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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

The end of argument

Students are demanding to be protected from ideas they find offensive or just uncomfortable. Academics should stop indulging this idea; students should grow up

On both sides of the Atlantic, the cultural politics of higher education are undergoing a profound transformation. The values of experimentation, risk-taking and openness to new ideas promoted in the 1960s and 1970s have given way to a climate of moral regulation and conformism. University life has always been subject to pressures to conform, of course, and to submit to political and economic interests. However, until relatively recently, the main threat to academic freedom came from sources outside universities. Today it is no longer merely the illiberal media and intolerant politicians who call for dissident academics to be silenced or controversial speakers to be banned. Such calls are more likely to emanate from inside universities, and their most vociferous proponents are students, not faculty.

For anyone who believes that academic freedom and free speech are fundamental values that underpin university life, the casual manner in which these principles are being cast aside in Britain and the United States will come as a shock. Contempt for these freedoms is now openly expressed. A good example is “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom,” a polemic published in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, in February 2014. The article depicted academic freedom as a barrier to the achievement of justice. The undergraduate author, Sandra YL Korn, displayed a chilling disdain for a value central to academic life, describing it as the “obsession” of a privileged professorial caste.

Explicit criticism of academic freedom is still relatively muted—at least compared to the increasingly shrill denunciation of free speech. Today, many campus activists argue that no one has the right to use words that offend others. Take Oxford University activist Niamh McIntyre’s call for speech to be moderated: “This generation of students and activists is standing up and saying that for too long, men have spoken over women, trans and non-binary people, just as white people have spoken over people of colour,” she told Times Higher Education in December. “In some cases, they should shut up and listen. And sometimes, to the horror of certain academics and professional narcissists, this involves rethinking the right to speak at all times, for all people, on any topic.” “Rethinking the right to speak at all times” is a delicate way of suggesting that it is not a right.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February issue: Lawrence Summers questions Robert J Gordon’s thesis on the impact of the digital revolution, John Sawers, the former Chief of MI6, highlights how technology is making the work of spies harder and Frank Furedi examines the student movements demanding protection from the offensive and uncomfortable. Also in this issue: Gershom Gorenberg on Israel, Ben Judah on the complexity of London and Elizabeth Pisani on the impact of fake drugs. Plus Sam Tanenhaus on Obama’s gun control plans.