It’s time to stop the rot

Students denounced, lecturers cowed and managers with little interest in truth

This article is part of a Universities in Crisis feature from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I work at a UK university, teaching and writing about the history of concepts and other out-of-the-way matters. For many years, I had shied clear of public controversy, but early in 2020, something stirred me from my academic slumber. A student came to me in distress: apparently, his next-door neighbour, overhearing some comments through the wall dividing their rooms and finding them politically inappropriate, had made a report to the university authorities. My student was hauled before a tribunal, convicted of harassment, and stripped of his accommodation rights.

I was amazed. I had thought such things could not happen here. And this was not the only case of its kind. Other stories reached me of students and lecturers being denounced and investigated, often for remarks which seemed to me entirely blameless. Yet when I raised the matter with my colleagues, they told me these things were not really happening, that they were stories made up by the right-wing press. Alternatively, they insisted that such things had always happened, that nothing had changed. I sensed that the subject embarrassed them, so I didn’t press it.

The beliefs with which I had grown up — that conversations in bedrooms are private — had long since been abandoned

About a year later, I applied to make a small change to a module I teach and was told to fill in a form stating how the proposed change “broadened epistemological and ontological horizons by moving away from a white, Eurocentric curriculum”. Again, it seemed to me that a clear line had been crossed. Universities in democratic countries were not supposed to impose ideological views on their teaching staff.

That was Gleichschaltung, “streamlining”, as the Nazis had called it. Yet as before, my colleagues seemed largely unconcerned. They said that universities had always pushed ideological lines, that their vaunted “neutrality” was just a mask for conservative prejudice. Hardly any of them shared my sense that something fundamental had changed. Why not, I wondered. Could they not see what was going on? Or did they not want to see it?

In retrospect, I was being naïve. The beliefs with which I had grown up — that conversations in bedrooms are private, that ideological lines should not be pushed by public institutions — had long since been abandoned by the majority of my colleagues, meaning that their repudiation by the university authorities merely confirmed what was already tacitly conceded. The structure was (as it were) rotten through and through. A small push only was needed to send it toppling. But how had this happened? By what bacillus had our universities been hollowed out? These were the questions which now nagged me.

One answer to these questions, popular on the right, pins the blame on something variously called “postmodernism”, “deconstructionism” or “cultural Marxism”. These are really just labels for a certain intellectual style, whose hallmark is an a priori suspicion of all claims to cognitive and moral authority, particularly when put forward by members of historically privileged groups: whites, males, heterosexuals etc.

We have all become familiar with this style of late. Its catchphrase is “it’s interesting that …”, as in, “it’s interesting that statistics was pioneered by the eugenicist Galton” or “it’s interesting that so many specimens in Kew were brought there by imperialists”. The precise interest of such claims is never spelt out, but their insinuation is unmissable: statistics (or whatever it is) is tainted knowledge, to be drawn on, if at all, only with a parade of bad conscience.

“it’s interesting that so many specimens in kew were brought there by imperialists…”(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

This mode of thought has its stronghold in particular institutions and disciplines. It is rife in the former polytechnics, especially in the various “studies” — “gender studies”, “race studies”, “disability studies” etc. It has invaded English Literature, where it goes by the oddly uninformative name of “Theory”. But wherever it takes up home, its effects are the same: enquiry gives way to assertion, and standards collapse. No special competence is needed to master the “critical” idiom, just allegiance to the correct standpoint, signalled by use of the approved jargon.

Other disciplines — history, philosophy, economics, law, medicine, mathematics and natural science — have managed better to resist the rot. Here, the requirement to master some weighty body of knowledge or technique creates a powerful esprit de corps among practitioners, transcending differences of outlook. “Anyone can read Jane Austen, but not anyone can read Aeschylus” is how one professor of Greek put it to me, explaining why English is so much more prone to ideological infighting than Classics. There is a good deal of arrogance and narrowness in this attitude, but it is better than the politicised humbug common in the lower reaches of academia.

Recently, however, the humbug has seeped upwards, like rising damp. Its marks are all over the place — in the calls for “relevance” and “accessibility”, in the jettisoning of classic texts (“pale, male and stale”), and in the insistence on softer, more “feminine” modes of argument.

Sometimes, the scorn for old standards is flagrant. “Dishonesty and fabrication in academic scholarship are ethically unacceptable,” write the editors of History and Technology. “But … ”, they continue ominously, “if we are to confront the anti-Blackness of EuroAmerican intellectual traditions … we must grasp that what is experienced by dominant actors in EuroAmerican cultures as ‘empiricism’ is deeply conditioned by the predicating logics of colonialism and racial capitalism.”

This classic Orwellism appears in the course of a defence of Jenny Bulstrode’s flawed article on slavery and industrialisation. What its authors really want to say is, “It’s OK to stretch the facts a bit, if it helps combat ‘anti-Blackness’.” But they can’t bring themselves to say that exactly, so they say this instead. (Bad language always partners political dishonesty.) History and Technology is, reputedly, a top journal in its field. If its stance is typical of the discipline as a whole, history is in dire straits.

Such overt ideologising is still rare, however. More commonly, ideological agendas are smuggled in by the back door, by making loyalty to them a test of professional competence. Nigel Biggar’s “Ethics of Empire” project was denounced by his Oxford colleagues as bad history, but their real concern was that it threatened to reach the wrong moral conclusion, namely that British imperialism was not entirely wicked.

Reputable scientists with unfashionable views on Covid or climate change are smeared as “quacks” and “charlatans” and frozen out of funding. Across the sector, “consensus” — the epistemology of the herd — reigns supreme. Michel Foucault is just a name to most academics, but his dictum that there is no Truth, only “regimes of truth”, accurately describes their outlook.

Ideas, then, bear much of the blame for the évènement of 2020-21. But not all of it. Jacques Derrida and Foucault have, after all, been a presence on UK campuses since the 1970s. Some additional force was needed to catapult their theories, or a degraded version of them, into their current position of dominance.

Philosophy, economics, law, medicine, mathematics and natural science — have managed better to resist the rot

There is little mystery as to the identity of this force. Ever since Thatcher, UK ministers for higher education have endeavoured to “spread the unit of resource”, i.e. extract more value for less money.

First came the RAE (now the REF), the massive eight-yearly evaluation of intellectual “output” on whose verdict the allocation of UK research funding principally depends. Next, teaching was opened up to market forces. Tuition fees were phased in gradually in England between 1998 and 2012, with controls on student numbers simultaneously lifted. The result was the creation of a basically free market in higher education, with the state’s role limited to that of regulator.

Today, public oversight of higher education is exercised by the “Office for Students”, a semi-independent body with a mandate to protect the interests of “education consumers” — i.e. students — in the same way that Ofgem protects the interests of energy consumers.

The theory behind these reforms — that research and teaching are commodities like any other, produced for the sake of money and with the aim of satisfying consumer demand — is false in fact and demoralising in effect. Academics worth their salt do not write for money. They write because they have something worth writing about. If they don’t (and most academics don’t) then goading them into writing anyway can only serve to swell the sea of verbiage. Modern academia is as over-productive of words as the old Soviet Union was of tractors.

Teaching is not a commodity either. Commodities supply a want, and most students do not want the truth. They want a marketable degree and an “enriching experience” — that is, an experience which flatters their existing sense of self. The teacher’s task is to cross that want and put in its place a yearning to know. Making teaching a commodity corrupts it, as Socrates understood long ago.

The institutions now emerging from the marketising crucible are very different from those that entered it some 30 years ago. Senates, the traditional organs of academic self-government, are mostly rubber stamps. Effective power has passed to a new class of managers, at home in the world of metrics and league tables. (“Academics take ten years to grow,” said one in a recent meeting, adding helpfully, “I mean, to recoup their cost in grant income.” He could have been talking about rubber trees.)

In campuses across the country, shiny new buildings spring up while the real value of degrees is run down. Worthless MBAs are doled out to third-rate students from China, whose only qualification is an ability to pay hefty overseas fees. Of course, many academics remain devoted to their old tasks of teaching and research, but from the institutional standpoint, these are now just means to the securing of teaching and research income. Marketisation has led predictably to “bullshitisation”, as the late David Graeber called it.

It has also led, returning to the main theme, to the Great Awokening. The connection is surprising, but it is not unintelligible. Modern university managers have little interest in truth or freedom. They have, on the other hand, a good deal of interest in anything that might cause their institutions reputational damage or give grounds for action under the disastrously open-ended Equality Act of 2010.

This makes them vulnerable to pressure from the woke, who though few in number are skilled at marshalling the forces of righteous indignation on behalf of their chosen causes. Strident radicalism finds an ideal ally in unprincipled managerialism, which will agree to anything that does not impede its primary goal of making money.

This strange new alliance is opaque to many on both left and right, who insist on viewing it through their favoured ideological lens. Leftists rail against “the neoliberal university”. Rightists grumble about “wokery”. The one sees the triumph of capitalism. The other sees creeping Marxism. Both see only in part, and superficially. They miss what is fundamental: the slow erosion of moral and intellectual standards of which commercialism and wokery are merely the effect.

A forum has been set up for lecturers of all political stripes to speak up for academic freedom in our universities

The problem, then, was clear to me. But what could any one individual do about it, other than lie low and wait for the storm to pass? That had been my policy to date, but increasingly I felt it to be an insupportable one. The price to be paid in forced silence was too high. Besides, the situation was not as hopeless as I had initially supposed. At least some colleagues were willing to admit in private that things were rotten in our universities, even if they refrained from saying so in public. Perhaps more dissenters were lurking out there, known only to themselves. The challenge was to get them to speak up and take notice of each other. Our enemies were organised. We had to get organised too.

Encouraged by these thoughts, I and a group of like-minded academics set about creating a “Committee for Academic Freedom”: a forum for UK lecturers of all political stripes to speak out about what is going on in our universities. To date, 306 have put their names to our principles. Admittedly, it has not been easy. Fear and mistrust run deep. Many are convinced that “freedom of thought” must conceal a toxic right-wing agenda — as if the left had no possible interest in intellectual freedom.

And even those alert to this sort of Stalinist jugglery can be deterred by the thought that others will number them among the toxic. “If I sign your principles, I will be sent to the Siberia of my field” one historian wrote to me. At least he was honest. Harder to swallow are the frequent silences and evasions, the unanswered emails, the strange non sequiturs. One has to remember the pressures people labour under, the burdens of status, position, etc.

Still, there are compensations. “At every meal that we eat together, freedom is invited to sit down. The chair remains vacant, but the place is set.” Thus wrote René Char, French poet and resistance fighter, recording his experience of life in the Maquis. Of course, England in 2024 is nothing like France under the Nazis, yet the freedom Char speaks of — the glorious unrestraint of those who have thrown off some hated system of inhibitions, internal as well as external — is something that we have come to understand and appreciate. It is a great treasure, which we may lose but can never renounce.

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