What’s going on at universities in the UK? Between wokeness and securing old sinecures. Notes from Academia.
An unedifying, complicated subject, this weekness. Ben Hutchinson, Professor of European Literature at the University of Kent, interviewed about an article in the Timeswhich recently sparked discussions in Great Britain, comments succinctly, modifying a well-known quote from Karl Kraus: “I can’t think of anything about censorship.” Other British senior academics prefer to remain silent – the matter triggers mistrust, frustration or resignation, as well as otherwise. And fear of risking your career by making an offensive statement.
But what is it about? In a large-scale action, journalists from the right-wing Murdoch newspaper Times flooded UK universities with a wave of Freedom of Information requests. They wanted to find out to what extent the bitterly fought at US universities weekness was it arrived in the UK.
As might be expected, the campaign aimed at debunking a “leftist discourse dictatorship” yielded the desired result: more than ten universities, including three in the top league, had banned books from their reading lists, along with more than a thousand works trigger warnings Mistake.
Censored literature titles
Among the literary titles that were censored as a precaution were Colson Whitehead’s best-selling novel The Underground Railroad (because of the portrayal of atrocities against slaves) and Strindberg’s drama Miss Julie (because of the suicide theme). The list of works that students should avoid reading because they contain “emotionally challenging” passages ranged from medieval pilgrimage stories by Geoffrey Chaucer to Thomas Meinecke’s theoretical novel “Tomboy”.
That hardly comes close to US standards, but it still delivered the through ball to the prospective conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss. “Education only succeeds in an atmosphere of mutual respect and freedom of speech,” says Truss, “Leftist peer pressure only damages it. Our everyday life is not made easier by warnings, so we cannot protect students from complicated ideas and should refrain from doing so.”
The crux of such calculated sentences from the rhetoric of right-wing populism is, of course, that there is unfortunately something in them. What’s more, what an eminently anti-intellectual politician like Truss is expressing here goes to the heart of the academic, especially in the humanities and social sciences.
It goes to the heart of the academic
Critical thinking requires challenging established beliefs, self-critical examination of one’s own thinking, and, last but not least, a willingness to listen to and examine views contrary to one’s beliefs. Because only through an open discourse can something like the “truth” (which can only be reached in approximate values anyway) be established.
No ambiguity tolerance
There can hardly be any doubt that the revision of university culture that is currently taking place under the auspices of identity politics will undermine the core of the academic in the long term. What should be one of the central goals of every course of study – learning tolerance for ambiguity – is becoming a declared enemy.
Nothing must elude clarity. Everything has to show its color. Black or white; no grayscale allowed. Because the certainty of being right takes the place of doubting one’s own point of view. This apodictic do Wokeness disciples have in common with right-wing culture fighters.
In any case, it makes sense that the new supremacy discourse in UK higher education could take root effectively, particularly at the elite universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London. The moral know-it-all gesture cloud perfectly extends the earlier intellectual claim to power of the long-established male brigade.
If political correctness in Germany is more of a strategy used by the self-righteous from the left-liberal academic milieu to protect their social privileges from the underclass, in the British system it is striking that private school pupils and upper-class daughters in particular turn out to be vehement fighters for sexual and ethnic minorities .
weekness serves to politically neutralize and morally secure one’s own social privileges. Their emancipatory direction is thus perverted into the opposite.
“White” working-class children need not apply!
This can be seen, for example, in the job advertisement in Oxford in the spring of 2021 to fill the lighthouse position in British German Studies, namely the Schwarz Taylor Professorship for German Language and German Literature: “Applications are particularly welcome from women and black and minority ethnic candidates, who are under-represented in academic posts in Oxford.” Which says clearly enough: “white” working-class children need not apply!
Another aspect of the wokeness problem at British universities is the fundamentally different university culture compared to Germany. British universities operate as service providers, treating their exorbitantly tuition-paying students as customers to be treated, according to marketing wisdom, like royalty.
The collapse in academic quality this has led to is something I have witnessed at my Birmingham institution for more than two decades. There, the intellectual requirements were constantly scaled down, so grades, and so the student satisfactiongoing upstairs.
Anyone who fails an exam or fails the entire academic year may repeat everything three or more times because the dropout rate must not increase at any price. Obvious plagiarism, which cannot be proven watertight, will be tolerated. And so forth.
decline in intellectual quality
All this under the dictates of league tables, as promotion or relegation on the various ranking lists determines the fate of every faculty. Against the background of such academic nanny culture is to understand the deterioration of the intellectual quality of the study. What I had to avoid as a university teacher on the part of the students were experiences of being overwhelmed, of not understanding, of insecurity.
In 2012, for example, the art of the Viennese Actionists was still causing irritation in class, triggering interesting discussions about what “art” can (or can’t) be. In the last few years, however, Schwarzkogler, Brus, Nitsch et al. only to reactionary judgments or categorical rejection as an abject that one would rather not be confronted with.
With the neoliberalization of higher education intellectual curiosity or critical thinking not only lapsed, but established itself on the part of the academic management increasingly a regime that seeks to protect the customer from everything incommensurable in fear of potential complaints. The Self-Censorship of the Reading Lists and the Proliferation of trigger warnings are to be understood against this background, even if in many cases they can have legitimate reasons.
Stress-free way to better grades
There can be no question of a “left-wing dictatorship of opinion”, as the conservatives and right-wing sympathizers paint it as a specter on the wall, simply because the vast majority of lecturers have long since lost their academic freedom to teach in a self-determined manner in the imposed end goal, the To provide students with a smooth, stress-free path to a degree with a better grade than they actually deserve, i.e. the customer value for money to offer.
The intellectual decline of British higher education can thus only be fully understood if one understands how the existing neoliberal regime looked like student experience management and profit maximization a tailor-made alliance with the weekness which is increasingly installed as a discourse of domination in the specific milieu of the university.
Education becomes a (priced) service, lecturers become compliant service providers, the cleavage between excellent students and the sad rest is deepened, and social privileges are secured over the excluded.
The remaining remnant of resistant thinking, of zeitgeist-resistant non-conformism, academic eccentricity – everything that once distinguished British universities – is now being used with the cudgel of the attitude police weekness cast out. The university, not only in Great Britain, I fear, will soon no longer be a place of emancipation, but of ideological conformity.