Tales From The Safe Space, Part 24 – Finally, The Academy Strikes Back

Academic Freedom In An Age Of Conformity - Joanna Williams

When will professors and university administrators realise that they must work together with colleagues and rivals to stand a chance of withstanding and rolling back the current unprecedented threats to academic freedom?

Lest we begin to think it is all doom and gloom, it should be pointed out that some voices within the academy are pushing back on the demands of censorious students and the self-censoring impulse among university faculty to avoid giving offence or courting controversy.

Already in this series we have looked at the inspiring example of Dr. Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, whose resistance of “ideological fascism” puts many of his Ivy League peers to shame.

And now, winging its way to an Amazon locker near me is a copy of “Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity” by Joanna Williams, a book which promises to get into detail as to the specific nature of the problem within our universities. Hopefully it will also provide some more detail – as well as proposed solutions to some of the questions raised – in Mick Hume’s worthwhile polemic “Trigger Warning: Is The Fear Of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech“.

Williams recently gave an interview to Inside Higher Ed to discuss the book, and this section from the Q&A is a breath of fresh air:

Q: Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity has some choice words for the students who have in recent years sought to ban controversial speakers, discussions, art, etc., from their campuses. But you blame their censorship largely on their instructors, from whom you say they have learned. Is that fair? Some instructors, at least in the U.S., now say they’re afraid of their students, and are self-censoring because of them.

A: I think many academics are looking on in bemusement, or indeed horror, at this generation of censorious students. But I think academics need to engage in a far more honest debate about where such students have got their ideas — and their tactics — from. Of course higher education does not operate in a vacuum — and students do not arrive at university as blank slates. There are lots of different things going on here.

Too often nowadays students arrive at university having led quite sheltered lives and having been protected from discomfort. In many ways I think childhood itself has come to be equated with vulnerability. This carries over into universities. Young adults are treated as if being a student is in and of itself enough to make them vulnerable and in need of special protection. The campus comes to be seen as a safe space with infantilizing therapeutic interventions such as petting zoos. Students do not expect — and ultimately are not able — to deal with things that threaten their fragile sense of self.

These same students are often taught in the classroom that language is all powerful in constructing reality — that words can wound — in a way that goes beyond rhetoric that can upset us, move us and stir our emotions but actually to inflict psychic harm or real violence. When students who have come to see themselves as vulnerable are taught that language and images can threaten their identity, then the desire to ban is understandable.

Academics who are afraid of their students need to enlist the support of their colleagues in creating a university culture that is about learning through intellectual challenge rather than an entitlement to protection from discomfort.

Absolutely. The abysmal position in which even our top universities now find themselves is a confluence of several things going on all at once. There is the notion that some speech is beyond the pale and that bad words can equate to violence, which started with the “No Platform” concept several decades ago, and has grown to result in hate crime legislation which criminalises speech, writing or online activity which is perceived by any third party as likely to cause alarm or distress – a remarkably low bar for censorship.

Then there is our modern therapeutic culture, which as Joanne Williams (and this blog) rightly notes has raised a generation of young adults who believe that they are special, beyond reproach but also uniquely vulnerable and in need of constant protection by watchful authority figures. This sees students equating good mental health with a state of childlike regression, trying to face-paint and colour their way to equanimity.

And finally there is the rise of the Cult of Identity Politics or what Dr. Everett Piper calls “ideological narcissism”, whereby young minds are conditioned to believe that their arbitrary (and sometimes shifting) identity trumps not only the rights of other people to hold and express ideas which criticise those identities, but even trumps physical reality itself. Thus some students openly fret that allowing, say, a speaker who does not hold the mandatory stances on transgender issues to air their opinion will “invalidate the experience” or even the existence of trans students – as though Brendan O’Neill setting foot on their university campus would cause all trans people within a five mile radius to vanish in a puff of smoke.

What has been missing so far is any sign of co-ordination in terms of a fightback by the academy, which is where Joanna Williams’s book comes in. She herself has lamented that one of the problems is that professors and university administrators do not care about academic freedom in the abstract as much as they should, only becoming alarmed when their own campus or lecture theatre is engulfed in protest by self-entitled Identity Politics cultists.

Hopefully this book, “Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity”, will begin to change that introverted aspect of academic life and prompt more professors and others to realise that the slide toward illiberalism and censorship taking place on one far-away college campus is a direct threat to their own.

Stay tuned for a full review of the book here in the coming weeks.


Safe Space Notice - 2

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