The Black Lives Matter movement challenged us to think about whom we choose to honour in public. Many Britons didn’t enjoy that challenge – they saw the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue as an act of cultural vandalism and a sign that young Britons have no knowledge, interest or respect for their national history.
Conservative commentators found culprits to blame for making this cultural vandalism seem commendable. Universities were near the top of their lists. Wicked universities, pumping out postmodernist nonsense, turning innocent undergraduates into Marxist zealots who live and think on other planets. And so the discussion in the newspapers turned to culture wars and why we should all be afraid of them.
Whether cultural disputes on campus amount to “wars” is difficult to say, usually because the evidence given is often questionable. For instance, academic freedom is often said to be the victim of a cultural war over the censorship of speakers, yet plenty of so-called censored speakers find their way to the stage.
Sometimes the image of campuses set alight by cultural warriors comes from the thunderous articles you read about students – articles that are usually based on mistakes. In 2016 Brendan O’Neill celebrated the brave students at the University of York who staged a walkout against a compulsory consent talk hosted by their patronising, censorious students’ union. O’Neill was not there himself, so he couldn’t tell the truth that students left an optional talk out of boredom when the presenters had some technical difficulties with their PowerPoint.
Are universities really sending graduates out to do battle against their country’s culture? If that’s your version of “thinking about the world around them,” then sure. But what about the prevalence of these “culture wars” on campus? How many of them really exist?
What is it good for
Most universities have experienced something resembling a culture war on campus, but it’s important to separate culture wars fought over the ideals of a university, and the culture wars fought on campus. One relates to how we perceive universities, what they ought to do, how they fit into society and what values they should espouse – the other concerns battles that happen to take place on campus as part of a broader societal disagreement.
What the newspapers like to call “the trans debate,” for example, is a common occurrence on campus. Many students have strong feelings about it, particularly given how many young people are affected. Sometimes it leads to the alleged censorship of speakers and, in response, angry opinion pieces rai against the supposed puritanism and scientific illiteracy of student activists.
But this “debate” relates to citizenship, gender, health, rights and science, all areas thoroughly discussed within and without the academy. A university campus is one of the many “battlefields” on which this war is fought. It is nothing to do with a war over the fundamental qualities, properties and values of a university.
The ambition to decolonise the curriculum, however, is a cultural disagreement within the academy. Young radicals, some of them studying and some of them teaching, argue that “dead white men” appear too often in what is taught in the humanities. Scholars fail to tell students that women and people of colour also contributed to art, performance, literature and science.
In response, some professors scratch their heads and ask why Shakespeare, Beethoven, Kant and Marx are any worse a scholar because of their race and sex. The battle rumbles on until either the curriculum features a more diverse range of people and sources – or students are told to be quiet and respect the great men of history.
Whatever the outcome, whether to decolonise the curriculum is to debate how the young minds of today are taught about the figures of the past. Clearly, this is a battle about universities and what they teach.
Even so, is it right to call these sorts of cultural spats “wars”? Wars are intense, spectacular and thoroughly destructive. Everyone gets swept up in one way or another. At stake are the values and beliefs that each of us holds dear – whichever side wins gets to leave a real mark on the culture that is contested. If there are culture “wars” on campus, most people should take a side. Do they?
Take a tour
Recently YouTube recommended that I take a video tour of the University of York. Having studied there for four years, it seemed redundant to “get to know” the campus, but, out of nostalgia, I watched it. My virtual host was Chelsie Angeles, a recent graduate of the York Law School and a student vlogger. Her tour of campus was one of several videos about her time as a student.
As I watched more videos, from her “brutally honest” review of her student experience to her “days in the life” of a law student, I got to know the things that mattered to her – the quality of teaching, the relationship with her supervisor, the commute to campus. She mentioned student societies and sports groups fleetingly, and the only time she mentioned her students’ union was to admit she had never entered its building.
YouTube’s infamous algorithms led me to more student vloggers. All described their experiences of packing for university, moving from halls to a house and getting along with flatmates. There was no mention of the SU, censored speakers, controversies, protests, “woke politics” or tuition fees. Whatever was happening on campus at the time, these vloggers, whose followers number in the tens of thousands, either did not see a need to tell their regular viewers, or did not know about it.
We read stories about culture wars cutting through the campus fabric. We are asked to imagine scores of multicolour-haired students marching around, pitchforks in hand, looking for speakers to censor and centre-right lecturers to intimidate. Some of these stories are true (well, bits of them are true); and it is also true that there are students who have read a lot of Marx or who have strong views on race and gender.
But these students are very much in the minority on campus. The students habitually pilloried in the press are vastly outnumbered by their apolitical peers, who typically raise their voices not to drown out a controversial speaker, but to resolve problems about money, housing, health, wellbeing and so on.
No cultural commentator likes to think about students in this way: it’s boring. It’s much more fun to treat them as Marxist culture warriors. But SU staff would likely tell you that they and elected officers spend more time helping more students to resolve problems with their private accommodation, missing maintenance loans or mental health than they spend time to help a few political animals decide whether to let Tommy Robinson address a campus audience. This doesn’t make for an entertaining article, but it would be a much more accurate account of students and what they worry about when they do their degrees.
Though most of her peers do not document their lives in weekly videos, Angeles is a much better representative of the average student. She dabbles in nights out, sports and societies, but she doesn’t care much for political squabbles. Angeles seems to be a hundred times as organised as her peers, but they share the same priority: getting a good education.
Unfortunately for university culture warriors, a lot of their peers don’t fancy taking up arms. Can we really talk about so many culture wars at UK universities when the majority of campus residents neither know nor care about them?
A real battle
On campus, culture wars are few and far between. But universities as institutions could be swept up in one very soon.
We are approaching, to put it delicately, a difficult time for universities’ budgets. If some providers are about to crash, they can apply for emergency help from the government. But they must agree to conditions. Assuming that these universities pass the first tests – that they are economic wealth creators and providers of “high-quality” degrees – they must promise to champion academic freedom.
Asking a university to cheer for academic freedom is like asking Aston Martin to cheer for the internal combustion engine. University leaders may see it as a pretty easy condition to meet to avoid bankruptcy.
But it’s not as simple as an approving nod of the vice-chancellor’s head – the government will expect universities to prove their devotion to the cause. We’ve only hints of what this might entail for universities, but it could involve the opposition to any form of campus “censorship” and making sure that SUs do not waste money on “niche activism”.
We can defend all the good that universities and SUs do, and the good that is maligned as “niche activism”, but we mustn’t forget the view that guides the government’s attitude to the academy – that universities are combatants in a culture war over British values. They are releasing into the world graduates who can’t think critically, who oppose British culture and whose only idea of competition is in the “oppression Olympics”. In return for emergency help in desperate times, universities must defect to the government’s side of the culture war.
Calling a truce
Of course, universities could object to the premise that they are “left-wing madrassas” entangled in the culture wars. Why not say, plainly and to the government’s face, that most students don’t care about the culture wars as much as the press makes out?
First, it would have to be done properly. A bungled comms strategy could imply that the students on your campus are boring, daft, disconnected or all three. Second, it would not address all criticisms in one go. Denying the scale of the culture wars could also invite a question implied by Policy Exchange’s recent report: even if cultural clashes are rare at your university, what are you doing in response to those rare occasions?
All this assumes that it’s worth rebutting at all. Some university leaders will dismiss the claims against them as the ramblings of oddballs. Best to smile, nod politely and move on to more important business. The claims are definitely flawed and frequently made by some odd characters indeed. Yet they’ve made their way into government policy, not just in the governing party’s attitude to higher education, but in how it could save it from financial calamity.
I fear that the spectre of financial ruin will convince university leaders to go along with the government’s terms. To stay afloat, they will confess their sins despite their innocence.
But even if they agree to the bailout conditions, universities must press the government not to alter the bargain after it is accepted. What cannot be up for discussion are the freedom and independence that universities have as institutions of education and research. If that’s the next culture war, pacifism is no option.