How to make sure your lectures aren’t too anti-Brexit

Rob Johns offers advice on making sure your teaching is not all pro-remain, in the wake of the Heaton-Harris letter

October 31, 2017
Campaigners for the Vote Leave movement
Source: Alamy

The talk of the academic town this week was the letter sent by MP Chris Heaton-Harris to vice-chancellors across England and Wales, requesting copies of module outlines and lecture notes pertaining to Brexit.

As a warning shot across universities’ bows, this was mildly sinister. As an attempt to identify anti-Brexit bias in universities, it was mildly absurd.

Unless Heaton-Harris was expecting to find modules entitled “GOV278: Screw the Will of the People”, or Powerpoint slides with burning Union Jacks as background images, he was going to be disappointed. If there is such bias, it will lie in throwaway remarks during lectures, in the way that Brexit is used as an example and, above all, in the deeper assumptions, understandings and values underlying lecturers’ perspectives on Brexit. 

Here are three points that I think would be accepted more or less throughout the social sciences and humanities. Firstly, those deeper assumptions and values will indeed shape the way that lecturers think – and teach – about an issue. We are not naïve enough to believe in pure neutrality. 

Secondly, within contexts in which those assumptions and values are shared by a large majority, they drift away from questioning and towards being accepted as facts. 

Thirdly, where an issue or event has a strong emotional impact, we have a particular tendency to blur the distinction what we believe and what we want to believe. Motivated reasoning is not something that academics can simply rise above; imagine for a moment the task of those teaching US politics nowadays, trying to form and to teach objective assessments of the Trump presidency separate from their subjective horror at its existence and conduct. 

It follows that the notion of bias in teaching of Brexit cannot simply be dismissed. Academics are accustomed to responding to those three points, not by throwing up their hands in relativist despair but by conscious efforts to teach in a way that respects different viewpoints and digs for the definitional differences and value conflicts that lie beneath disagreement. 

For various reasons – the rarity of Euroscepticism on campus; the attacks on expertise in the Leave campaign; the importance of free movement to universities and the people who work in them – Brexit strikes me as a case in which those conscious efforts probably need redoubling. 

This blog presents a sort of checklist of such efforts. If you already tick all of these boxes, apologies in advance for troubling you.

Test arguments the other way round

A. C. Grayling is not the only academic to have questioned the legitimacy of the referendum outcome, given its closeness and some of the (at best) dubious claims made by the Leave campaign. 

Suppose Remain had won by the same 52-48 margin, however. It would not be outlandish to suggest that they too owed their victory to questionable campaign assertions. The aim of “Project Fear”, as some Leavers christened the Remain campaign, was not to give voters a balanced estimate of the economic impact of Brexit, for example. 

The point is not to speculate about what Remainers would have said then. The point is to test the legitimacy argument from all angles. 

Reject dualism

The anti-expertise strand of Leave rhetoric can tempt a Remainer to see theirs as the cool, informed and logical choice in contrast to the emotional, uninformed tabloid outburst of Leave. This false dualism should be rejected. 

Everybody’s opinions are a mixture of emotion and cognition. Hope and fear mingled in both Remain and Leave voters, as they did in both campaigns. Meanwhile, no one simply believes everything that they read in the newspapers but few (if any) of us are impervious to subtler influence from what we read and the way that it is framed.  

Recognise privilege

I owe countless conference trips, much of my friendship group and two long-term relationships to the EU and freedom of movement. All of this was and is a privilege.

And, just as we would not expect the long-term unemployed to be swift to recognise the privileges of living in a free market, we should not be surprised – let alone disparaging – if those without easy access to university, language skills and so on did not see the same boon in free movement as we do.

This point, widely respected in the abstract (and fully recognised in academic studies of the drivers of Brexit), is then lost in curt dismissals of the Leave vote as “all about immigration”. 

Specialisation of labour

Academics are hugely knowledgeable – in one narrow field. For those of us working in elections and polling, even that sounds like a strong claim these days.

The Brexit issue makes it easy to pronounce on numerous fields: trade economics, constitutional law, public opinion, international negotiation, and so on. Fortunately, our lectures are on exactly those areas in which we are best equipped to comment. 

Twitter imposes no such constraints. If making confident proclamations under a professional byline, we are less open to charges of bias if these are restricted to our own fields.    

Restrain language

The overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that, without marked changes in our behaviour, a global catastrophe is inevitable. The overwhelming consensus about Brexit among economists is... well, there isn’t one, partly because the trading rules are as yet unclear. 

Under World Trade Organisation rules, the median forecast is a significant dent of about three percentage points in GDP. This is clearly not trivial. But how should it be summed up? “Self-inflicted wound” sounds fair enough. “Disaster” sounds strong. “Catastrophe” or “cataclysm” sound misplaced, and leave us nowhere rhetorical to go to describe genuinely apocalyptic threats such as climate change. 

None of this is intended to be a response to Chris Heaton-Harris, or to Daily Mail fears about “Our Remainer universities” (The Mail is so close to one pole of the debate that even scrupulous neutrality would look like bias in the other direction, and in any event Brexit is just the latest front in a wider values war).

It is instead a response to what seemed to me a slightly too sanguine reaction to the Heaton-Harris agenda. Interventions like his should trigger reflection on our own assumptions and biases and their impact – not because he’s right, but because it’s our job. 

One response to that intervention was that it patronises our students to suggest that they will passively inhale our opinions. After all, we teach them to question definitions, assumptions and received wisdoms. 

For one thing, though, they do not arrive already fully equipped to do this – otherwise we wouldn’t need to teach it. For another, we teach them this partly by example. 

Rob Johns is professor of politics in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.

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Reader's comments (2)

All very nice and cozy, but academics should be free to express their opinions including biases and most students appreciate that. After all, listen to the all the rubbish from the leave campaign and outright lies of the likes of BoJo, Fox, Davies and Gove that for some reason the BBC seems too afraid to challenge. So no academics should be free to express their opinions on the matter one way or the other.
Instead of harassing academics, why don't they investigate the financial backing of the Leave campaigners?

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