A radical antithesis

Universities are training grounds for engaged citizens, not terrorists, says Louise Richardson

February 23, 2012

Are universities hotbeds of radicalisation and training grounds for terrorists, or are they the antidote to radicalisation? They can be - and have been - both.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the social revolutionary terrorist movements throughout Europe evolved around university campuses. The largest of them, the Italian Red Brigades, became powerful for a time because it fused the student and worker protest movements. Indeed, much of its leadership was to be found in the faculties of certain Italian universities. More recently, Abimael Guzman, the charismatic leader of the Peruvian Maoist movement Shining Path, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Ayacucho.

Today, governments worry about young people being radicalised on university campuses. There have been several much-publicised stories recently of young jihadi terrorists having studied and, in at least one case, been radicalised on UK university campuses.

But one of the most common characteristics of radicals of every ideological hue in every part of the globe is a highly oversimplified view of the world - a view that sees it as divided between good and evil - and education can rob one of these certitudes. Anyone who studies, say, the outbreak of the First World War or colonialism will soon discover that no side had a monopoly on virtue or vice and that malign policies were often conceived and implemented by well-meaning people.

It is very hard to hold on to a Manichaean view of the world when confronted with the evidence of human frailties, the complexities of government decisions and even the fog of war. Of course, not many terrorists have studied the humanities, but we do not know whether this is cause or effect. In recent years, applied degrees such as engineering and urban planning have been the courses of choice for educated jihadis, as they have been for many first-generation university-goers. By keeping the culture of the humanities, with its emphasis on tolerance, empathy and reason, its respect for nuance and appreciation of complexity, at the centre of our universities, they can serve as an antidote to the inflexible and oversimplified worldview that is the hallmark of the radical.

In our classrooms, we invite students to question received wisdom, and we show them how to identify logical fallacies in argument. An inquiring student would want to know, for example, why it is that suicide bombers, who are promised such generous rewards, are never the children of the leaders of the groups who dispatch them. They would want to know why it is that leaders such as Guzman and Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, would call on followers to lay down their lives but cut deals with the authorities to save their own.

Outside the classroom, too, the life of the university should be antithetical to the conditions that breed violent extremism. As academics, we model to our students how to respond to ideas we find objectionable, through respectful and reasoned argument. Through our debating societies we provide students with opportunities and experience in arguing about controversial issues. Through the inclusion of students in senior decision-making bodies in our universities we expose them to the experience of making complex decisions in conditions of considerable uncertainty and to the reality that most university leaders - with varying degrees of skill and varying degrees of integrity - are genuinely committed to the education of their students and to advancing the interests of the institutions we lead. Universities also provide ample opportunity to organise and to protest peacefully against university policies. Opposition to tuition fees, for example, brought together students from very different cultural, national and socio-economic backgrounds and gave them a national voice. So, far from being potential breeding grounds for violent extremists, universities should be the opposite: training grounds for an engaged democratic citizenry.

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