You say social justice, I say political censorship

October 28, 2005

The pursuit of knowledge and freedom of speech are being undermined by campus activists, writes Daphne Patai

Nothing is as destructive to higher education as threats from within - threats that derive from the abject failure of faculty to defend the ideals of intellectual autonomy and defend the pursuit of knowledge not subservient to political fashion and notions of "social justice".

"The ideal university is an autonomous institution where knowledge is pursued for its own sake, ideas contested and arguments developed, where received wisdom is questioned and students stretched intellectually." So reads the quaint but admirable opening statement of a panel I'm participating in at the "Battle of Ideas" event in London this weekend.

It is one thing to recognise, as the statement goes on to do, that universities have always had to function in a real world of competing interests and constraints, and that their autonomy has always been imperilled by economic and political pressures. It is quite another for faculty members, who ought to know better, to sign up to the hackneyed and highly distorted notions that "education is always political" and that the university has little integrity to lose - only past biases to be replaced by better (read: current) ones.

My experience is that academics spring to the defence of the autonomy of higher education only when they sense an attack coming from the outside.

Remove any external threats and academics will insist that universities never have been, or indeed could be, anything other than mouthpieces for ideology.

I saw just such a turnabout some years ago at a seminar on higher education held at a leading research centre in the US. All the standard postmodernist cliches debunking the merits of a liberal education were voiced, and when an anthropologist who specialised in South-East Asia expressed a belief in the persistence of some universals underlying human societies, it was disdainfully dismissed. Ideas of disinterested knowledge and the pursuit of truth were sneered at as mystifications long since exploded, replaced by the identity politics that goes under the name of multiculturalism.

But towards the end of the second day something odd happened. A local philanthropist attending the seminar asked: "In view of what you've all been saying, why should anyone support higher education?" Instantly the group reconfigured its allegiances and, to my astonishment, a parade of entirely traditional justifications of the importance of the university as a site for impartial research and teaching was trotted out, replete with affirmations of commitment to precisely those liberal values that for the preceding two days had been roundly denounced.

In the past decade, the state of the university has steadily deteriorated as blatant political commitments - overwhelmingly from the Left - have continued to spread throughout the academy. Speech codes and anti-harassment policies have been promoted by campus activists unable, apparently, to tolerate open debate about contentious issues and eager to avoid hurt feelings, even if this means curtailing free speech.

And yet, whenever these professors see their favoured positions endangered (after 9/11, for example), they rush to uphold the very notions of "academic freedom" that they previously labelled disingenuous protection of traditional privilege.

And there is more. Identity programmes such as women's studies - committed to promoting particular group interests - have tried to impose their agendas ever more sweepingly on the entire university, resting their case on increasingly fantastic claims about their group's supposedly marginalised status.

Thus, "feminist activism" is now indispensable to women's studies. Job postings reveal just how undisguised this agenda is. One Texas university is seeking someone with specialisations in "transnational or global feminisms, women's health, feminist/womanist community activism and/or feminist disability studies", while a California university needs a specialist in "feminist activism, policy and social justice". Other schools seek evidence of progressive "dispositions" or "cultural competency" - codewords for political agendas.

Having thrown a belief in liberal values in education to the wind, how will campus politicos defend their programmes from the next onslaught to arise from within? Or are they foolishly assuming that their brand of politics will dominate the academy forever?

Daphne Patai is professor of Brazilian literature and adjunct professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the US. The Battle of Ideas, organised by the Institute of Ideas, will take place this weekend at the Royal College of Art.

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