Joanna Williams: courage of her convictions

It is always interesting when people take ideas to their logical conclusion, says Matthew Reisz

January 6, 2016
Source: Julian Anderson
Non-conformist: Joanna Williams no longer wants to be constrained by "moral orthodoxies"

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”.  

Read more: Joanna Williams on teaching and the Green Paper

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”.

Read Matthew's interview with Joanna Williams in full

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Researcher in Fluid Dynamics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu


Greenwich School Of Management Ltd

PhD Research Fellow in Medical Physics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Postdoctoral position in Atmospheric and Space Physics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

PhD Fellow in Machine Learning

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu
See all jobs

Most Commented

Doctoral study can seem like a 24-7 endeavour, but don't ignore these other opportunities, advise Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman

Matthew Brazier illustration (9 February 2017)

How do you defeat Nazis and liars? Focus on the people in earshot, says eminent Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt

Improvement, performance, rankings, success

Phil Baty sets out why the World University Rankings are here to stay – and why that's a good thing

Warwick vice-chancellor Stuart Croft on why his university reluctantly joined the ‘flawed’ teaching excellence framework

people dressed in game of thrones costume

Old Germanic languages are back in vogue, but what value are they to a modern-day graduate? Alice Durrans writes