This blog post was planned earlier this year in response to a very important question placed on social media, by the account known as Experimental Philosophy (@xphilosopher ), which was as follows:
At this moment in time, this issue seems more vivid than ever, and it is one I myself have considered at length during my university career, both when my own politics were more aligned with the radical left and in terms of the social democratic position which I espouse nowadays.
Teaching is not preaching. In the UK, the 1996 Education Act forbids the ‘promotion of partisan political views’ at primary and secondary level. This is sensible when teaching at that level; a corresponding prohibition at tertiary level would inevitably entail a significant loss of autonomy and academic freedom which would be undesirable. Furthermore, students are generally legally adults, and as such it is reasonable to think that they are in more of a position to be able to recognise and critique such views for themselves.
But what about the duty of academics to make all students feel welcome, and able to express their own views without fear or intimidation? Here there is much reason for concern, not least with respect to political bias amongst academics themselves. There is clear evidence that academics identifying with conservative or right-of-centre positions are in a quite small minority. There have been various attempts to refute this, some involving obfuscation, other balanced appraisals (such as this study), suggesting that the situation varies between countries and disciplines, but without denying this is the case in the humanities in particular. As one working in the humanities, and identifying as left-of-centre, this concerns me very much.
I was distressed and angry by the Brexit vote, and continue to believe that this will soon be seen as one of the worst own goals in this country for a very long time. Nonetheless, I am quite sure that not everyone who supported or continues to support Brexit is simply stupid or ignorant (I think they are wrong, but that is not the same). Furthermore, as 52% of the population voted for Brexit, this is sure to include at least some who were students at the time, or their families. For a lecturer in class to brand them stupid and ignorant (the views they express outside of the classroom are their own business) would be grounds for legitimate complaint. I dislike a lot about the form of unbridled capitalism in the United States, as well as the meagreness of welfare provision in that country, the gun culture, the fact that this is the only Western country still to execute its own citizens, or the draconian sentencing policies implemented in many of its regions. I do not believe this amounts to a slur on American citizens in general (anymore than drastic opposition to Putin and the actions of the Russian government and military amounts to a slur on all Russians), whilst recognising that to some extent in a democracy the actions of governmental authorities cannot be divorced from the will of its citizens. But I would never think that teaching is a place to try and preach this to students, some of whom may be from the United States.
Some of the responses to the Twitter post above were encouraging (I won’t link to all the tweets, but one can go and view the thread oneself): some suggested that one should avoid making partisan statements in class, avoid making one’s own political opinion clear (I do not necessarily agree with this, but certainly think it needs to be tempered – see below), or interestingly suggested the teacher can present themselves as the advocate for an argument in a paper, perhaps thus inviting the students to find holes in it. But others epitomised what the post was trying to address – one said that conservative students are ‘threatened by rational thought, scientific evidence, and collective determination of invariant truth’ (which I argued is equally true of many on the left), another branded anyone right-of-centre as ‘racist or intolerant’. One suggested that one should become friendly with conservative colleagues, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Others reasonably asked whether this was not equally an issue for conservative academics teaching left-of-centre students, and this certainly needs to be considered too; I would say (including in my own field) there are more than a few who present themselves as politically ‘progressive’, and assume themselves to be left-of-centre, but their neglect of the economic lead them to become quite aggressive advocates of market forces and consumer culture (see my earlier post here and the end of the post here).
This is a blog post rather than a scholarly article, and does not allow for the type of thoroughgoing research required to ascertain the extent to which political activism and intimidation of students with different political views are major factors within higher education. So here I draw upon personal experience, and knowledge imparted by a wide range of other academics and some students or former students. I am not sure I have always been successful with avoiding some of these factors in my teaching, but over the last decade-and-a-bit have thought and worked harder on this.
- Always ensure that your lecture materials, set readings, and so on, draw attention to plural political and other perspectives on the issues at stake.
- As an extension of 1, make sure you set readings which are not just those with which you personally agree.
- If you wish to inform the students of your own position on certain matters, always emphasise that this is your own, should not be given priority over the views of other scholars, and above all stress that students will never be penalised in their assignments for disagreeing with your position, nor win any special favour for agreeing with it.
- When there is a clear majority of students adhering to a particular view in class discussions, make sure you interject alternative views into this, and present these at their most convincing. Otherwise, students whose views are in the minority may feel afraid of not ‘going with the flow’.
- Avoid asking leading questions (this is a wider academic point) on all occasions. This includes assignments – anything along the lines of ‘Show how various forms of culture or knowledge served to sustain the power of particular groups in society’ should be right out. This should be reframed as a question of whether the forms of culture or knowledge in question served such an end. Also, avoid any type of passive-aggressive language which indicates a ‘right’ position to take or could be viewed as denigrating those who might disagree.
- Never present the work of highly politicised and contested figures – whether Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman, or Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall and Edward Said – as if their work represents some type of objective truth. Always draw attention to the critiques which exist of their work.
- As an issue directed towards those of a more right-of-centre persuasion: be aware of how politically loaded some concepts might be (I would include ‘cultural industries’ and ‘creative industries’ in this category, just as much as the Adornian negative conception of the ‘culture industry’). While students will often be working in a capitalist and market-driven world after graduation, that in no way means that education should exclude more critical positions on the marketplace and commercialism. Remember that you are teaching students to be intelligent, mature and independent critical thinkers, not just to adhere to a dominant ideology which you think might serve them well at a later stage.
- Do not appropriate rhetoric about white supremacy simply for the purposes of closing down discussion. This term should not be used lightly, especially not with students. This is no better than using racial epithets against students. Similarly, avoid as far as possible any comparisons with the Nazis unless talking about obvious genuine fascists. Also, be proactive if you see students trying to use similar rhetoric for the same aims.
- Much of the rhetoric about ‘decolonising’ education is toxic; loaded with all sorts of unchallenged assumptions, frequently ahistorical, again used as a means to close down debate and force through a particular political programme, and exploited by particular academic factions in order to bolster their own positions. I have published on the subject here in the context of music here and here; I would also recommend this piece by Patrick Porter, this by James Olsen and this interview with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò for alternative perspectives to the dominant positions within the academic industry on this subject; the article upon leaving academic from Paul Harper-Scott gives a prime example of how this rhetoric is exploited. This does not mean by any means that the subject of possible intersections between culture, knowledge, institutions and colonialism are not a legitimate area for study; far from it. But whether particular intersections exist, and if so their nature, are critical questions, not opportunities for imposing dogma via questionable claims of EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity – see this article by Alice Sullivan and Judith Suissa on how bodies dealing with this are often hijacked by activists and political extremists). To be able to engage with such questions, teach students about the history of colonialism (including that from non-European powers) and slavery (likewise), introduce them to culture, thought, from non-Western culture, but allow them to arrive at their own conclusions. To put some non-Western cultural work, social practice or variety of knowledge on a pedestal, as if beyond criticism, is as demeaning and dehumanising to the heterogeneous people and social groups in any such region as anything from a far-right racist.
- Equally pernicious is the argument that ‘everything is political’, used to suggest that one person’s teaching cannot be more ‘politicised’ than another’s. This is aggressive and belligerent rhetoric which could equally be exploited by those on the far right.
- There are not that many subjects which lie outside of the boundaries of legitimate debate – those which involve dehumanisation and denigration of people on the grounds simply of what they were born, or those which involve cynical denial of genocidal events, are amongst the few. Even some for which academics may feel most passionately – about the extent to which a government should allow admission to those seeking to immigrate or claiming asylum, or whether the termination of a pregnancy is purely a matter of a woman’s own body, or whether the unborn child has rights and deserves protection too – elicit multiple views which exist within the boundaries of democratic debate. In some cases this may prove extremely difficult – how to respect, for example, the religious sensibilities of those who have firm views on the place of women, or on homosexuals, which would be beyond the realms of acceptable discourse for many others. Here I do not have a solution other than to argue that tertiary education should be conducted from a secular perspective, and no religion deserves special treatment.
More broadly, the use of teaching as a vehicle for propaganda and political activism should be entirely unacceptable, and students should receive independent advice to become aware of this and be provided with appropriate channels to register their unhappiness about it.
I have found many in academia may pay lip service to ‘critical thinking’, but this is tempered in one of two ways. For many, such critical thinking does not apply to many of the assumptions underlying their own field of work. Numerous ethnomusicologists, in my experience, can be especially wedded to axiomatic assumptions about the relationship between music and its social/cultural context (not to mention frequently treating the works of their own set of canonical thinkers practically as sacred texts). They are of course perfectly entitled to their own views and to express them, but students should not be made to adhere to and avoid critique to such thinking under fear of ostracisation or penalisation of their work. For others, their concept of ‘critical’ means absolute adherence towards a particular political view which they deem ‘critical’. Critiques of the NHS, of trade unions, of factions within the left, of antisemitic ideologies in the same place, can be just as ‘critical’ as those of capitalist institutions, the military, the monarchy or the church (and I say this as a dedicated trade unionist, with huge pride in the NHS, also very sceptical of the monarchy, many churches, and certainly of unregulated power given to the forces of capital).
There are of course limits – it would be foolish to think that a position advocating slavery, or expressing support for Nazism or Stalinism, should be treated just like any other political position. But even in these cases there is much more to education than simply telling students how bad these things are. There are many questions relating to the workings of the Western slave trade, the extent of complicity or active involvement of many in various fields of life, the extent to which assent towards this was dominant within political discourse or the extent to which it engendered significant opposition, and the sensitive issue of active complicity of some members of the societies from which slaves were taken (just as Holocaust scholar Raoul Hillberg encountered great controversy when investigating the involvement of some Jewish organisations in facilitating the machinery of genocide, now a perspective accepted by a wide range of historians). Nazism, wider fascism and the Third Reich form parts of my own research areas; I see how important it is in education to consider historical conceptions of fascism (far from the crude way the term is often bandied about nowadays), but also consider not just the extent to which it formed/forms a continuity with the pre- and post-fascist histories of the societies in question, to what extent there was popular approval for the movement (equally a question for Stalinism), including during the times of the worst atrocities, and how and why this might have been true, if there was indeed considerable support (the extent continues to divide historians, especially in the wake of the work of Daniel Goldhagen). I have taught a module entitled Music, Fascism, Communism for over a decade. In this, I frequently show students a section from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935), focused around a Nuremberg Rally, presenting the Führer almost like an angel sent from on high, and with mesmerising choreographed scenes of sacralised, ritualistic displays of militaristic power. It would be easy just to tell students why this is so terrible; but actually I would like them to consider what it was about these types of spectacles (if indeed they did resemble Riefenstahl’s portrayals, which is a big ‘if’) might have proved so compelling, and by extension consider how cultural forms (I often juxtapose the Riefenstahl with some choreographed scenes from Busby Berkeley – others have commented on the similarities, and Riefenstahl herself acknowledged the influence of Berkeley) can operate upon the spectator (and listener) in such an atavistic manner, appealing in a purely sensuous and emotive manner, not to rational and critical faculties, and how this strategy has proved as effective in steering consumer habits as in bolstering emotional identification with fascism – though of course also registering dissenting views towards this interpretation. This is about attempting to encourage wider critical analysis of the phenomena in question and related ones, not simply to bolster support for a viewpoint with which no reasonable person would disagree (that Nazism was a disastrous and genocidal movement). Knowledge of Stalinism or more widely of documented atrocities under actually-existing communism seems to become thinner with every year that passes since the end of the Cold War; it is vital that students are aware of what has been documented beyond reasonable doubt, but there remain many different interpretations to explore, concerning such issues as whether Stalinism and its counterparts elsewhere were an inevitable consequence of any type of social upheaval following the principles laid down by Marx and Engels, or whether it was a distortion of these and this historical trajectory could have been avoided, the role of personalities such as Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Tito, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and many others, and in a cultural context whether there was any necessary connection between this type of politics and radical artistic movements (see my latest piece in The Spectator for some thoughts on this).
At one institution where I once did some teaching, I found that one student with whom I was working was a supporter of the British National Party. However, so long as this did not lead to the expression of overtly racist views in front of others, I did not see any reason for this to affect things. In another somewhat less loaded case, when teaching about performing some music explicitly linked to a specific left-wing political programme, with associated texts alluding to global events, I realise that some students there who had grown up in Eastern European countries under communism were uncomfortable with any suggestion that one should share the view of the composer in question, so I tried to adapt teaching from then onwards to make clear this needn’t be the case. I have also (briefly) taught a student who went on to become a Brexit Party MP; I have no idea what they think about my teaching, but hope at least that it didn’t make them feel politically excluded.
But let me end with an inspiring example from the past: the case of Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed. Miliband was born to a Jewish refugee parents from Poland, who had settled in Belgium, and in turn had to flee the country to escape persecution at the hands of the Nazis and their Belgian allies. Miliband was a major political theorist who taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Leeds, and various US institutions. His positions were associated with particular factions of the Marxist left (and he had little time for the idea that change could be achieved through the Labour Party), unlike both of his sons, though this fact was used to discredit Ed Miliband in particular by association in pernicious journalism in the Daily Mail, calling the elder Miliband ‘The man who hated Britain’. But one who defended Miliband most strongly was Lord Moore, formerly John Moore, known in the 1980s as a right-wing member of Thatcher’s cabinet (associated in particular with major cuts to social security). Beyond defending Miliband against the charge that he hated Britain, he recalled studying under Miliband at the London School of Economics, where Moore was a student in the late 1950s:
Ralph Miliband taught me and I can say he was one of the most inspiring and objective teachers I had. Of course, we had different political opinions but he never treated me with anything less than complete courtesy and I had profound respect for his integrity.
I cannot imagine any stronger tribute to the fairness of one’s teaching than to have such a testimony from someone at the other end of the political spectrum, nor more worthy aim for academics than to be as fair and balanced to one’s own students as Miliband was to his.