Issue 202: 2019 05 16: New Enlightenment

16 May 2019

Afros, Diversity & Universities

New Enlightenment.

By Lynda Goetz

Admittedly I was at university in the 70s, clearly a less ‘enlightened’ time than today (although we were, of course, far more enlightened than previous generations).  Nevertheless, however woke we all are now, should university Vice-Chancellors really be spending time worrying about whether their cities or towns have enough of the right kind of hairdressers to attract a diversity of students?

This appears to be only one of the many preoccupations of university administrators and academics in the current climate.  They are also worried about slavery in their past (or rather the use of money derived from slavery); about which politically correct academics can be allowed to teach or conduct research; about whether they should use ‘privilege flags’ to alert admissions tutors to the affluent background of applicants; about how to admit those whose failure to reach the required level is due to inadequate schooling or other causes outside their control, and in general how to ensure that freedom to pursue further education or an academic career of any sort at any level can only be allowed to happen within the confines of today’s enlightened views and ‘mores’.

In the search for this goal, what used to be called ‘the Enlightenment’ (in 17thC and 18thC Europe) has clearly been superseded by an evidently better ‘New Enlightenment’.  The outmoded idea that reasoning could be used to improve the lot of mankind (oops sorry, humankind) and that testing and rational analysis as well as religious tolerance were important, seem to have been set aside in favour of a complete rejection of all ideas and values opposed to those deemed currently acceptable – such that they may not even be advanced as theories, tested open-mindedly, examined in any way or even discussed.

Over the last few weeks, we have seen the sacking of Dr Noah Carl by St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge; the withdrawal of a visiting scholarship from acclaimed Canadian academic Jordan Peterson (also by Cambridge University) and the sacking of the right-wing philosopher Sir Roger Scruton by James Brokenshire.  We have also heard how Cambridge is to set up a wide-ranging enquiry into its links with the slave trade (presumably ignoring its links with abolition).

An interesting ‘Coffee House’ Spectator article by Oxford undergraduate Hugh Campbell tells the story of Noah Carl’s sacking, basically for daring to have as the subject for his research the question of racial characteristics.  Jordan Peterson was sacked because of a photograph of him taken with a fan wearing an ‘unacceptable’ T-shirt.  In both cases, it seems, the authorities defended their actions on the ground of ‘inclusivity’, a word used apparently without irony, as Daniel Hannan reported in his Sunday Comment article in The Telegraph last weekend.  Sir Roger Scrutton was sacked from his unpaid role on the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission after partial quotes and partial information were reported from an interview with The New Statesman back in early April.

Last week several newspapers reported the comments of Cambridge University’s Pro-Vice–Chancellor, Professor Graham Virgo.  He was speaking at a seminar on education at King’s College and discussing barriers to black students applying to Oxbridge.  Detailed research apparently shows that number three on the list of obstacles was hairdressers.  QC Professor Virgo said this sent a ‘really important‘ message to the university.  Honestly?  And what would that important message be, Professor?  That whatever the quality of the scholarship on offer, the way the prospective applicant’s hair looks is more important?  (I don’t even remember paying more than twice in three years at university for a trip to the hairdressers and certainly when it came to choosing a university, the quality of hairdressing salons in the vicinity did not enter in any way into the considerations.  I seem to recall that what I was looking at mainly was the nature and content of the courses on offer; but perhaps that is no longer a valid set of criteria for choosing a university course).  Naomi Kellman of Target Cambridge, a programme to assist black students with Oxford and Cambridge applications, agreed that the question of hairdressing ‘comes up really frequently’.  She added that black students would also be concerned about the food and nightlife on offer.

I had, clearly erroneously, thought that going to university was about a) further education and b) expanding ones’ horizons.  The message nowadays repeatedly seems to be that universities should be reproducing whatever students are used to wherever they come from – whether that be burgers and chips or the availability of Afro-Caribbean food and hairdressers.

In response to the latest ‘lame excuse’, Dr Tony Sewell of Generating Genius (a charity that encourages youngsters from under-represented backgrounds to pursue STEM* subjects) said “Kids need to get more resilient and get with it.  As a minority, you will have to confront a situation where you are the only one.  You have to learn to face that and learn to adapt to that.  That’s the key issue.”  This down-to-earth attitude surely needs to be more prevalent in universities and society.  The current culture of pussy-footing around issues – not daring to speak evident truths and indeed not even being allowed to research or discuss matters which need discussing – smacks more of Soviet Russia than a supposedly liberal country with freedom and diversity at its core.

Attempts to change these attitudes are currently still being stifled.  One academic who hopes to change that is Professor Jeff McMahan, American-born professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, who says that ‘there is a real climate of intimidation at universities that makes people fearful of speaking out.  Many people are deterred from publishing ideas or arguments for which they could provide good reasons and evidence because they are frightened of threats to their career or even their physical well-being.” McMahan takes the view that the best way of countering views or research with which you do not agree is by argument, not by silencing or firing the academics involved.  McMahan has been setting up a new publication called The Journal of Controversial Ideas in conjunction with Dr Francesca Minerva and Professor Peter Singer.  None of the university libraries approached as potential publishers wanted to touch it.  “The internet is making meaningful debate all but impossible.  People enjoy being outraged” says McMahan, “…they maintain a permanent state of indignation and irritation and that is very unhealthy.  What we’re trying to do is counter those tendencies and encourage calm, reasoned rational discussion.”  Margaret Driscoll in her article does not hold out much hope of success for the project in the present climate.  Let us hope she is being too pessimistic.

Regular readers will know that this is a subject on which I and other writers in The Shaw Sheet have commented on many occasions (for a few links see below).  In February, the Government issued a 53-page document, Guidance on Free Speech in universities, something I discussed in my article ‘Freeing Speech’.  Mathew Bullock, a former banker who has been head of St. Edmund’s college since 2014, nevertheless felt it necessary to apologise to the braying mob calling for Noah Carl’s head, ‘unreservedly for the hurt and offence felt’.  So much for the New Enlightenment.

*shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

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