The silent majority in higher education

Academics have a duty to explain why they hold their political beliefs, says Shahidha Bari

May 28, 2015
Shahidha Bari columnist illustration

I don’t know if it was “The Sun wot won it”, but I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t footage of a young Ed Miliband stuttering sedition in a 1991 interview at an Oxford student rent strike that lost the Labour Party the 2015 general election.

The clip did the usual rounds, gleefully circulated by some as a revealing portrait of a radical red in utero, and cooingly claimed by others as a riposte to the post-prandial port swilling antics of David Cameron’s Bullingdon boys. Fresh-faced and wonky-nosed, earnestly arguing against the iniquity of 27 per cent rent rises, “Ted” Miliband probably struck most of us as rather unremarkable and instantly recognisable – a young politico dabbling in the small fare of student life.

Embarrassingly, I remember protesting for a similarly high stakes cause as an undergraduate, defiantly releasing into the ether 100 helium balloons impishly emblazoned: “Stop rising rents!” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We may mock the mischief of perennially protesting students, but the political life of the university runs deep, in ways more serious and subtle than we care to acknowledge.

Rebecca Roache, a lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, evidently knows this to some degree, after announcing on the University of Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog, on the day after the election, that she had “unfriended” on Facebook anyone who “liked” the Conservatives or David Cameron. She explained the logic by which she came to her decision – while also acknowledging the particular circumstances of feeling by which she was also motivated, and which are by no means irrelevant to moral and political understandings. Perhaps most interestingly, she made public the ways our political stances can be forged in, and framed by, our professional knowledge.

Roache explained that “the view that I have arrived at today is that openly supporting a political party that – in the name of austerity – withdraws support from the poor, the sick, the foreign, and the unemployed while rewarding those in society who are least in need of as objectionable as expressing racist, sexist, or homophobic views…I don’t want to be friends with racists, sexists, or homophobes. And I don’t want to be friends with Conservatives either.”

Regardless of whether you share her sentiment (for the record, I don’t), Roache reaches her position through philosophically motivated self-scrutiny and evaluation. “I am attracted”, she says, “by the view that we should all keep the debate open…take other people’s views into account, and revise and improve our own as we all benefit from this dialogue…But – depressingly – I’m far more sceptical than I was yesterday about how much of a difference we can make with political debate.”

Ironically, this loss of faith in “reasoned debate” is itself reasoned – unlike the backlash to Roache’s blog, which some media outlets inaccurately dismissed as an example of the temper tantrums “typical” of our petulant and overwhelmingly left-leaning professorial class. I suspect it’s my own left bias rudely kicking in when I wince at the number of men berating a young woman for her allegedly poor grasp of logic and demanding disciplinary action against her. But, for my own part, I don’t think we have cause to fear Roache lashing out at young Tories in her lecture hall if we’ve cared to note that her aversion is to right-inclined “friends”, not students. Since – as her blog attests – she can read Edmund Burke and Leon Kass, I imagine she’s capable of discerning that difference.

All Roache really did is make explicit a political stance that is so often implicit in academic life. You don’t have to read the sticker in my window to know which party I voted for, and there is no way in which you could examine my research and not find its political compass swung wildly in one direction. But we might argue that the world into which we send our recently graduated students is one that is driven by market forces, and so we carve out for them a space to think about alternatives. In philosophy, it is part of our faith in students that we compel them to read about all sorts of ideas and ask them to make of it what they will. If we are resistant to the marketisation of higher education, it may be because what’s at stake is the notion of the university as a place that privileges knowledge, free from the logic of money. The academy, we hope, provides a momentary refuge before a lifetime of the imperatives to earn and win.

My own experience is that our community is remarkably diverse, with shy Tories and bold ones alike congenially bashing elbows with all shades of reds in the staffroom as they reach for a copy of Times Higher Education. Universities are not apolitical spaces: our students – the Ted Milibands of their day – tell us this when they gripe about rents and worry about tuition fees. We know this too when we fail to secure visas for the finest students seeking to lend their brilliance to our floundering intellectual endeavours.

Perhaps there is something odious about leftist tub-thumping, but I wonder what our role in the world is if it isn’t to attempt in some way to feed knowledge into public discourse. When the public debate has been so concerned with ideas of economy, identity and morality, maybe we should have the courage, not of our convictions, but of our professional knowledge, to say why we believe the things we do.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.


Article originally published as: Things left unsaid (28 May 2015)

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