Beware of our ‘cry baby culture’
JAMIE MCGOWAN fears that our universities are clamping down on freedom of expression and debate
ONE thing I feel incredibly strong about is that university must be a way of preparing students for the real world. The ‘Gaudeamus’ which we sing at graduations exclaims: “After a pleasant youth, after a troubling old age, the world will have us.” After multiple years of frolicking youth and tiresome work, we are finally prepared to go out into society as real experts; as adults. This is not a bold vision, nor is it an unusual one. This is a vision which should be expected, and indeed, applauded.
The fact is that academia is not for the thin-skinned. It is an intense environment of discourse, where conflicting ideas soar across lecture halls and cause storms in tutorial rooms.
It is a place where students go to understand their field of study in their own nuanced and unique way.
From the moment you sit down in your first tutorial group, you will quickly find yourself disagreeing with others, and discussing ideas which you would never have considered unless you were prompted in such a way.
In this way, the university is an open exchange of ideas—indeed, a fierce one at times—but it remains a unique method of formation and intellectual challenge. After all, knowledge is power.
The Scottish university system was influenced heavily by the teaching style of the Dominican Order, who envisioned a Christendom of critical-thinking academics. As a result, universities in Scotland have always been a place of material intellectual challenge. Students go to this new, fascinating academic world from their previously sheltered environment. They leave behind their fixed high school timetables and their spoon-fed classroom formation to be told that they are now on their own.
Once you accept that UCAS offer, you become entirely responsible for your education. Students go to university to be exposed to a wide range of discourse and opinion, most particularly from their lecturers, who are generally champions in the field of niche opinions.
Alas, this traditional Scottish attitude to education has been infiltrated by this very American idea that a university is also your home, and that it should be a place in which you feel safe. As a consequence, the education system in America has tended to perpetuate the sheltering of people’s intellects.
Whilst it is paramount that the physical safety and emotional security of students should be protected, the personal reservations of students should not extend into the lecture theatres and debating halls, where students come to share in a crucible of ideas.
If students are not prepared to be confronted and present their own thesis with confidence, it must be questioned why they are in an academic environment in the first place.
Unfortunately, this American ideal is trying to find soil at Scottish universities and, more tragically, it is succeeding. Now, we see a sort of ‘cry baby culture’ starting to creep into our education system. It comes in many forms, such as campus censorship and ‘no-platforming,’ but these ideas are even finding their way into academic formation itself.
Earlier this year we heard of a situation at University College London, where students were calling for philosophers such as Plato and Descartes to be banned from the curriculum because they are ‘too white,’ and there isn’t enough ‘diversity.’
Perhaps it is high time these students considered what true diversity is in a university. The diversity in a school of philosophy ought to be a diversity of ideas; a range of theses and conclusions. The curriculum ought to be based on meritocracy, whereby material is selected based on its merit rather than based on the pigment of the author’s skin.
A paradox perhaps, that the progressive movement has to use positive racial discrimination to advance its cause; once again, their logic has turned against itself and created right tomfoolery. I fear that this same culture could be turning universities into nothing more than nurseries, where students would rather moan about pressing issues instead of actively challenging them and taking them to the debating chamber.
This is the situation which arose at Aberdeen University last month, where many upset students signed a petition against a ‘40 Days for Life’ pro-life poster which was in the window of the Catholic Chaplaincy.
Whilst it might be said that creating a petition against this sort of thing is ‘action,’ I am certain that this not exactly the best form of ‘action.’
The most desirable action for them would be to challenge pro-life ethics in the debating chamber and in the lecture halls. The real action would be to discuss the place of freedom of expression in a free society, and whether or not that encompasses these ‘prayer vigils.’
The progressive movement is also failing because, all too often, it fails to give any adequate legal or philosophical consideration to its theory. The situation at Aberdeen is a golden example of this.
Universities are powerhouses of liberal thought. They are not playrooms, where students are to be kept sheltered and locked away with their toys. Lecture halls are training grounds and debating chambers are battlefields. This is the place which will form our future politicians, our future lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists and teachers.
If a university is unable to produce individuals who can appropriately address, analyse, and rebut controversial matters, then the future of Christian democracy is certainly at stake.
Our society is already becoming increasingly authoritarian, in its approach to the economy, to the family, to medicine and so much more. We do not want to live in a society where our exchange of ideas is limited too.
Jamie McGowan is a student at the University of Strathclyde.