February 27, 2017

How to melt snowflakes

How to melt snowflakes

State funding is helping to perpetuate an illiberal hegemony over academia, says Simon Gordon. 

Stepford Students. Little Robespierres. Snowflakes. Critics of censorship on campus aren’t short of epithets for their opponents. But they do seem short of solutions. Among champions of free speech, there is a reluctance to accept that an ideological hegemony in academia is partly perpetuated by the state.

According to the latest Free Speech University Rankings, recently published by Spiked, free speech has been restricted in some way at 94 per cent of British universities during the last year. Censorship ranges from ‘no-platforming’ speakers to banning publications to policing pronouns.

The argument for these restrictions is that the speakers or events would cause offence. Students are deemed to need ‘safe spaces’, where they may be protected from speech that might cause them emotional distress – hence the ‘snowflake’ label.

Yet the offence defence is largely a fig leaf. The issue isn’t offending people, but offending against the prevailing intellectual dogma – a dogma that is fundamentally illiberal.

Underlying the ‘safe space’ agenda is doctrinaire cultural Marxism, which construes society as a binary opposition between privileged oppressors and oppressed victims. People are defined – and either vindicated or condemned – by their perceived minority or majority status. This ideology derives from the postmodern ideas – surrounding colonialism, identity, and class – that permeate not just the subject matter but the methodology of the humanities.

The basic purpose of the ‘safe space’ is to silence those who challenge this paradigm.

This phenomenon is not, of course, unique to British universities. It’s pervasive across the Western world. In fact, it’s not even particularly new. The philosopher Allan Bloom wrote about the increasingly illiberal attitudes of undergraduates in The Closing of the American Mind, which was published thirty years ago.

But there’s more to illiberalism on campus than merely culture. British universities operate within a regulatory framework legislated by Parliament. Research that promotes cultural Marxism is publicly funded. The role of the state in enabling the restriction of free speech thus warrants examination.

Legally, public universities in Britain are required to safeguard free speech on campus. Section 43 of the Education Act 1986 mandates universities to ‘take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students, and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.’

Yet the obligations falling upon universities are conflicting. Later legislation mandates universities both to ensure the welfare and security of students and staff under their care, and to prevent harassment and discrimination by employees, students, and third parties on campus.

In practice, therefore, universities have freedom of censorship. University authorities can allow an event to go ahead, on the grounds of guaranteeing free speech. Or they can shut it down on the grounds of preserving security – even if that means capitulating to the mob. Either way, from a legal perspective, they’re covered.

Free speech on campus could be better protected if universities were explicitly required to apply existing rules in tandem. Rather than shut down events with a security risk, universities should be obliged to provide the resources necessary to keep students and speakers safe from violent protestors. The government could issue statutory guidance to that effect.

Yet increasing protection for free speech treats only the symptom, not the cause. If censorship is merely an extension of ideological hegemony, the question free speech champions should be asking is: what sustains the hegemony?

That leads to the question of funding. A few weeks ago, I wrote on this site about how the interests of universities are misaligned with those of students, taxpayers, and employers as a result of how public subsidy is awarded. As the UKIP Parliamentary Resource Unit highlighted in a recent research paper, Opening the British Mind, the structure of university finance also affects campus culture.

Research funding, in particular, plays a role in sustaining the ideological hegemony. Funding bodies may be independent from politics in so far as they are at arm’s length from the government of the day. However, they do reflect and reinforce the politics of academia – especially in the humanities.

The assessors of funding grants are necessarily drawn from the ranks of the assessed. The researchers invited to sit on Research Excellence Framework panels invariably reflect the academic establishment within their discipline. The seven research councils judge the quality of research based on peer review.

Consequently, the funding bodies are liable to favour research projects that support current orthodoxies, rather than radical innovation. Since many of those orthodoxies are explicitly political in the humanities, the system perpetuates the hegemony of a political ideology.

If homogenous input begets homogenous output, it follows that there could be greater diversity of thought on campus if there were greater diversity of funding.

Currently, direct funding from central government – both from the four funding councils and the seven research councils – comprises the single biggest component of universities’ research budgets.

A more heterogeneous funding model might broaden tax incentives for donors to fund research, while reducing the share that comes directly from central government. That would maintain overall funding, while diversifying its sources.

Among critics of censorious campus culture, though, there is a reticence to contemplate changing the system. Decreasing the state’s role is seen as “marketisation”. Moreover, the idea that the independence of academia is preserved – rather than threatened – by dependence on central government is rarely challenged.

The illiberal hegemony over academia won’t disappear if the state keeps feeding it. It’s time to starve the beast.

4.22 avg. rating (84% score) - 18 votes
Simon Gordon
Simon Gordon
Simon Gordon has worked as a speechwriter for Douglas Carswell MP and the Ambassador of Israel to the Court of St. James’s, and as assistant editor of Mosaic Magazine in New York. He writes in a personal capacity.
  • Derek

    Snowflakes moral outrage is self-serving say psychologists see http://reason.com/blog/2017/03/01/moral-outrage-is-self-serving

  • Rob

    My original post is self-explanatory. Perhaps you ought to read it.

  • blingmun

    Instead of telling people to read something else, why don’t you just explain what you mean.

  • Derek

    Over-critical, over-emotional, self-important pouting cry-babies that are Generation Snowflake, are of little use in the private sector. The soft skills needed are the antitheses.of what Generation Snowflake has to offer. employers https://www.wikijob.co.uk/content/interview-advice/competencies/soft-skills
    Perhaps this, combined with the fact than many graduates have poor command of English explains why half of l graduates are in non graduate work?
    It could also explain why employers prefer taking workers from the Eastern EU who still have the work ethic rather than melt..

    Highly educated liberals become more liberal, while highly educated conservatives grow more conservative https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/why-americans-are-so-polarized-education-and-evolution/284098/

    See Why Won’t They Listen? http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/the-righteous-mind-by-jonathan-haidt.html
    …The hardest part, Haidt finds, is getting liberals to open their minds. Anecdotally, he reports that when he talks about authority, loyalty and sanctity, many people in the audience spurn these ideas as the seeds of racism, sexism and homophobia. And in a survey of 2,000 Americans, Haidt found that self-described liberals, especially those who called themselves “very liberal,” were worse at predicting the moral judgements of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgements of liberals. Liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment….

  • rolandfleming

    How would the private donors determine who to give the funding to, if not through peer review?

    Also, it’s a bit annoying to have the whole of academia tarred with the same brush. I mean, there’s not much snowflakery and indoctrination going on in the physics or neuroscience courses, for example.

    Seems like a rather poorly thought through argument.

  • Old Frank

    Prolits.

  • Rob

    Try reading WFC’s comment, which my original post was a reply to.

  • starfish

    So, no connection then

  • Iskender Haci

    This hits the heart of the matter: https://vimeo.com/187307901

  • Bogbrush

    A University degree, unless gained at the more prestigious locations and in a demanding disciple, is worth very little these days. Employers even in technically demanding arenas (I am one of a medium + enterprise) increasingly regard them subordinate to assessments of intelligence and evidence of strong drive and determination.

    The young people attending second rate institutions picking up devalued pieces of paper are being sold a terrible lie that their attendance, at significant cost, is a dependable step up the ladder. All this other garbage is a positive handicap unless they ignore it.

  • Rob

    Try reading up about the foundation of Oxford and Cambridge which, I’m led to believe are still considered as somewhat “prestigious” in old blighty.
    Also, try looking up the Scotch institution’s histories.

  • chump23

    Oh look, a blimp full of boring snoring cliches. If this guy had stopped cut n pasting the last few years Katie hopkins output it might have made its point before ,y will to live fluttered out the window.

  • Rob

    State (and of course EU) funding of research necessarily corrupts and is very wasteful. Academics are extremely easy to corrupt as dependent and fearful employees in these hierarchical organisations – I know I spent around 30 years in Russell group Universities. State research funding certainly ought to be cut back severely so that only basic non-marketable “blue-skies” STEM activities that the private has no interest in funding are undertaken. All arts, humanities and social science funding should be stopped forthwith as it is by construction ideological. As regards teaching funding, there is no justification for any State funding. If the degree is worth doing then private sector banks and charities will fund it at a much lower cost and with current technological developments it is wholly unnecessary for students to even attend Universities – distance learning programmes is the way to go.

  • starfish

    And the relevance of this obscure comment to the UK is what?

  • Rob

    Totally wrong. Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum (5th century BC) were primarily set up to teach the aristocracy the art of public speaking (rhetoric) and Universities in the post-roman era were set up as priest and lawyer training schools. Science, etc., necessarily came much, much later.

  • c50

    7% of privately educated students have subsidised university places equating to 50% of the Russell group places-even higher in dreadful bufton enclaves like Durham and Exeter. How the hell is this an iliberal elite? It is the tory establishment dominating education at university and they are not marxists they a re Hayekians at best. Students today are less radical or politicised at any time in modern history-just visit LSE, once a hotbed of Trotskyism but now all the students want is to be a banker and have a Porsche and chalet in Meribel. Your argument is pure unfounded diatribe. What you object to is the fact ideas are debated that you don’t like.

  • WFC

    Traditionally, no.

    Universities were about thinking, not training. Training was done elsewhere – teaching hospitals, inns of court. Universities started getting into the training stuff last century, beginning with medicine and law, but now virtually everything.

    Very few professions or careers required a degree 50 years ago.

    Now the mania for degrees has gone so far that it has become little more than a “tax” (and compulsory filter) on entry to a decent job. Even nurses require degrees nowadays – a job which used to take school leavers at the “O” level stage.

    (And they would have learned far more skill working in hospital than going to university.)

  • Ravenscar

    A modern medical degree is far diminished when compared to the academic rigour applied and demanded to medical degrees of only circa thirty years ago.

    Indeed, the entry of freshers medics educational standards inclusive of English and mathematics, are far lower than was previously demanded and their general knowledge and all round education is virtually non existent – engage, talk to one or two and you’ll find out.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    Given how the government has prioritised getting non-white-male doctors into the NHS medical schools over those with the best qualifications, perhaps you should be more interested in that too.

  • John C

    I’d forgotten about the ghastly Ebdon.

  • ratcatcher11

    Or intended consequences as the case may be. I remember at university in 1997 being shouted down because I describes Tony Blair as fundamentally a corrupt liar and a threat to British democracy. It seems I was right and they were wrong, but it is no consolation after the damage this maniac caused to the British Army and soldiers in general, as well as thousands of Iraqi civilians.

  • mjm6mjm6

    Correct, John C. That used to be the case but thanks to the activities of the egregious Prof Les Ebdon and his appalling Office for Fair Access, youngsters whose parents have sacrificed much to give their children the best schooling they could afford are largely barred from RG universities. (Mr Ebdon was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, which began life as Luton Tech.)

    So the universities now find that they have to give ‘catch-up’ courses to students from poor schools to enable them to undertake undergraduate study. The uni-ready students of yesteryear are being replaced by young people who may be bright, but lack knowledge and understanding at the necessary level. Thus university study is being undermined, all in the cause of ‘fairness’.

    It’s that old favourite of the do-gooders, the Law of Unintended Consequences.

  • mjm6mjm6

    …and never anything to do with disseminating skills useful to society at large?

    The next time you need an operation you might be rather more interested in whether the surgeon had an education in his specialism than in his doctrines.

  • John C

    ” it’s mostly upper-middle class elitists that are allowed anywhere near a Russell group University” – LOL.

  • MrVeryAngry

    Quelle surprise. State funding of education has never been about educating people. It has always been about indoctrination.

  • Speedy

    Seeing as it’s mostly upper-middle class elitists that are allowed anywhere near a Russell group University, then they can be the ones to fund it. If little Rufus and Poppy want to become brainwashed guardianista’s then let them pay for it, instead of taking money from struggling working class families in tax.

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