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The perils of a young academic

Students must take on academic groupthink

Artillery Row

Saint John Henry Newman would shudder. In his lectures of 1852, published as The Idea of a University, the then-Roman Catholic convert underscored how universities should allow “keen; open-hearted; sympathetic; observant” individuals to “engage with humanity’s most difficult questions; issues; and problems”. Students would develop “clear, conscious views” of their “own opinions and judgements; a truth in developing them; an eloquence in expressing them; and a force in urging them”. 

As another academic year commences, Newman’s vision seems distant. World-leading institutions continue to commit the academic sin of judging the past by the standards of the present. The “decolonisation” of academia, particularly witnessed in the Humanities, has become an act of colonisation: from the removal of canonical authors such as Shakespeare and Chaucer from reading lists, or the infiltration of ideologically-driven modules on critical race theory, to the creation of university Race and Equality “task forces”. Disappointing when viewed from the outside, it is maddening when viewed from within. As a young academic, I would know. 

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) have become the Holy Trinity of universities up and down the country. In almost every academic job interview, I have been asked about my contribution to these realms. Upon first glance, this trio is not wholly unholy: diversity of creed, equality of opportunity, and an inclusive milieu undergirded by freedom of expression, are the pillars of a healthy pedagogical environment. Deeper investigation, however, unearths a more sinister finding. How universities interpret these terms, and how they promote “EDI” — whether through Athena Swan, affiliation with Stonewall or home-grown initiatives — is inherently unequal, exclusive and far from diverse.

Colonisation of academia is anything but diverse and inclusive

It is nothing short of hypocritical. Whilst universities encourage students to define their terms in everything they do, universities themselves fail to practise what they preach. Universities, including my own, have bastardised the definition of diversity, confining it to anything that is non-Western, non-White, non-male and non-conservative. This approach has catalysed a militant leftist reorganisation of reading lists. For some such lists, every weekly topic has been sprinkled with a token non-White, non-male and non-conservative author, irrespective of the quality of scholarship. A frequent feature on reading lists is an article that launches ad hominem attacks on two renowned scholars, making the fallacious claim that given how the scholars cited Thomas Hobbes, they support (a mistaken interpretation of) Hobbes’ views on race. Rather, the article’s ideal place is on a reading list of “how not to make an academic argument”. 

I have seen the effects of such educational intoxication. In their writing, many — but not all — students often initially struggle to tackle one iota of criticism of allegedly “critical” theoretical approaches. Instead, they praise the militancy of Rhodes Must Fall or Extinction Rebellion without understanding the insincerity of their advocates. They shy away from forming nuanced accounts of Empire. Fighting the “war on the West”, they have become oblivious to realities, failing to recognise that non-Western states were also imperial powers; and that to reduce the British Empire to an inherently racist, violent enterprise is inaccurate. Amidst the scrawl of ballpoint pen, I have witnessed how in examinations, students are unwilling to criticise so-called “critical” perspectives, perhaps in fear that being truly critical will lead to penalisation from their examiners. 

This colonisation of academia is anything but diverse and inclusive. Where are the conservative voices? They have been suppressed, used as pawns to support unsubstantiated claims of so-called disciplinary racism and sexism. Whilst calls for statues to “fall” — whether Colston, Rhodes or otherwise — may have ebbed for now, a more pernicious logic is infiltrating academia: “the closing of the mind”, to paraphrase the philosopher, Allan Bloom. Students will suffer. The woke brigade is on a crusade to narrow students’ intellectual worldviews, whilst also engaging in ideological bullying. Students will no longer understand the literary canon. These texts will either have been erased from curricula or worse, presented as academically invalid and morally unrighteous. The outcome is an education fuelled by dogma not discourse, activism not analysis, and critical theory not critical thinking. 

The need to study the past as it was, rather than as some would like it to be — as epitomised by the calls to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes atop Oriel College, Oxford — seems to have escaped universities engrossed in their “diversity” agendas. In just one example, at the University of Nottingham, an undergraduate History module on “The Contemporary World since 1945” considers Black liberation, women’s movements and the equivocal idea of “sexuality and the state” as far more important than globalisation, the Cold War, the rise of China and Russia. 

The forecast is bleak. Following the devastating loss of Queen Elizabeth II, a New York Times piece by Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff leapt upon the occasion to assert a litany of factual inaccuracies, most notoriously how the Queen “helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization”. Such toxic insensitivity represents just how far some academics are willing to go in taking every opportunity — even the death of a globally-revered monarch — to pursue their politicised agendas.

Aspiring academics will also bear the burden of this intellectual myopia. Jobs are in short supply; the hiring process is already compromised. I recall hearing my own fate for a job, only to be told that the appointed candidate had more “experience” in “equality and diversity”. Just what does such “experience” entail? Certainly not one in research or teaching. Is it simply coincidental that all the shortlisted candidates for a recent Humanities Professorship at a Russell Group University happened to be of a similar postcolonial academic ilk, despite such specialism not being a desideratum on the job description? Whilst universities may pride themselves on diverse representation of sexes on interview panels, they seem oblivious to academic diversity, in worldview and approach, of job applicants.

Universities should teach students how to think

It is time to regain common sense. One stepping stone is for restrictions on freedom of speech in universities to be abandoned. Whilst the Freedom of Speech Charter of Oxford University argues how “not all theories deserve equal respect”, the question of who determines which “theory” is worthy of respect — or not — remains unanswered. The University’s policy on social media suggests that “potential conflicts may arise through the use of social media channels, for example publicly expressing highly controversial opinions online”. Yet a “highly controversial” leftist opinion would not be treated in the same way as its conservative counterpart. The new Truss government must propel the appointment of the “Free Speech Champion”, which will offer one step in protecting students and academics and, contra recent criticisms from the House of Lords, recover true diversity of worldview. 

Quo vadimus, to borrow from Saint Peter (or is he now cancelled?), I hold out hope. Change lies with the students. Students must resist the colonisation of academia by the so-called diversity champions and reclaim true diversity. Students, take note: being critical need not involve critical race theory. Ask why accounts of Empire are being portrayed in a one-sided manner. Ask why you are being fed arguments containing only postcolonial or feminist perspectives. Ask why lectures portray the West only as an adversarial oppressor. Many younger academics — for whom job insecurity is rife — may not respond at first, due to the consequences of speaking out. The day will soon come when cohorts of university students realise that if universities simply impose uncritical dogma about slavery, race, empire and gender, there is little point in attending a university at all. 

Newman was a radical. He even suggested that universities would be far superior without any lecturers or examinations. Indeed, universities should teach students how to think, not what to think. As the new Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan made clear, free speech should not just be supported, but defended. Perhaps a then-22-year-old, none other than Kwasi Kwarteng, was correct when he said that “the university added little to the talent which was already in them”. A woke university will only diminish the potential for this talent to blossom.

Students of the future, unite. Free yourselves from the shackles of academic colonisers and assert agency. Reclaim true diversity for the protection of academic rigour, the defence of free speech and your own sanity. For it is these colonisers — and not Rhodes — who must fall.

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