Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

How much push? Racist anti-racists and the university

Professor Jeremy Black proposes a way of saving history from ideological capture

Artillery Row

‘We must encourage all members of our community to stand in solidarity with those affected by the events in the US, and by the broader cultures of structural inequity and violence linked to ideologies of white supremacy.

In particular, we think that white members of staff need to be pushed into deeper consideration and action, over both conscious and unconscious ways in which many institutions in the UK – universities included – uphold racist ideas.’

My point is that the current controversy is only a stage in a more longstanding effort to transform universities, with the teaching of History to the fore in terms of propagandist postures in a contemporary kulturkrieg

Sent out to members of staff in the University of Exeter in response to the Registrar’s measured response of 3 June to racism and hate crime as global issues, the petition from which the excerpt above is cited has clearly drawn new energy from the deadly event in Minneapolis, but, in practice, is part of a longer strand, one articulated by ‘the Exeter decolonising network’ and claims that, as the ‘BME Network Mailbox’ put it on 13 March, that there is ‘Institutional Racism on our campuses.’

Related emails sent around the Department of History and more widely, claim that ‘Racism is an endemic problem of this campus and the institutional culture is rotten’ (the Director of Liberal Arts, 16 March) or ‘Whether it be the Crusades or the violence of population control in the global south, we have a responsibility to work with our students to recognise the inequities of the world, past and present, and to collectively imagine a more ethical future. We wish to examine our curriculum, responding to national and international moves to “decolonise” University curricula … moving beyond a notion of market-driven “profit” to the truly universal (not just “global,”) university’ (draft petition sent out to History on 16 March and rapidly signed by 39 members). This strand can be readily expanded, as in my ‘Free Speech in Universities: A case study from Exeter. Again’.

My point is that the current controversy is only a stage in a more longstanding effort to transform universities, with the teaching of History to the fore in terms of propagandist postures in a contemporary kulturkrieg. ‘Post-colonial mentalities’ are pushed hard in a distinctly ahistorical fashion. The energy is in part expressed in terms of opposition to a supposed monolith of White oppression, past and present, which is why I characterise these individuals as racists and wonder whether it would be sensible to expect them to address differences of opinion. That, however, is somewhat soft-soap, so let me say that if I was a pupil, white or non-white, who did not accept their propositions, I am not sure that I can receive a reasonable education.

This, again, is part of a broader pattern. The Athena Swan programme that universities are supposed to conform to in order to demonstrate their consciousness of gender issues requires that there is scrutiny for unconscious bias, and thus a rendering redundant of freewill. This, of course, is all one way in its intended impact, as well as being largely a matter of judgment by prejudiced and certainly pre-judging observers. This programme is part of a more general willingness to reduce intellectual assessments to certain selected biological characteristics of the assessor. It is part of the widely observed drive in much of the profession towards an agenda of identity politics, race or sex-based essentialism, and explicitly activist terminology. None of this is really part of scholarship. Instead, there is a deliberately politicised drive. Ironically, many of those who talk most about their values are very prepared to go on strike and thus deprive students of their education and increase their anxiety.

But whatever you do, do not point out that this supposed sexist and racist bias is simply wrong. For that is what will get you shut down immediately. In a style of Doublespeak that George Orwell would have been proud to satirise, the majority of students are, in fact, women, while the proportion of black and minority ethnic status staff has increased significantly in recent times. Meanwhile, it is easier for a non-national to gain a university post in Britain than in most other countries. Indeed, one of the reasons university staff were so out-of-line with the majority of the voters on Brexit was possibly that they are disproportionately foreign-born.

In theory, universities say that they are places of openness, inclusion, and diversity, and, in particular, a welcomeness to present different views. But this couldn’t be further from the case. First, the ‘diversity’ is heavily slanted at the staff level, with those who are not in accordance with the dominant norms at best ignored as mavericks and at worse, and more commonly now, subject to pressure. Thus, anti-bullying policies rarely extend to protect staff or students on the Right. Universities place heavy emphasis on equality and diversity, yet are totally hostile to treating people of different views fairly (equality) and ensuring that those who are disapproved of are represented in the sector in ways in which match their wider national numbers (diversity). Moreover, staff are discouraged from making complaints against students, whereas it is open season the other way round.

Secondly, there is an institutional form of ‘non-platforming,’ with courses approved (or not) depending on terms of content set by frequently-opaque processes. Students frequently are thereby denied what they might find most interesting. ‘Decolonising’ the syllabus fits in very well here as a means of delegitimating both student and staff choice. Thirdly, there is the choice of visiting speakers in a parallel process.

Fourthly, the emphasis on winning grants as a contractual obligation, as well as a necessity for promotion and/or ‘retention,’ gives power to the research councils and other related bodies. These very much tend to follow a similar agenda of ‘relevance.’ I employ quote marks because the distortion of language has become a key feature in much Higher Education.

The ‘inclusion agenda’ bears part of the blame for the situation as it is used to provide moral authority to the above set of practices. And, of course, if you wish to be promoted the pursuit of such an agenda is a desideratum, and part of the stultifying, box-ticking conformity. Those thus promoted then apply the views/prejudices from which they benefit as rules, underlining the existing lack of balance. These rules are of particular weight as staff need to go through grades and review processes, most notably probation and promotion, while there are also discretionary salary points. The latter provide the authorities with yet another opportunity to show favour or disapproval.

Meanwhile, try offering students, many of whom have been made narcissists by inadequate parenting and social media, a grounded understanding of the past can make the latter uncomfortable if it challenges their views. The process has been referred to as ‘intimidating.’ You try noting the degree to which slavery was widespread in history and not a pathology of Western capitalism, or emphasise why slaves were sold out of Africa. Or adopt a position toward the British empire that is not inherently hostile. This Woke culture is permeating our society, as with the recent intimidation of those who are sceptical about aspects of the transgender bandwagon.

On curricula, world history is far more valuable than ‘decolonising’ which is invariably aggressively politicised

We should all be concerned. This is no longer in the confines of university departments, but is now affecting our public life as part of a left-wing march through the institutions that is inflicted on the large number of students going to university, with the BBC doing the same, and of course providing plenty of airtime for academics who have a critical view of the country and its traditions, with intolerant views accordingly. There is now a presumption of shared moral values and vision, of imposing a culturally conformist ‘inclusion’ in universities that in practice are ruthlessly intolerant of alternatives.

Without free speech, you cannot have a true democracy or a free society.

So, what is at issue on the part of those of the staff who are heavily engaged, and how does this throw light on university culture, historiography, and research as a whole: or, to be clearer, how might this group/tendency be viewed by historians of the future. One strand of analysis might focus on a striving to protect position in the face of a public emphasis on science and vocationalism: see J. Black ‘The Universities and the need for reform‘. This striving is a matter of intellectual commitment, political ideology, group think, and self-interest; all of which deserve atomisation. Careers of course are made by pursuing decolonisation (see here and here) and that is also an aspect of the current emphasis in critical race and collective white guilt theories.

There are of course also wider tendencies of emotional aggrandisement through feeling (thinking not wanted), so that the emphasis comes to be on accessing pain through empathy and or an apologetic show of guilt. That this is toxic to race relations and a distortion of the notion of a shared humanity is not just paradoxical. Instead, we are deep here in the world of blood guilt, and if you replace in many of the documents I cite or could cite the word white by black or Muslim or Jew there would be outrage.

Again, you might think this has all been settled. How many pieces do we have to read to appreciate that ‘decolonising’ the canon, the curriculum, the past, the present, existence, the universe, is intellectually bogus, conceptually arid, and pedagogically valueless, as well as as interesting and fruitful as eating mud; a process similarly for little children who at least can spit it out. Would that it were so. As I was writing I noticed that the ‘Education Report’ on 15 May produced for the regular administrative meeting of my former Department included: ‘Decolonising the Curriculum: Nandini Chatterjee and Stacey Hynd have suggested that the department should establish a Decolonising the Curriculum working group. Nandini would like to work with History UK, with a view to running a series of national events, starting this summer, to produce resources that academics can use in their teaching and research,’ and so on.

You might see sub-texts in terms of norms, admonitions, and, heaven forbid, ambitions. I could not possibly comment. I suspect that future historians, if they are allowed to do the research, will find a shared spoils system in which mediocrities of the Soft Left gain status and dispose of grants to their chums’ profits (a process then fully reciprocated), while the Hard Left is left to advance its agenda as long as it pays some obeisance to the platitudes of the administrators of the Soft Left. That, indeed, is ‘decolonising’ the syllabus. It fulfils that bargain and finances a world of grants, backscratching, mediocrity and academic entrepreneurship.

So are there any ways forward? First, on curricula, world history is far more valuable than ‘decolonising’ which is invariably aggressively politicised. I enclose a possible course prospectus on which I worked a little while ago. Other divisions are of course readily possible: for example a division between


With a third of the time devoted to each and the last organised from a World Historical perspective.

Secondly, research councils and funds should be encouraged to look outside the box. You try seeking research funds or career opportunities if you produce work on the detrimental consequences of divorce for children or the potential health benefits for some conditions of smoking. The ironic aspect of it all is that the true freethinkers are not with the poseurs who clump to the uniformity and predictability of politically-correct rhetoric, ‘research’ and norms.

What is particularly disturbing is to see these norms fortified by, and expressed through, a paranoid but profoundly divisive, and thus damaging, attack on some sort of monolithic and pernicious whiteness. That attack should have no place at all in modern Western culture.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover