March: Letters to the Editor

Academic follies and tinkled ivories


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Blanket waker

Your correspondent, Jonathan Laycock, rightly asks why so many university departments have embraced and  re-enforced the dogmas of “critical theory” (LETTERS, DECEMBER-JANUARY). He wonders whether it is attributable to the incentives generated from the funding streams of other public bodies. 

That may be a part of the story, but alas it begs the question why those bodies offer such incentives. Much of the impetus is generated by universities adopting en masse the strictures of the so-called Race Equality Charter. This was created not “bottom-up” by academics, but by Advance HE, an accreditation body with charitable status that is funded “top-down” by university vice-chancellors. 

Nonetheless, a “bottom-up” charade is performed by Advance HE because vice-chancellors mandate all newly-
appointed academic staff to join the body, supposedly to give their teaching activity a more professional status. 

No doubt similar principle-based charters and declarations, driven by the work of other “equality-minded” organisations with charitable status, exist for other public and professional bodies. But why has this cosy blanket of wokery come to cover all?

It is a simple formula: if it can be claimed that everyone else is doing whatever a supposedly external accreditation body demands, then compliance to that norm can be more easily justified and demanded. Furthermore, if everyone does it, then no one is exposed to risk from not doing it.

But more importantly, given that university vice-chancellors are overwhelmingly highly-remunerated white males, they must be able to respond to the charge that such inequality in outcome is the product of their own institutions’ discriminatory practices. 

This now becomes very easy to do. For when challenged on this by some coterie of student activists, universities don’t need to defend their personal virtues with arguments that speak to the differences between opportunities and outcomes. They say the diagnosis is accepted, that it is utterly unjust that they enjoy such privilege, but that there is now a collective charter that will stop it happening in future. How neat and tidy is that?

And of course, for an individual academic to challenge the normalisation of this wokery is to invite “cancellation”, or at least the HR department’s equivalent to the trial of Socrates some 2,000 years ago. So much for the advance of higher education.

Rod Thomas

Newcastle Upon Tyne

New university blues

In 1966, I joined some of the first undergraduates to read physics at the almost new University of Warwick. My sojourn must, therefore, have overlapped that of politics lecturer, Lincoln Allison. His account of the university at that time (FREE SPEECH: WE SHOULD TRY IT AGAIN, FEBRUARY) is most evocative. I actually attended the meeting he mentions which was addressed by a representative of the South African embassy. 

Back in the sixties, we were well up to the challenge of pioneering a new university, but we were hardly assisted by the antics of what became known, somewhat tautologously, as the “loony left”. Sit-ins, sleep-ins, teach-ins, occupations and “demos” were practically continuous. 

If it wasn’t the “just cause” of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it was the infallibility of the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

Sociologists, with little to challenge them intellectually, would call emergency general meetings at odd hours in an attempt to suggest that the student body as a whole pledged uncritical support to the IRA. 

The History faculty made its own contribution. It contained E. P. Thompson, who believed the university should be dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism or, as he put it in Warwick University Ltd (1971), “encouraging ‘subversive’ thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society in which [the university] operates” (p.166). 

When it transpired that the sound and fury of his acolytes signified hardly anything at all to the wider institution, he slunk off for a two-decade sulk.

If the loony left were a pest inside the university, they were a nightmare outside. Since there had been no time for Warwick to generate an academic reputation, garish accounts of their antics were practically the only thing potential employers, for example, had encountered. Happily, half a century has seen this impression superseded.

Dr Iain Salisbury

Edgbaston, Birmingham

Playing solo

I enjoyed Robin Ashenden’s compilation list of his favourite guests across the 80 years of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs (MY PERRFECT CASTAWAY, FEBRUARY). One oddity of this otherwise brilliant radio format is that some guests have appeared more than once — as if a single desert island wasn’t enough to contain them.

A further peculiarity was that one of the few so favoured was the pianist, Dame Moura Lympany, whose life and times, whatever her ability to tinkle the ivories, hardly justified her July 1979 encore. Yet, she seized the opportunity and chose recordings of her own work for all eight discs. 

I suppose if you’re going to be alone on an island, you might as well embrace the concept.

Janice Rogers


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