Verbal brawling is just what the academy needs

December 22, 2006

Let's allow racists and extremists to express their views and then subject them to criticism, argues Dennis Hayes

Being offensive is now the worst offence in the academy. Other restrictions on academic freedom by the Government, student unions and universities exist, but they are all founded on the cry: "You can't say that! It's offensive."

Once universities were places where anyone could ask you what your views were, and then they would criticise them. Now a cosy consensual conformity is being constructed and they are becoming dull places where you learn what not to say. The battle of ideas in the academy has disappeared, along with the idea that universities are about education and the pursuit of knowledge rather than the acquisition of skills.

Academics don't even recognise what has happened, as responses to the Academics for Academic Freedom statement show.

Many people asked: "Do academics need to defend academic freedom?" This sort of complacency in the face of a clampdown on so-called "extremist"

activities on campus, and dissent in general, is partly naive and partly reveals how the pervasive climate of self-censorship means that academics are not even aware of how they conform to the Government's agenda for higher education.

A different response was to accept that academic freedom was important and under threat but to add that it applied solely to your research area or discipline.

It did not give academics authority to speak on any issue, a line used to stifle debate on wider issues, such as the war in Iraq, and to silence extreme views in case they offend the consensus.

University managers find this appealing as it leaves criticism in the classroom or online and keeps it away from them.

The problem with this restrictive view of the academy is that precisely because academics must be critical to develop their discipline, they become independent-minded critical thinkers. Their independent thinking then brings them, or used to bring them, into conflict with prevailing views on wider issues, and this made the university what it was - a place where everything was put to the test through reasoned debate.

That means that the views of racists, Muslim extremists, anti-war activists, Christian fundamentalists and the new "McManagement" should all be expressed and subject to criticism.

Astoundingly, some academics feared that the AFAF statement could lead to a "free-for-all". But an intellectual free-for-all is exactly what the academy is, and if academics are so comfortable that they fear sharp criticism from first-year students, then the situation is worse than the AFAF fears.

An alternative version of this fear was that we can't have staff and students going round being offensive. At a time when students and colleagues are too polite to ask challenging questions, we picture them not as potentially critical but as gratuitously offensive and rude. We should not worry. People are rational. The rational debate that academic freedom requires means that rudeness will be properly rejected as both unreasoning and unreasonable.

Fear of offence is a way of articulating a fear of having ideas and viewpoints clearly articulated and having to answer them. It is fear of the academy, a fundamental crisis of confidence. The BAFAF aims to revitalise the idea of the academy by asking any academic - vice-chancellors included - to sign up to, and defend, our unequivocal statement of academic freedom for the present time.

As one academic put it when adding their signature to the list: "I agree entirely with this statement of academic freedom. Anyone who does not is a hireling, not a scholar. No ifs, no buts."

Dennis Hayes is joint president of the University and College Union and head of the Centre for Professional Learning, Canterbury Christ Church University.

THE PROPOSED NEW STATEMENT OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM

We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of academic freedom: (1) that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and (2) that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.

Academics for Academic Freedom

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