Fighting the war on dogma

July 28, 2006

Universities combat extremism by exposing untruth and teaching critical thinking, argues Bhikhu Parekh

Over the past four decades, the unusual pressures to which universities have been subjected have seen them undergo slow and subtle, but in the long run deeply subversive, changes. During her long tenure, Margaret Thatcher insisted that higher education's main task was to serve society by producing the trained manpower needed to maintain Britain's competitive position in the global market. Universities were to teach subjects of proven economic value, maximise their productivity, run themselves as efficiently as corporations and expect to be scrutinised for the way they spent taxpayers' money.

As public funding declines, universities are increasingly at the mercy of market forces. They feel compelled to compete for students by offering courses that will get them jobs and by teaching in the least demanding manner. They also need to attract full fee-paying overseas students and tailor courses to their changing requirements, and linguistic and other limitations. Some groups of ethnic minority students demand that universities offer courses on their religion, history and culture and demonstrably treat those heritages with respect. Local industries and regions expect universities to meet their economic needs in return for financial and other support.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and London, the Government legislated that universities should not teach anything that "glorifies" or "justifies" terrorism. In his otherwise balanced speech at South Bank University in May, Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, asked universities to ensure that their students were not "exposed to teachings" that "condone" or "foster a climate of opinion"

sympathetic to terrorist activities. He was particularly anxious that they should fight terrorism, counter the "unhelpful narrow interpretation of Islam" and keep a close watch on courses involving Muslim students. He ominously asked the funding councils to make sure that universities did their job properly.

These trends are worrying and raise profound questions about the nature of the university, the kind of institution it is and what it stands for. The answer does not lie in nostalgically returning to some past model, for no model is perfect and ours must be suited to our circumstances. Historically speaking, the university sector has undergone at least four important changes during the eight centuries of its existence, and there is no reason why it should not continue to do so. We should also accept the fact that different universities will follow different paths depending on their history, needs and circumstances, and that we should allow and even welcome local initiatives and variations. Not all of them need be Harvard or Oxford; happily, not all of them are.

There are, however, limits to plurality. Whatever form a university takes and however it balances its different objectives, it must remain a university and not become a vocational institution or an extension of a secondary school. The question as to what the university stands for and what it should minimally aim to achieve cannot therefore be avoided. The only satisfactory way to answer this is to ask what vital goods it alone is capable of achieving, what distinct contribution to human life it alone is capable of making and to look at the intellectual and moral loss that society might suffer if it were to disappear. Two such goods are unique to the university and provide both its raison d'etre and overriding objectives.

First, the university is a place to think, to ask questions, to question the questions, to seek their answers in a disciplined and systematic manner, to assess the validity of those answers and to arrive at a rationally defensible understanding of the relevant areas of experience.

The terms "research" and "pursuit of knowledge" do not quite capture the process - the former because philosophers, creative writers and even mathematicians think systematically, but do not do research in the conventional sense of the term; the latter because knowledge conveys a degree of finality that thinking lacks, and not all thinking results in knowledge.

The activity of thinking, which lies at the heart of the university, is inherently critical. It constantly challenges its own results, devours its own children and views its conclusions as nothing more than temporary.

Thinking is also dialogical in nature in the sense that it subjects itself to the scrutiny of its actual or hypothetical interlocutors and accepts only what survives their critical examination. It presupposes and nurtures reflective reason, the willingness and ability to receive and to give reasons and to revise settled views. As an institution that cherishes and nurtures disciplined thinking, the university is necessarily a centre of resistance to all that is shallow, dogmatic, dishonest or pretentious. In this important sense, it is the custodian of the free human spirit and of much that gives human life its dignity.

Teachers in the university are expected to be committed to a life of thinking. Their job is to think and to teach the art of disciplined thinking to their students, and to foster a love for it. The two are inseparable. Teachers cannot teach their students how to think and communicate a love of thinking unless they themselves have these qualities.

They do, of course, teach certain skills in the same way that professional trainers do, but as part of the process of thinking that informs and manifests itself in these skills.

The university stands for universality or openness to the world. At a mundane level, it is open to students and staff from all over the world.

More importantly, it is open to all currents of thought irrespective of national and cultural origins. No human achievement in principle falls outside its purview. Driven by curiosity as well as the realisation that dialogue with the other is the only way to rise above local prejudices, the university reaches out to other civilisations, seeks to understand and engage in a critical dialogue and aims to become a global assembly of minds. Such a critical and creative multiculturalism highlights the rich diversity and the fundamental unity of the human spirit and it is vital to the university. This has been true almost throughout its history, but is particularly important in our deeply divided but inescapably interdependent world. By embodying the spirit of multiculturalism in its composition, teaching and thinking, the university communicates to its students both a love of diversity and a sense of human solidarity. No other institution in our society can perform this crucial task.

The principles of uninhibited inquiry and universality define the university, determine what it teaches and how, who it admits and employs, and the kind of environment it creates. Take Islam. In the university, it is an object of inquiry not an article of faith and is approached in a historical, comparative and critical spirit. The university's job is not to make someone a good Muslim, whatever that may mean, but rather to explore how Islam came into existence, how it has changed over the centuries, the controversies it provoked among its adherents, and the ways these were debated and resolved or often shelved. If some parts of it seem to sanction terrorism, those teaching it should say so, as otherwise they are guilty of lying and the university loses its intellectual authority. However, they should also point out other parts of Islam that have the opposite implications, express their own well-considered opinions, and teach the student how to evaluate different views and form their own judgments. The university "fights" extremism not by telling untruths but rather by exposing the untruth that lies at the heart of all forms of extremism.

Thanks to the welcome diversity of the student population, many universities today face unusual challenges. Some groups of students, such as evangelical Christians and devout Muslims and Hindus, do not want to be exposed to views that challenge their beliefs. Some press for poorly conceived courses, want the freedom to dress in certain ways or the teaching and exam timetables to be adjusted to their religious requirements, and so on. Some demands make sense, others don't, and the relevant criterion is to be found in the two central principles that define the identity of the university. New types of course should be set up in the spirit of multiculturalism and to free the university of its traditional Eurocentrism, provided they are amenable to academic investigation and are taught in the spirit of critical inquiry. Adjusting the exam timetable is a legitimate demand if it does not cause acute hardship to others. Even diversity of dress should pose no problem. Although it may be difficult attempting to conduct a dialogue with students whose faces one cannot see and whose nuanced reactions and body language one cannot assess, lecturers can put up with it in the spirit of tolerance and because it is better to expose students to critical ideas than to lose them altogether.

The limits of tolerance are reached when students insist that certain ideas should not be expressed or rationally scrutinised because they unsettle their convictions or hurt their sentiments. Those who refuse to think do not really belong to an institution whose very lifeblood is thinking.

Bhikhu Parekh is professor of political philosophy at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University, fellow of the British Academy and president of the Academy of the Learned Societies for Social Sciences.

He was chair of the Runnymede Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (1998-2000), whose report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain , was published in 2000.

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