Joanna Williams, who I profile in this week’s issue, has long been a fierce critic of much that is going on in British universities.
Her 2012 book, Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought, launched a full-scale assault on the marketised, “student as consumer” model. She has used her position as education editor at Spiked Online to attack “trigger warnings”, “safe spaces” and other attempts to “protect” students from ideas they find uncomfortable or upsetting. Her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge, draws all this together.
In the past, she told me, “censorship and calls for conformity (seen most explicitly in McCarthyism)” came largely from right-wingers outside the academy. Today, she is more worried about “the Left and intellectual radicals” operating within universities.
Part of the blame for what she sees as a significant decline in academic freedom, she argues, must be laid at the door of critical theory; feminism and other forms of identity politics; and the decline of academic disciplines which, while inevitably excluding outsiders and restricting the kind of questions that can be asked, also provided “a shared knowledge base, methodological approaches and theoretical frameworks [that] allow knowledge to advance”.
So, between these two books, Williams has made a powerful case for where universities have gone wrong. She summarises this by saying that they have largely abandoned “the liberal project of advancing knowledge through competing truth claims”, and adds that the promotion of “employability skills” or “inclusive values” should not be seen as satisfactory substitutes.
But why do I say that she has taken her ideas to their logical conclusion? Partly because she does embrace the hard, extreme cases. Though universities obviously have to operate within the law, she is worried that “there is less free speech on a university campus than there is in society at large” and that they should accept speakers putting forward not only contentious but actively offensive views, if only so they can be challenged and opposed.
Yet there is also another question. If Williams, currently programme director for the MA in higher education at the University of Kent, is so unhappy with the ethos of today’s universities, why does she continue to work within them? Here too she has the courage of her convictions and is radically cutting back on her academic workload so she can pursue some of the controversial ideas she feels are largely taboo in a climate of “moral orthodoxies”.