kipnis, who has spoken out against legislation to regulate consensual relationships between academics and students.

Both Wellesley and Middlebury are highly selective liberal arts colleges. Middlebury is referred to as a ‘Little Ivy’ and Wellesley is one of the ‘Seven Sisters’ women’s colleges established in parallel with the Ivy League. These are academically elite – and expensive – institutions. As such, they join other top ranking universities at the forefront of eroding free speech. It was Yale students who infamously shouted down the professor defending their right to choose for themselves what to wear for Halloween. It was at University of California, Berkeley, the home of the original campus free-speech movement, that students rioted in protest at Milo Yiannopoulos’s planned visit. A look at spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings reveals a similar pattern in the UK. The more prestigious universities, those ranked highest in popular league tables, are nearly always the most censorious; the few green-ranking institutions are generally less highly esteemed.

It’s undoubtedly true that campus censorship attracts more media interest when it takes place at top universities. What happens at Yale or Oxford is newsworthy: these institutions educated today’s politicians and journalists and are currently shaping tomorrow’s leaders. But this is about more than just attention. On both sides of the Atlantic it is the most elite institutions, those that can take their pick of the brightest students, those that, in the US at least, are able to command the highest fees, that are leading the way in censorship.

Students in receipt of the best education money can buy are neither less capable of refuting speakers they find offensive nor inherently more sensitive than the rest of us. Perhaps what they do have is a more finely tuned sense of entitlement, stemming from their place within the academic elite and exacerbated by their status as consumers. All too often this is enacted as a demand for freedom from speech. Some seem to assume that the cost and effort that goes into securing a top university place gives them the right not to be offended once there.

The link between academic success and a fondness for censorship is more than just a mindset. It is precisely because they are the academic achievers that students at elite universities demand freedom from speech. They are the ones who have best imbibed the lesson that truth is a question of perspective; discourse is a reflection of power relations and oppression is intersectional. They’ve learned that language constructs reality, and that ‘words that wound’ can inflict ‘spirit murder’ on those who, according to their gender, ethnicity or sexual identity, are assumed to be forever powerless. The students who excel in elite universities today have come to embody the vulnerability they see in others.

According to their view, the psychic violence inflicted by hurtful words is not just equivalent to the physical violence that places people in hospital - it’s worse; it is considered a denial of someone’s very right to exist. When people are fragile constructs and symbolic violence is everywhere, shutting down speech, by any means necessary, comes to make sense. At Wellesley, the professors seeking new guidelines for campus speakers make this point clearly. Students feel compelled to protest against visiting speakers, they argue, ‘in order to affirm their humanity’.  The connection between the act of protest and being a good student is drawn out explicitly: ‘This work is not optional; students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves.’

The ‘work’ involved in shutting down free speech on campus becomes necessary because the students at top universities are often not just an academic elite but a social elite, too. As such, they are forced to go to ever-greater lengths to defend the oppressed status of the identity group they seek to represent. For young people who’ve perhaps been privately educated, or received a generous scholarship, who have job opportunities and access to resources others can only dream of, demanding recognition for a particular experience of oppression is not easy. Defending your identity group against perceived existential threats provides an opportunity for you to show the world that you, too, suffer. By this reckoning, the more privileged a person is, the harder they must work to prove their claims to victimhood. Again, this point is made by the Wellesley professors, who write on behalf of those students ‘who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments’.

The Wellesley email brings into stark relief the extent to which it is not just some students who are to blame for campus censorship. No matter how ingrained a sense of entitlement they might have, few students arrive at university determined to close down debate. But once at university they act out the lessons of the classroom in protests that are often prompted, encouraged, led and defended by academics. If we want a culture of free speech on campus, academics need to lead the way in showing students how to challenge, not shut down, viewpoints they disagree with. University students are paying for education, not daycare, and that means having freedom of speech, not freedom from speech.


Codes won’t defeat campus censorship

Jo Johnson’s free-speech codes won’t give us free speech

The UK government, spearheaded by minister for universities and science, Jo Johnson, has announced plans to urge universities to commit themselves to freedom of speech. By encouraging universities to sign up to new governance documents and codes of practice protecting free speech, Johnson and others hope to halt the censorious culture sweeping the British academy. It sounds good, but those of us who believe in free speech on campus shouldn’t hold our breath.

There is unquestionably a crisis of free speech on campus, and it needs to be challenged. As the No Platforming of controversial speakers, Safe Space policies and bans on tabloid newspapers increasingly become the norm, Johnson is right to be concerned about the kicking free speech is getting at universities – the supposed centres of intellectual freedom. But the idea that government intervention and codes of practice will shake off this censorious culture is fanciful.

That students and universities would even need codes to prop up and endorse freedom of thought and speech shows how big the problem is. People in the academy should want to defend these freedoms, staunchly and passionately, in the name of allowing intellectual experimentation and debate to flourish. If we require bureaucratic codes to tell us these freedoms are important, then the freedoms themselves cannot exist in any meaningful sense. Johnson says his aim is to remind students and university officials that freedom of speech ‘should be at the heart of a higher-education community’ – but shouldn’t we know this, and shouldn’t we be demanding such freedom rather than waiting for the government to codify it for us?

Many universities already have codes of practice ‘ensuring’ freedom of speech, and they are most often used to inhibit speech rather than let it flow. These policies often have a very illiberal impact. Consider University College London, which has a code stating its commitment to freedom of speech. UCL has a ‘long tradition of seeking to safeguard freedom of speech’, it says. Except when people use ‘offensive’ or ‘provocative’ language, that is. Such speech should be avoided, the code says. Safeguarding freedom of speech clearly means safeguarding the right kind of speech, as decreed by UCL management.

Moreover, what moral authority does the government have to promote free speech on campus? This is the same government that has drafted and enforced the Prevent Strategy. Designed to tackle radicalisation, Prevent gives universities the power to ban ‘extremist’ speakers and to monitor students who say or read apparently questionable things. Prevent is inherently censorious. And Johnson has publicly backed it. When the National Union of Students took a very rare (and somewhat hypocritical) free-speech stance and criticised Prevent, Johnson said its position was ‘disappointing’. It is laughable for him now to pose as the free-speech hero British universities need.

It has become fashionable to lament the death of the free-wheelin’, boundary-pushing student and to mock modern students’ fragility. Student leaders definitely must be criticised, but this obsession with so-called snowflakes – a word spiked refuses to apply to millennials – overlooks the fact that officialdom often plays the same cautious, censorious game as groups like the NUS. When Johnson backs Prevent, in the name of protecting students from radicalisation, he is behaving no differently to SU officials who seek to No Platform Germaine Greer to protect students from ‘transophobia’ or who ban tabloids to protect students from their right-wing polemics.

The crisis of free speech on campus is getting worse. Both student officials and university management undermine this liberty. But intervention by government is not the answer. It is a contradiction in terms to try to foster free speech with government codes and regulations. Free speech shouldn’t need a code to ensure its existence, least of all on campus; it should be cherished day in, day out, as a real, lived experience. Let’s not look to government to ‘give us’ freedom of speech – students should be taking and running with this freedom every day.


NSW: Higher School Certificate students to study classic literature including Shakespeare and Austen - alongside Australian cinematic gem The Castle

Students studying for their Higher School Certificate (HSC) will now explore some of history's greatest works of literature - including the Australian classic The Castle.

High school students' minds will be broadened by literary gems from classic authors Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen as the Year 12 curriculum is given a new lick of paint.

A new list of prescribed texts for students was revealed by Education Minister Rob Stokes as a response to critics who claimed school kids could complete the HSC without reading a single novel.

The texts that will be devoured by teenagers includes work from literary talents Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and George Orwell to modern writers and filmmakers including George Clooney, Al Pacino, Che Guevara and Australia's very own Rob Sitch.

Lovers of classic Australian film will be thrilled to learn the iconic movie The Castle is also on the list of prescribed texts.

The Castle had previously been studied in lower level English subjects during the HSC for the unit 'experience through language' - but it will now be a major component of the English course.

Australian novelists Henry Lawson, Tim Winton and David Malouf also made the list of texts HSC students will study from October next year.

'I am very pleased important works of literature by writers such as George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and Albert Camus ­remain part of the HSC English syllabuses,' Mr Stokes said.

'Quality literature has ­always been a key component in every student's study of English and this will not change.

This decision makes clear that under the new syllabus students of year 12 English will have to study at least one novel.'


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