Bruce Newsome is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Government’s plan to oblige universities to guarantee free speech is the greatest advancement of free speech in decades, not just for universities but all educational institutions.
Universities produce almost all the teachers, as well as almost all the commentators, journalists, politicians, and practically everybody else who makes up the “articulate class”.
This minority, that dominates the majority of speech, tends to sit self-satisfied on its self-image as the home of the educated and the intelligent, dismissing critics as uneducated and stupid.
Since the ‘articulate class’ tends to left-wing politics, their implication is that left-wing politics is enlightened whilst conservative politics is ignorant or stupid. In essence, the “liberal consensus” is that left-wing politics is proven – thus universities tend to promote the liberal consensus, and to curb any free speech that does not conform.
Unless conservatives articulate the intelligent version of conservatism, their politics will die out. You don’t need to be a conservative to realise that this would be a bad thing: any consensus tends to complacency and arrogance unless held accountable to critical thinking.
Universities are indoctrinating liberalism
First, let’s admit that universities are biased on whose speech to defend.
For instance, in 2016 Sheffield University removed a student from a postgraduate course on social work for posting on Facebook that same-sex marriage is “sinful” under his Christian faith. Yet the same university was one of many that hosted (on campus) homophobic Islamists, in both 2016 and 2017.
In the academic year 2016-2017, university student groups organized at least 112 events featuring known extremists; at only one event was an extremist subject to rebuttal.
Today, students protest against conservative policies, to demand special treatment, against imagined offences instead of real issues, and against statues of dead white men instead of living despots. University administrators are often complicit, such as when King’s College purged the busts of its founders on the unproven theory that the modelled heads of bearded white men are “intimidating” to minorities.
Universities are not producing educated liberals so much as indoctrinated liberals. For instance, the certification in education promotes pseudo-scientific pedagogy and socialist ideals, such as levelling, which just promotes mediocrity – it does not train the sort of critical skills that would enable a graduate to critique the science of the pedagogy, or the ethics of the mediocrity.
We should thus not be surprised some teachers will “brainwash” their students, unwittingly or otherwise, into the superiority of socialism over conservatism. Meanwhile, the health and care services routinely train feminist, multi-cultural, and minority agendas, helping to explain why the under-staffed National Health Service puts up more barriers to qualified staff from Australia and New Zealand than to less-qualified staff from non-English-speaking countries.
These agendas reach into law and justice: the current Director of Public Prosecutions defines hate crimes by “anyone’s” subjective perception; she achieved record indictments, then launched a publicity campaign for more. They even extend to the National Trust, which uses our historic buildings to educate patrons in the over-population of history by (shock horror) dead, white, heterosexual males.
Education is not wisdom
Consequently, our public discourse is bifurcated between supposed educated liberals and apparently uneducated, even stupid bigots. Given my expertise, let me demonstrate the falsity of this with Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (Brexit).
In a recent survey of academics, only eight per cent admitted to voting for Brexit. But that doesn’t mean that the educated know something that the majority didn’t.
Few people on campus are sufficiently expert to be useful beyond teaching, and academia rewards the generalist who jumps on fashionable agendas rather than the specialist. Here I am talking about the paucity of experts within my own discipline (political science). Most of the academics surveyed were from irrelevant disciplines.
(My university offered a professor of French literature as an expert on Brexit; it also offered her whenever terrorism struck France.)
The same academics who overwhelmingly opposed Brexit also predicted economic collapse, and even the collapse of their own universities – even though most foreign students, fees, and research funds are not from the EU. Some even forecast a breakdown of security!
Since that last claim strayed into my expertise, it was easiest for me to rebut before the vote, but I doubt any academic read it. The truly educated position was both complex and unfashionable. Most academics were telling you that the educated position was “Remain”, and this is what editors wanted to sell.
But what they sold as the educated position was actually the consensual position, which is not the same thing. Whether Brexit is right or wrong is irrelevant – the point is that a liberal consensus is routinely presented as an educated position when it’s not, and not even academics necessarily realise it.
Before the vote in June 2016, the dominant forecast was that only an under-educated, perhaps racialist socioeconomic minority would vote for Brexit. The same flawed forecast mutated into the dominant flawed explanation after the vote.
A typical description of the supposed caucus is “older white workers with modest education that have been passed over,” without explaining how this minority commanded the majority of votes. Worse, many analysts simply dismissed Brexiteers as having no substantive reasons at all – as “fantasists” whose “appeals to passion have left no space for rational persuasion.”
2016 was the year of the inexplicable for liberals, as they identified growing “right-wing politics” and “nationalism” everywhere: their dominant response was to blame everything on “populism”: as if anything popular but non-conformist could not be popular on its merits but must be the result of ignorance or stupidity.
Ironically, “populism” was being blamed for everything without being clearly defined8 (the high-minded BBC was as guilty as any). This is ironic, because no intelligent discourse is possible without defining terms.
Teaching what to think, not how to think
Universities aren’t typically teaching students to define terms because they’re not teaching critical thinking in general. In the good old days, a liberal education meant that everybody was grounded in critical skills, such as logic, before they specialised.
Today, students pass out of universities without any training in logic, unless they specialise in philosophy or are lucky enough to be offered a skills or methods course that contains a class on logic – in 20 years of teaching, I have never encountered another social scientist teaching logic.
Universities have shifted from skills to agendas. They’re not teaching students how to think so much as what to regurgitate in order to be considered educated. This is easier for me to describe within political science, which as a social science is supposed to use scientific skills to study human issues.
Most political scientists are not teaching any scientific skills. Instead, they emphasise fashionable agendas, such as the under-representation of non-whites in politics. This would be fair enough, except that unwarranted explanations, such as white racism, are emphasised without considering alternative theories.
Consequently, universities are hotbeds for interpreting every non-white confrontation with officials as racism, without admitting other explanations. Consider the university leader at Cambridge University who tweeted that “ALL white people are racist” after Rashan Charles died in an altercation with police.
You might think that all those people campaigning for more science, or complaining about “fake news” and the “post-truth world”, are on the side of critical skills, but that’s only partially true.
For instance, “Sense About Science” and the “Campaign for Social Science” pretend to lobby Parliament on behalf of science, but they’re actually led by partisan non-scientists who lobby for liberal agendas (including against Brexit) as if the science is behind them, co-opting thousands of unsuspecting scientists in the process. Incidentally, neither lobby group defines ‘science’!
What needs to be done?
First, conservatives need to stop responding to the liberal consensus with apologies and defensiveness. Margaret Thatcher succeeded by articulating the theoretical, practical, and moral flaws in the socialist consensus of the postwar years, and the theoretical, practical, and moral justifications for her conservatism.
Her successors have not done so well. David Cameron chose “compassionate conservatism”, which was uncontentious but insubstantial. He won one coalition government and one small majority. But his lack of substance was exposed in 2016 when he tried to pretend that he had negotiated a “special status” for Britain in the European Union, before the electorate voted to leave.
Theresa May paved the way for his ‘compassionate conservatism’ by apologising for the “Nasty Party” and since taking office has failed to articulate any compelling conservatism of her own. After tacking left towards an unpopular Labour Party during her unnecessary general election this summer, she is now effectively reduced to the coalition status her predecessor had just escaped.
What she certainly did not offer was conservatism as Thatcher would have articulated it.
If the Conservative Party doesn’t make its case better, it could literally die out: the Labour Party has always attracted younger voters, and now that category encompasses anybody up to 47 years of age. Kemi Badenoch, a new Tory MP, blames the fact that: “No one understands what we’re talking about anymore.”
In place of apologies and defences, conservatives need to articulate the educated and intelligent reasons for conservatism. That will be an uphill battle, and liberals will subject conservative arguments to far fiercer scrutiny than their own orthodoxies ever face, but it is winnable. It’s time for critical conservatism.