Jon Yates is the author of "Fractured: Why our societies are coming apart and how we put them back together again".

I have begun to wonder if – somewhere in Geneva – there is a UN committee that sets the rules for the Culture Wars. It decides who is a civilian and who is a combatant, which weapons are banned and exactly how prisoners-of-war should be treated. Once a month, the main agitators are brought together to negotiate the location of the next battle. The answer to this question is always the same though – universities.

From pictures of the queen to statues of slavers, protecting free speech to banning anti-Semitism, teaching critical race theory to debating trans-rights – universities have hosted every major skirmish.

Vice Chancellors increasingly resemble prisoners-of-war – united as never before behind one peer-researched message, “couldn’t we all just calm down a bit”.

I bring bad news. This is not the beginning of the end. It is not even the end of the beginning.

Absolute banger

So what is the way out? Allow me an analogy. Four years ago today, I was driving a 10 metre-long campervan through rural Pennsylvania and I was struggling to concentrate. Why? Because there was a constant banging noise at the rear of the vehicle.

I knew how to fix it though. I made my music much louder. This solved the problem. Until a driver overtook me waving madly and pointed out that my exhaust pipe had mostly fallen off and was bouncing between the road and the vehicle.

The culture wars are a constant, aimless banging. They distract us from the real problems of injustice, poverty and poor education we all want to solve. But the only way to stop the banging is to fix the underlying problem. The underlying problem is our divisions.

Half of us tell pollsters that our country has never been so divided. Just look at our friendship groups. Half of us have no friends from a different ethnic background. Most pensioners have no contact with anyone under the age of 35 – apart from their grandchildren. A fifth of Leavers and a quarter of Remainers have no friends who voted the other way. A UK Barrister would have to invite 100 people into their garden (breaking the law thrice over) before inviting one person who is unemployed.

These divisions matter. The truth is that there is no real culture war – most people agree that the queen is nice, racial justice is important and that speech should be free but not rude. The tiny minority of cultural warriors only dominate our airwaves because of our divisions. And it is all too easy to believe nonsense about “other people” if we never meet “other people”.

A way out

So what is the answer? My new book, Fractured, reveals that – throughout history – humans have overcome divisions by bringing people together. As hunter-gatherers, we connected through rituals, hunting and dance. As farmers, we relied on feast days, rites of passage and organised religion. As city-dwellers, we were knitted together by clubs, schools and the workplace.

These “Common Life” institutions connected us with people we didn’t choose to mix with. They provided equality of status, and used intense activities or repetitive routines to create trust.

We need more of these institutions today. I like the sound of one that takes us away from home when we become adults, puts us in a house with strangers and gives us a series of challenges to complete. I would call it a “university”.

Universities should be central to bridging our divides. The bad news is – at the moment – many students self-segregate at university, hanging out with people from similar backgrounds, similar incomes and similar values. Vice Chancellors should change this as a priority.

How? By being conscious about how you allocate housing – don’t put everyone with people “like them”. By creating small groups wherever possible – whether study groups or clubs and societies. The smaller the group the more we end up connecting with people less like us. The truth is that the more social choice we have, the more “birds of a feather flock together”.

Then there’s one final challenge to address. I left one social division out of the list. It is the division between graduates and non-graduates. Half of those of us with degrees have no friends without a degree. Unless we fix this, our universities are going part of the problem not part of the solution. If we want an end to the culture wars noise, we have to find ways to get students mixing outside of the university bubble.

Vice Chancellors, your volunteering programmes are not just nice to have, they are essential. But you need to go further. Education isn’t just about head knowledge, it’s about knowing people. Why not add a requirement to every course that students have to spend at least a weekend with people whose values are totally different from their own?

That is how we will create the leaders of tomorrow. Leaders who will diffuse rather than inflame our culture. Bill Clinton was once asked how to become a great leader. He recommended two courses of action – educate yourself and meet as many people unlike you as possible. It is time our great universities did better at the latter.

Jon Yates is the author of Fractured: Why our societies are coming apart and how we put them back together again.

3 responses to “Universities can help forge a new Common Life

  1. Volunteering programmes alone do not fix the paternalistic attitude universities often display towards the communities. Only true service learning based on partnership rather than ‘operating in extraction mode, taking as much value as possible from society without putting back in.'[Pitchford,A. et al 2021:36] can start and reduce the gulf between community and the ivory tower. Student volunteering adds a lot less value to the community than both student and universities think, unless developed in partnership and with a clear balance of benefit.

  2. Divisions on campus are nothing like as described here. That’s not to say there aren’t challenges but this is making a mountain out of a molehill and distracting from the real issues in society.

  3. Agreed – this has very little to do with HE and reaches Malcolm Gladwell levels of triteness.

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