Teaching students not to think

Conformist and cowardly, contemporary academic culture actively inhibits critical thinking.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

Although the once-sacrosanct world of academia made national headlines in the UK with some regularity last year, certain issues were considered more newsworthy than others. Gender segregation, student protests and access to Oxbridge got many former-students-turned-commentators hot under the collar, and high-profile atheists successfully defended the rights of students to wear Jesus and Mo t-shirts. But support for students wanting to listen to ‘Blurred Lines’ or read the Sun was notable by its absence. Similarly, little was said about attacks on the freedom of expression of those working in universities. When calls to censor academics come not from heavy-handed managers but from feminist colleagues seeking to curtail debate, academic freedom is not as clear-cut an issue as it may have been in the past.

There are few formal restrictions preventing academics saying or writing whatever they want. Indeed, the newly effective Defamation Act has been welcomed on the basis that it provides protection against the threat of libel for academics whose research is published in peer-reviewed journals. But it would be wrong to interpret this lack of censorship on the part of management as a licence for free expression within universities. It’s not fear of libel which curtails debate; rather, it’s the reluctance of academics to say anything controversial at all. There are many reasons people may choose to self-censor, be it a fear of being sacked or perhaps a heavy workload that leaves little time for engaging in debate.

More problematic, particularly in the social sciences, is a growing sense that there are some views that just cannot be expressed. On the one hand, the pseudo-radical, broadly left-wing consensus that pervades universities means that castigating neoliberalism, the influence of the popular media, and the desire to consume, will automatically garner the support of the peers who will review your work for publication and you for promotion. On the other hand, not paying lip-service to the importance of feminism, the welfare state, and protecting the environment, is more likely to see your work rejected. New academics are often recruited because their research fits into the existing departmental culture. Students are taught the values of their lecturers.

Holding, and expressing, controversial ideas that will test the limits of academic freedom requires an ability to think critically. Too often it seems that universities today actually seek to prevent criticality and instead try to coerce groupthink among academics and students alike. One way this happens is through the enculturation of particular collective values. In the strange world of academia, an individual’s values and principles are no longer a private affair. Rather, they’re to be ‘given’ to you, which means you can be explicitly told which opinions to hold.

This year lecturers in British universities will be under increased pressure to gain ‘professional recognition’ from the Higher Education Academy (a body which claims to ‘champion excellent learning and teaching in higher education’). Part of the process of gaining recognition involves lecturers demonstrating that they have met the values specified in the HEA’s professional standards framework. Lecturers are expected to:

  • Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
  • Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners
  • Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, and continuing professional development
  • Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates, recognising the implications for professional practice.

There is much to challenge in this seemingly arbitrary list of values, especially what’s not listed: a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. The biggest problem, however, is with the principle of prescribing values for lecturers to hold at all. That the HEA expects lecturers to demonstrate collective values, and that universities have gone along with this, suggests criticality is no longer considered a fundamental part of the academic enterprise.

The desire to use higher education to promote particular values goes beyond a focus on British academics. Universities all around the world have signed up to the United Nations Rio+ 20 Higher Education Sustainability Initiative which requires institutions to commit to:

  • Teach sustainable development concepts
  • Encourage research on sustainable development issues
  • Green our campuses
  • Support sustainability efforts

This list confuses values and knowledge. Instead of interrogating concepts such as sustainable development, the pro-environment focus encourages the teaching and assessing of pre-determined outcomes which may include personal behaviour and individually held principles rather than knowledge. Such lists of values curtail free speech by creating a moral orthodoxy of what it is acceptable to say.

The extent to which the promotion of values has replaced the teaching of knowledge is seen in the titles of some university courses and research centres. Students at Kingston University in London, Murdoch University in Australia and Roosevelt University in the United States can all study for degrees in ‘sustainable development’. At the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, students can study for a Masters degree in ‘advancing equality, rights and inclusion’. Goldsmith’s University in London and York University in Canada both have ‘centres for feminist research’. The titles of such courses suggest not so much pre-determined knowledge outcomes as pre-determined values upon which students will be assessed. It is virtually impossible for students to question, let alone challenge, the fundamental concepts of sustainability, inclusion or feminism and still successfully complete their studies.

Although knowledge and values undoubtedly influence each other, losing the distinction between the two should be considered a major problem facing academics today. Values are a matter of personal conscience. Expecting people to demonstrate they hold values that have been determined for them, irrespective of whether they individually agree with those values or not, creates a climate of uncriticality which is the exact opposite of what a university should be about. It causes people to self-censor, to monitor their own speech and behaviour, and to check that they say only what is considered acceptable. The role universities seek to play in determining the values of both staff and students suggests not just an abdication of any role in relation to advancing knowledge but a more fundamental suspicion of thinking critically, a belief that the ‘wrong’ conclusions may be reached if people are not told explicitly what to think.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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