“You wouldn’t read about it” was a favourite phrase of my journalist father, having encountered some bizarre story or ludicrous statement in the press. And here am I, exclaiming it, having read some sentences in the Letters segment of the December issue of Quadrant: from Alex Zelinsky, Vice-Chancellor and President of Newcastle University (when did Australian vice-chancellors turn themselves into presidents?), making this breathtaking observation: “Universities must be places of open inquiry and robust challenge. This is how ideas in society are contested and knowledge is advanced.” The statement, of course, is completely correct, but how could anyone, with a clear conscience, in a university today—let alone a vice-chancellor—imply that this is the function that his or her institution actively pursues and amply fulfils? Which cloud-cuckoo-land has President Zelinsky—computer scientist, systems engineer and roboticist—inhabited for the last generation or so?
This essay appears in January’s Quadrant.
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Let us bring him up to date, with news (apparently, for him, and perhaps for others who are similarly deluded) of the most recent of literally dozens of cases, in just the last few years, of senior and distinguished, world-renowned academic scholars and teachers being hounded out of their university positions—professorial chairs, in some instances—by student lynch-mobs, academic so-called “colleagues” and university authorities, for engaging in that very process of the contest of ideas, open inquiry and the advancement of knowledge which President Zelinsky fondly imagines remains central to the mission of today’s universities.
The most recent episode concerns Professor Kathleen Stock, who quit her post as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sussex in November, having endured what she terms “a medieval experience” of campus denunciation and ostracism, with her name “plastered over every wall”. Instead of “getting involved in arguing with me, using reason, evidence, the traditional university methods”, Stock notes, she was subjected to defamatory abuse and anti-social media excoriation, with zero support from her professional union. Earlier in 2021, when she had been awarded an OBE for her services to higher education in the New Year honours, 600 of her academic colleagues signed a letter denouncing her “harmful rhetoric” which reinforced “the patriarchal status quo”.
What was the truly terrible crime that this acclaimed scholar and teacher had committed, that could have justified such outrage and abuse, the attempted destruction of her reputation and career (and, possibly, her life, were she not the strong character she has proved to be) and caused her resignation from her professorial chair? (Trigger warning: the following sentence may cause offence and make readers feel unsafe.) Professor Stock, whose expertise is analytical philosophy and feminism, expressed the opinion that male-to-female post-operative individuals are not real women. There you have it. Words sufficient to melt a snowflake.
“Trans” students at Sussex said that this statement of a professorial point of view made them “feel unsafe”. To which, once, university authorities, worthy of the name and their calling, would have responded, in such as the words of Professor Richard Dawkins: “A university is not a ‘safe space’. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy & suck your thumb until ready for university.”
When I was an undergraduate in the tumultuous years of the counter-cultural revolution of the late 1960s, you were confronted with dangerous, even repellent ideas every day of the week. That was what you came to university for. Not to feel safe—no one would have so much as imagined, then, that it was the role of a university education to shield students from confronting ideas; in fact, they would have thought that challenging students intellectually was its fundamental purpose. You were to be stirred up, shaken out of your complacency, stimulated to think for yourself and to search and contend for the truth, wherever that exciting quest might take you. This would initiate, it was intended—and provide the intellectual tools for—a lifelong openness to new ideas and a willingness and ability to assess contrary positions wisely and contribute lucidly, cogently and confidently to debate. Now, students are frogmarched to the “correct” conclusions, must walk perpetually on eggshells in case they hurt someone’s feelings with a contrarian view about anything at all, and have learnt already from twelve years in school that their success in their studies depends upon trotting out the “correct” responses and peppering their discourse with approved phrases—“toxic masculinity”, “the patriarchy” and “silenced women”, for example, are favourite formulae for English essays—in order to satisfy the examiners and do well.
Yet the oft-expressed assurance, by university managers today, that campuses will be “safe spaces” is, in fact, in our age of bare-faced double standards, a very selectively-applied concept. How “safe” was Sussex University for Professor Stock, who was pursued by “balaclava-wearing figures brandishing flares” (the balaclavas ensuring their anonymity: all bullies are cowards) and who was scared to leave her house lest she be attacked? How “safe” was an Australian campus for another professor accused of mis-speaking, who had his room vandalised, his image burnt in effigy by another lynch-mob of students, and who was under threat, should he come onto campus, of being physically assaulted by them? Yet these very same students, insist their host of academic supporters, must be protected from a hypothesis that makes them feel uncomfortable. So complete is what Emeritus Professor Michael Wilding has described (in a recent Quadrant piece) as “the wreckage” of our universities that, so far from fulfilling their traditional function, they have been turned into crèches for molly-coddling the perpetually-infantilised and instruction centres for approved social engineering.
A sentence, or merely a phrase or word out of place, even in private conversation or correspondence, or by accident or in jest, is sufficient to provide the cherished “gotcha” moment (the “snitch”, as the Americans call it) for the gimlet-eyed, ideologically-driven campus Thought Police to set about destroying an academic’s career and life on the pretext that they are protecting students from danger. Tom Welsh, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, succinctly summarised how this sordid process works:
By now, the technique should be grimly familiar. Someone sees something they dislike and decides that it is offensive, preferably to a fashionable minority group. An edited version of the incident is put on social media, taken out of context in order to make the “culprit”—safest if it’s a member of an unfashionable “privileged” group—look as terrible as possible. A few people ask whether this is a fair reflection of reality, whether the vitriol is deserved. It hardly matters. The intimidation has begun, the individual has been named, his reputation is in tatters … Most victims of this unjust process give in … whatever the truth of the matter, better a quiet life than fight the many-headed monster of social justice web warriors, ultra-liberal academics and their allies in the media. The effect is censorship by fear. A bullying Left doesn’t need to change any minds, just make it too toxic for anyone to disagree with them.
That this procedure, now pervasive in Western societies at large, should be at its worst in universities, is what should be deeply disturbing to anybody who retains any belief that freedom of thought and expression are worth preserving and protecting in our society. Precisely because it is pervasive elsewhere is the urgent reason why such pernicious censorship, censoriousness and character-assassination should be strenuously resisted in the academy, the last bulwark of these freedoms against totalitarian tyranny. The silencing of the expression of counter-cultural ideas and opinion directly contradicts what a true university should defend to the death, as that quintessential university man, George Steiner, expressed it:
A true university serves neither political purposes nor social programmes, necessarily partisan and transitory. Above all, it rebukes censorship and correctness of any kind. What we have done through political correctness: the lies we are teaching or having to accept, the questions we are not allowed to ask—not even to ask, no question of answering. A university should honour anarchic provocation.
Such is the situation we have come to in our day, that even permitting anarchic provocation is the last thing any university will so much as tolerate, let alone “honour”.
Hardly a day goes by without the report of another grotesque self-annihilation of an academic discipline in the context of woke virtue-signalling. Ivy-league Princeton, no less, is banning the study of Latin and Greek, the core subjects in its Classics classes, because—as one of the associate professors of Classics there, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, contends—ancient Greek and Roman cultures have been encouraging slavery, colonialism and white supremacy for 2000 years. Therefore, writings in Latin and Ancient Greek should be abandoned. In English (as I have demonstrated extensively, elsewhere), there has been, for several years, a sustained book-burning of canonical texts from authors denounced for their thought-crimes, a textual holocaust that would have impressed the Nazis’ German Student Union, who consigned 25,000 “un-German”, politically-incorrect volumes to the flames in 1933. As Professor Simon Haines, of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, has argued:
What has been hardest of all to fathom is the decades-long war of attrition carried out against the study of poetry and other literary genres, especially the English poetry and literature of the past, by … academics in the humanities—most of all, incredibly, within English departments themselves.
The enemy is inside the gates of the universities.
The matter of Professor Stock reminds us that, just six years before, another cancellation by a university of an internationally-renowned scholar occurred, for the very same reason that Stock was hounded out. Germaine Greer’s college, Newnham, at Cambridge, voted down the proposal that she should be conferred with an honorary degree because she had challenged the view that male-to-female transsexuals were women. It was “an opinion”, Greer stressed in an interview after the dismal event. Others, she said, were astonished that she had had the degree offer cancelled; but it had not surprised her, she ruefully pointed out, as she had obviously taken the measure of what has become of universities and what the consequences will be for those who have the nerve (and believe, as thinkers, that they have the responsibility) to speak their minds. Greer pointed out that the authorities at Cardiff University, where she was due to give a lecture, told her that they could not guarantee her safety, as a result of her transphobia. Greer commented: “I’m getting a bit old for all this. I’m seventy-six. I’m not going to go down there and be screamed at and have things thrown at me.” So the Thought Police chalked up another victory; another silencing of a voice worth listening to, of ideas deserving sober consideration and discussion; while lily-livered vice-chancellors stood by, wringing their hands in woke agony.
What is remarkable in the cases of Stock and Greer is that these are the last people you would think of as conservative figures, the usual (and male) targets of the campus Hate Weeks and accusations of thought-crime in the dystopian Orwellian world in which the contemporary university meltdown has occurred, apparently irredeemably. They are, indeed, women of outspoken and impeccable radical credentials. It is a startling measure of the extremity of vicious ratbaggery to which universities have descended in our day that Kathleen Stock and Germaine Greer have now joined the ranks of the cancelled academy, to be screamed at and have things thrown at them, and in Stock’s case, pursued by fire. Little wonder she described her ostracism as “medieval”!
If one can find any amusement in the midst of all this horror, it is satirical to reflect that such are the swelling ranks of the cancelled, and the notable high distinction of the membership of them—including, in another recent, much-publicised case, the brilliant historian and provocateur Dr David Starkey (his self-proclaimed gayness did not confer sacrosanctity)—that it is now becoming a badge of honour to be of that fellowship of the academic Gulag. Perhaps a new post-nominal should be created: Fellow of the Academy of the Cancelled: FAC. In a Swiftian fantasy, you could almost imagine a time when academics will positively seek cancellation in order to join the true elite of the profession.
What is to be done about all of this? Peter Hitchens, who has, for years, fought the good fight against the media mendacity, political hypocrisy and assaults upon individual freedoms that are destroying all aspects of our culture, announced (in a recent interview with John Anderson) that he has “given up”. Certainly, one can understand his frustration and despair. Within the university world, the established places are now a lost cause, in terms of sustaining (let alone celebrating) their fundamental role as the focus of free intellectual inquiry, research and teaching, but they will, of course, continue to thrive as vocational training institutions for the various professions, while having forfeited their quintessential function as forums for the free debate and discussion of ideas. They are “universities” in name only.
In response, some valiant attempts are being made, around the world, to establish new universities along traditional lines, to recover their true purpose and function. Indeed, Professor Stock has become a Founding Fellow of the recently-established University of Austin, in Texas—an institution “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth” and which welcomes “witches who refuse to burn”, such as Stock herself. She says that she has accepted the position “with alacrity” and praises a university “focused on free inquiry”—what a novel idea! But to imagine that these ventures will have the capacity to turn around the wreckage of higher education, at large, would be sanguine indeed. That’s something you can be sure you won’t be reading about, any time soon.
Barry Spurr was an academic for forty years and was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry. He is the Literary Editor of Quadrant