The new puritanism of safe spaces, trigger warnings and absurdly censorial attitudes in younger people has perturbed people of my generation. How did we get here, from the libertarian momentum of the 1960s onwards? In a Sunday Times article, headteacher Jenny Brown offered as explanation the obsession with ‘health and safety’, producing a cosseted, risk-averse youth. There may be truth in this, but it lets teachers off the hook. Consensual views on Tories, the Daily Mail and refugees do not arise from safety regulations. A more obvious source of the problem is the beliefs promoted or discouraged in schools from the earliest age.
Back when I left my home town near Glasgow to settle in London, I was startled by the contrast in national and cultural identities. Whereas the Scots are never a few seconds away from their next patriotic thought, my English housemates displayed a stark lack of pride in their country. While relieved from narrow-mindedness nationalism, I became troubled by the contemptuous views of some southerners towards their own culture and heritage. Listening to people schooled around the 1980s, I heard a shared understanding of the wrongs of our forefathers and an aversion to jingoism as had erupted in the Falklands War. Inevitably, the empire was derided, as was the monarchy, but I sensed broader unease with anything distinctly British or English. And I asked myself: how did these bright young people derive such a negative mindset?
Reading reports of National Union of Teachers conferences aided my comprehension. Instead of promoting a collective identity grounded in British citizenship, schools seemed to be sending pupils a different message. Socialism having failed at the ballot-box, revolutionary ideology of the 1960s had morphed into cultural relativism and identity politics, reaching a point where minority demands had subverted the goal of social unity. While platoons of agitators undermined the ancien regime, the intellectual elite could assert moral superiority by supporting ‘positive discrimination’. As commentator Alison Pearson recalls from her previous vocation, the state education system is dominated by middle-class ‘progressives’, who project a guilt-ridden complex on impressionable minds. Listen to NUT rep Christopher Denson, who boasted to NUT delegates of his pupils writing a political manifesto, expressing his pride at every group having decided on opening the borders to all-comers.
For the likes of Denson, tackling Islamophobia is a priority, while the government’s mealy-mouthed attempts to promote ‘British values’ is anathema. Pupils from former colonies mustn’t be exposed to latent cultural supremacy in the classroom. British history is of use only as a parody of imperialism and callous capitalism. Of course, some figures are celebrated, but only because they were anti-establishment: the Suffragettes, for example (yet not the ultimate success of the first female prime minister). Balance cannot be expected on the EU referendum: pupils will hear that human rights and equality come from Europe – not from John Locke, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry and other British pioneers of modern civilisation. Foreign cultures are treated with reverence, for they create a rich mosaic over an erstwhile grey miasma. White working-class pupils who deviate from correct thinking are marked down by teachers, who disdainfully regard them (and their suspiciously Ukip-sympathising parents) as a blot on the multicultural landscape.
Ye shall reap what ye sow. Today, a high proportion of students display simplistic dichotomous thinking on the socio-political complexities of society. The young have been raised in a Disney world of good and bad, of oppressors and oppressed, of the ignorant and enlightened. Pick any current topic: to be pro-EU is to be forward-thinking, in opposition to ‘little Englanders’ with their outdated, prejudiced attitudes. Wary of uncontrolled immigration or health tourism? That’s racism. Islamic extremism – the West must be at fault, not the downtrodden of the east. Much worse than a nail-bombing carnage is the dehumanising language of Conservative politicians (witness the ‘swarm’ fiasco), while Nigel Farage fulfils the role of pantomime villain. Anyone cast on the wrong side can be attacked with impunity on social media, without any recourse to civility.
This is childlike behaviour, and as such should be challenged not only by rational argument. Using the past radical tactics of deconstruction, lecturers can help students to be aware of their assumptions and how these are formed. Start from the premise that no single world view is right. Present situations that expose the incompatibilities of identity politics. Illuminate the psychological defence mechanism of displacement. Help students to overcome the repression of self-censorship, and their denial of human nature.
There is cause for optimism. Students are beginning to dissent from the stifling constraints and tiresome virtue-signalling. There is temptation among older lecturers to leave young idealists to their certainties, which they will later modify in the ‘university of life’. But this is the easy option, and a missed opportunity. Institutes of higher education should actively facilitate critical thinking and debate, as a learning experience for the benefit of all. When we fail, society suffers.
(Image: Boston Public Library)