BACK in the day, when only about a tenth of the population went off to be undergraduates for three years, and the taxpayer could therefore afford to foot the bill, a university was a place where you could safely have an argument. Sometimes these might have escalated. That’s when those in the ‘university of life’ would have to watch students taking a break (from what may well have been seen by wider society as general mucking about and being bone idle) to attend sit-ins and demos and go on marches.
The thing about these dissenters, these protesters, of yesteryear though was that they weren’t afraid of having a discussion, an argument about an issue. They were actually up for that thing called an idea and they accepted that other people had other ideas. There was, as I recall, no attempt to gag or run out of town people who had different opinions, to silence those whose views one found distasteful or offensive. You might not have wanted to hang out with such people but you regarded it as their inalienable right to think what they wanted and say what they wanted. It used to be known as freedom of speech.
The weekly meetings in the Student Union at the place where I studied more than three decades ago were more often than not packed out in the largest lecture theatre on campus. That’s because people wanted a debate, they wanted an argument. And as for controversial visiting speakers, bring it on. The usual ragtag of Socialist Workers scuttling about with their little plastic shopping bags would no more have no-platformed Edwina Currie than the president of the Conservative students’ association would have wanted to turn away Arthur Scargill. This was where you learned how to listen, how to think, how to argue a case. Even how to change your mind, if you heard a good enough argument. None of it was anything to be afraid of. Even though you were in a very unsafe space by today’s standards.
What a fearful and timid bunch many undergraduates are now though. It was disheartening to hear on the Today Programme on Friday another attempt by students to shut down someone whose views made them feel frightened (or so they say). A petition by students at Oxford calling for the firing of a don they claim is homophobic. No matter if Professor John Finnis, a legal philosopher, jurist and scholar, feels that something he wrote a quarter of a century ago in an academic work has been taken out of context. No matter if he feels this is a travesty of his opinions. He has to go. The students demand it.
The enfeeblement of intellect and clarification of thought that comes with this mob-rule inclination to close down different voices, voices articulating the wrong views, was cringingly demonstrated on the programme by Sulamaan Rahim, the president of Wadham’s Student Union. Asked by presenter Justin Webb what exactly the case was against the eminent Catholic professor, Rahim could offer only convoluted, incoherent waffle. ‘Well . . . I guess the case against him is quite clear and it’s simply that . . . you know . . . it’s not to say that . . . he ought to be removed simply because of having those views . . . um . . . there is the sense that . . . you know . . . the discomfort and the like . . . lack of ability to . . . feel sort of able to attend those lectures caused by the views that he has said which are quite frankly just an anachronism . . . if you think it’s OK that students are uncomfortable . . . ’
And so it went on. When Webb suggested that there was an alternative to students being absent from his lectures, that is to say, they could always go along and argue with him, Rahim felt it was pointless because he had no confidence that students would be able to make Finnis see ‘the error of his ways’. Worse than that the implication seemed to be that they might even be persuaded by what they were having to listen to. The most meaningful and revelatory point came, however, when Rahim was stumped into silence. That was after Webb had challenged him that the views of Professor Finnis ‘might be wrong, but he can hold the views’. The poor old union president was indignant at being described as ‘stumped’ but could articulate precisely nothing about why it was not permissible for someone to have an opinion that was ‘no longer fashionable, no longer perhaps acceptable in much of society’.
It was left to Professor Dennis Hayes, of the campaign group Academics for Academic Freedom, to offer both eloquence and common sense. He made the irrefutable point that academic freedom was about being able to ‘say anything, no matter whether people find it offensive’ and stated that he was appalled by the Wadham College speaker’s ‘diminished view of students’. He said that ‘vigorous debate was not harassment’ and regretted the fact that some people now regarded a university as a training institution ‘where people are to be inducted into a correct way of thinking’. It was a case for free speech that was well put.
The fact is that the Wadham College petition signers don’t want to listen or argue because they don’t know how to. They won’t ever learn either because their tender and totalitarian minds are now closed. They say they want diversity, but they want no diversity of opinions, thoughts, views. All they want is diversity of gender and sexuality. Much nicer. Welcome to the safe, silent little world of the modern university.