Oxford: how censorship breeds ignorance

How can students challenge prejudice if they refuse to engage with it?



Not content with their university being largely closed due to coronavirus, and forced to continue their studies via Zoom, some students at Oxford have been doing their best to impoverish their own education further.

This is the news that, as the Oxford Student reported on Friday, Oxford’s student council passed a motion condemning ‘hateful material’ in mandatory teaching materials. The motion also seeks to extend hate-speech restrictions to include disabled people, working-class people and others, and calls on the students’ union to agitate for trigger warnings – flagging up content that may be offensive to certain groups – to be slapped on readings lists and exam materials.

As the Oxford Student article notes, the motion singles out a course on medical law and ethics, arguing that required readings advocating the ‘murder of disabled children after they have been born’ were ‘ableist content’. But as Professor Jonathan Herring, who teaches the course, rightly told the paper, ‘pretending that there are no ableist books or articles is not the way to combat and defeat ableism’.

This is a key point. Students today often dress up their calls for censorship as a battle with prejudice and bigotry, or an attempt to keep minority students safe. But demands to cleanse courses of ‘hateful material’ are effectively an attempt to pretend prejudice doesn’t exist, to refuse to work out how it works, and so to give up any responsibility for trying to defeat it.

Thankfully, the university has pushed back against all this, telling the Oxford Blue that ‘free speech is the lifeblood of a university’. ‘Not all theories deserve equal respect’, it adds. ‘Wherever possible, they should also be exposed to evidence, questioning and argument.’ Sadly, this seems to be a job that a certain set of self-infantilised students feel intellectually incapable of doing. Yet more proof that censorship can only breed ignorance, rather than tolerance.

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Genghis Kant

6th May 2020 at 11:42 am

All you need is a rule that says these Student Union motions can only pass if they are voted for by a clear majority of all the students at the university, rather than the half a dozen or so student union activists who are the only ones that ever turn up and vote for these things.

Vivian Darkbloom

5th May 2020 at 8:16 pm

Something that has struck me during lockdown is how well the country is being run. Streets are clean; rubbish is collected; water, electricity, and other utilities have suffered no serious breakdown; post is delivered; public transport is running; police, firefighters, medical staff all going about their jobs; food suppliers and retailers open with no serious shortages; farmers still farming and growing the food we need to live.

Then there are the people on lockdown and in receipt of monetary compensation; some working from home but others non-productive, sitting in their gardens, learning piano, playing with the kids.

The latter group better watch out; if the country works fine without their contribution then it may be that they are surplus to requirements in the post-Covid economy. Will Diversity Officers be mourned if they simply disappear? Overstuffed HR departments; managers who oversee but do not produce; councils full of overpaid middle- and top-level panjandrums; marketing and PR professionals selling shit we do not need and persuading us to cheer people and companies who are merely froth on the daydream of life?

And the irony is that the first group are the lowest paid whilst the second group are on big bucks. It might be too much to expect a re-ordering of society after Covid-1984 but to me it’s clear that there are a whole legion of folk whose absence from the working environment would make little difference to the efficacy, health, and happiness of the Nation. I’d rather a sewage worker or street cleaner over an Arts Inclusivity Officer any day.

As for universities, they certainly have a role to play in the education of young people. Unfortunately ‘education’ has given way to ‘training’, making the claims of intellectual superiority ring a bit hollow when the goal of higher education has become that all-important certification leading to a well-paid position as, er, a Diversity Officer or Wellbeing Manager. Of course I exaggerate for effect, but still…

Anecdote: in my last job I sat next to a charming graduate with a degree in English Literature from a major university. I am a voracious reader but have no qualifications beyond A-Level and so was quite excited to talk to someone who’d progressed further in her studies of these civilisational glories. “Just call me Jude the Obscure” I said, referring to my lack of higher educational certifications compared to her. She looked baffled. “Hardy, Thomas Hardy, you know”; but she didn’t. In the words of my German friend who coined this phrase, she knew “Jack Sh*t about F*ck All”. She’d read the set texts and explored no further; instead of the acquisition of knowledge and its expansion over a lifetime she had acquired a degree and that was enough and no more. The subject was more-or-less subordinate to the qualification. I’d like to blame Blair for this with his weird obsession with ‘educayshun’ but I feel the problem is far deeper and quite intractable; learning has moved from education for education’s sake to the acquisition of a ticket allowing the bearer entry into respectable bourgeois society and all the goodies that entails, with no little or no middle-ground.

Cedar Grove

8th May 2020 at 10:05 pm

Agree with you entirely.

I did some tutoring with 1st-Year English Literature students at a northern university. A group of 4 young women asked me to change their grades “because we’re used to getting As”.

I said I wouldn’t alter the grades, but I’d sit with each of them, go through their work, explain how I’d arrived at the grade, & suggest ways of improving. Two said that sounded like a hassle & didn’t bother. The others came together, & we talked. In the course of the conversation, they admitted they’d never read a whole book, but passed exams by memorising excerpts handed out by their teacher.

I asked why they were doing literature degrees if they had no hunger to read poems, plays & novels, & explore ideas. They said it seemed like the easiest option and with a degree, they’d earn more money. It was utterly dispiriting, but not, alas, surprising.

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