Why I ... believe cultivating scepticism is the real value of the university

June 11, 2004

In February, I argued that it was time to initiate a "campaign for real dissent" in the university sector to counter the growing threat of fundamentalism and dogmatism in our society. Two weeks ago, Bob Brecher took this debate on in his Professional column ( Times Higher , May 28) and, while I may not agree with all his suggestions as to how the campaign should proceed, I agree with him that those of us in the humanities and social sciences ought to be entering wholeheartedly into the political debate and demonstrating the utility of our subjects to the general public in this forum.

More to the point, we should be constructing a campaign that makes a forceful case for scepticism and doubt in public life. If scepticism has a home anywhere, it is surely in the university system.

Universities are where ideas are not just propounded, but methodically scrutinised and criticised. Academic debate is, or should be, the enemy of dogma - and it is dogma that threatens us most nowadays, whether expressed in religious or political form. There is simply too much belief around; by which I mean uncritical belief that refuses to acknowledge the validity of other outlooks. A campaign for real dissent has to address that state of affairs first and foremost.

Academics across the discipline spectrum could join in such a campaign, but it is particularly appropriate to the humanities and social sciences. We must put across the message that our disciplines serve the public good more because of the sceptical temper we foster in our students, and ourselves, rather than any specific subject expertise we impart. Sceptics do not incite violent revolutions, nor do they attempt to establish utopian states that necessitate the elimination of dissident elements. Scepticism is not an ideology, but a permanent critique of ideology: something like the notion of "agonism" put forward by thinkers such as Chantal Mouffe and William E. Connolly, where the cosy consensus of so much democratic politics is constantly disrupted. Our society is in need of more doubt and less belief: a sceptical calculus to arrest the slide into dogmatism.

Here are some tentative suggestions as to how we might stimulate support for such a campaign. A first step might be to set up a national conference on "Scepticism, Dogma and the Universities" that should debate the kind of issues raised by Brecher, such as a boycott of US academic conferences because of their government's policy of barring colleagues from Cuba, Iran and North Korea. I'm not in favour of boycotts because I see debate as the way forward (my own experience is that there's considerable dismay about government policy among American academics). Yet I'd like to hear other opinions on this - not to create a party line, but rather to demonstrate the depth of concern in the academic community about the underlying moral issues. As Brecher notes, there are "no ready-made answers", but that means there is all the more reason for publicly visible debate. A forum should be found for such a debate, perhaps under the aegis of The Times Higher or some other national body: any takers?

I suggested that there ought to be more contact with Islamic universities.

A Western-Islamic forum would be a significant contribution to lessening the mutual distrust of each other's cultural system that is poisoning the world order. Public money might be better spent exploring such avenues than on extra anti-terrorist measures, which nearly all experts agree won't stop truly determined fanatics. We're dealing with a clash of value-systems, and force alone will never resolve that. It will require a change in consciousness; that is, a change in ideas. Whatever the university system can do to bring this closer is surely worth supporting: it's more use to the general public than another research assessment exercise for a start.

Stuart Sim, professor of critical theory Sunderland University

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