More ferrets, fewer sponges

Treat students like adults and bring back dissent, scholar urges academy. Matthew Reisz writes

March 31, 2011

A leading academic has called for a return to universities full of "dissident voices wanting to save the world" and an end to seeing students as "vulnerable".

In his inaugural lecture as professor of education at the University of Derby, Dennis Hayes said there was a time when "academics (and students) were a bag of ferrets contesting everything...We should put the ferrets back in the bag."

Professor Hayes dissected "The 'limits' of academic freedom" in his inaugural lecture, which was due to be delivered on 30 March.

"Free speech is not just one freedom among many," he argued, "it is the foundational freedom. Without hearing the free speech of others, we cannot come to a view of the truth of what they believe or of what we believe.

"Academic freedom is the societal embodiment of this foundational concept of freedom of speech in an institution that is the material expression of the social value placed upon free speech, the academy."

By systematically calling into question all the arguments that are put forward for limits to academic freedom, Professor Hayes said that he hoped "to leave academics with no arguments with which to evade their academic duty - the responsibility to speak your mind and challenge conventional wisdom".

He deplored "the development of the politicised 'university' that issues statements about its views and values". He predicted that it was only a matter of time before those who had once embraced "New Labour 'values'" such as equal opportunity, diversity and sustainability would "adopt the 'value' or belief in the 'Big Society'".

Taking academic freedom seriously, Professor Hayes added, also meant rethinking attitudes towards students. No one with experience of teaching at a university could possibly believe that students were "witless sponges who simply accept everything that lecturers say as gospel", he said.

Instead of seeing a student as "an autonomous person embarking on the pursuit of knowledge", it was now common to picture him or her as "a vulnerable learner" and to embrace the ideal of the student-centred university.

All this, he claimed, amounted to treating students "as if they were still in primary school" and was a retreat from the central mission of higher education.

"Putting the student at the heart of the university can mean that the passing on and advancement of knowledge is no longer the aim.

"And if that student is seen as a vulnerable person whose vulnerability is your concern, then it is difficult to challenge their thoughts and beliefs," Professor Hayes concluded.

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