The university must be an unsafe space for ideas

The battle for undergraduate free speech is a battle for undergraduates. What can academics do? Dennis Hayes explains all

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, is right. The university should not be a safe space where students never feel offended by ideas or words. The university is primarily a place where academics and students should be free to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable.

Academic Freedom means that academics have a duty to speak their minds and challenge conventional wisdom. Now they are increasingly unwilling to speak up in case they hurt someones feelings and not just studentsfeelings. How did this happen? 

In 2008 I co-authored a book entitled The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education which discussed a unique therapeutic turnin education which saw every child and young person as vulnerable, as a potential victim. The new form of this professional relationship can be described as ‘T2V’ or giving Therapy to Victims. Initially, the therapeutic turn in education was a spontaneous expression of the therapeutic culture in which we live. It began with a concern with children and young peoples low self-esteem, then with bullying, stress and teenage unhappiness. What was happening was the pathologising of normal childhood and adolescent behaviour, emotions and moods. A continuing stream of educational initiatives then followed including formal lessons on the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL)pedagogic initiatives like circle timeand happinessand ‘mindfulness’ classes. Ofsted and the New Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments became obsessed with child safety. Pupils were taught they must never be upset and that education was all about them and their emotional lives. This generation has now matriculated and they worry they might be emotionally upset and unable to cope with ideas that challenge their comfortable and comforting beliefs. They have been labelled the Snowflake Generationbut it is not the studentsfault. Over the past decade we have seen the institutional construction of young people as diminished human beings who are essentially vulnerable. 

The Snowflake Generations worries are misplaced as they are coming to what, in 2008, I called the therapeutic universitywhere unthreatening Welcome Weeks are replacing FreshersWeeksand an army of counsellors are ready to help students in the terrible transition from home to the big school that university was becoming; where anti-stress activities and counselling abound and where there are puppy rooms where stressed students can rest and recover from exam stress by petting therapy dogs.  All this is easy to lampoon but the infantilisation of students has spread to the curriculum.

Demands for trigger warningson courses and course material that might upset someone have dramatically and suddenly increased. I first became aware of them just over two years ago in an article by the US-based journalist Jenny Jarvie in the New Republic. Student Unions have taken them up and even the University of Oxford has them on its law courses.  The call for safe spacesfor debate have gone from being a rare demand for some minority groups to one for all students. The online magazine spiked has focused on their increase in their analysis of for the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR)

Ofsted and the New Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments became obsessed with child safety. Pupils were taught they must never be upset and that education was all about them and their emotional lives

The continuing call for trigger warningsis absurd when it has been shown they actually harm any truly vulnerable student by taking away the possibility of facing up to issues. But snowflakes are unmoved by facts. Similarly, the idea that you need safe spaces encourages feelings of vulnerability in a tyrannical way. In it now unquestionable that students will be hurt by ideas and must be protected from anything that offends their feelings! It can only stunt intellectual growth which requires the clash of ideas and coming to terms with arguments that students may find offensive.

At the Union Debating Society at the University of Saint Andrews last week, when discussing free speech, I teased the freshers there by saying ‘Welcome Snowflakes’. It was intended to be ironic as St. Andrews’ students are not snowflakes and are up for debate. I think it’s the same everywhere outside of unrepresentative NUS Student Unions with their censorious activities in the guise of protecting their peers. This generation will not be snowflakes unless universities turn them into vulnerable individuals. But the battle for undergraduate free speech is a battle for undergraduates. What can academics do? 

They should simply do their job, which is to be critical thinkers. They should argue and debate more. In my experience it is never students but members of staff who dislike challenges to conventional wisdom and who revert to complaints in relation to ideas and arguments they dislike. So I address my concluding remarks not to students but to the ‘Snowflake Professors’.

Dear Snowflake Professors,

You have to toughen up and get used to arguing against those with diametrically opposed positions. You have to understand that arguing against your views is not offensive; it means your ideas are being taken seriously. You have to make sure that in every lecture, class or conference that there is maximum time for debate. You have to start with the assumption that your students want to know everything and that your job is to make their brains hurt. You have to stop going crying to management when your ego and feelings are hurt in class or committee. You have to stand up and oppose any restrictions on freedom of speech imposed by student unions, the University and College Union, or management. In other words, you have to be an academic.

If you do this, real students will respect you and argue with everything you say and you may not always win the arguments. Enjoy being (occasionally) bettered by your students’ arguments. If you do this we may see the Socratic rather than the therapeutic university coming into being. 

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and Director of the campaign group Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF).

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