Flat White

Are university officials keener censors than leftie students?

19 June 2019

5:00 AM

19 June 2019

5:00 AM

Dan’s the man! On Saturday, The Weekend Australian ran a number of articles about free speech and freedom of enquiry in Australia’s universities, including one from Dan Tehan, the federal Education Minister himself. A model code about academic freedom has been proposed by UWA chancellor and former Chief Justice Robert French, based on the Chicago Statement from the University of Chicago. Minister Tehan is urging universities to embrace it.

Several people have suggested that the problem in Australia is not as bad as in the USA. However, censorious protesting such as Bettina Arndt and several other speakers have experienced is only the tip of the iceberg. These delinquent exhibitions, and their more calm cousins (such as the students with Guy Fawkes masks standing in a square holding up environmentalist posters that I saw a few weeks ago), are very public. Less noticeable but more serious is an increasing sense of “orthodoxy” in the teaching of the university. Opinions that are never challenged, even if they are correct opinions, are weak opinions.

I think that the Lindsay Shepherd affair was the most shocking example so far (which happened in Canada, not the USA). Lindsay was clever enough to record the very intense and long meeting in which she was told to stop teaching certain content. Her sin was presenting some of Jordan Peterson’s opinions about gendered pronoun use, as a foil for the alternate “accepted” opinion. The process she was subjected to as a result was eye-opening. I recommend listening to some of the meeting and subsequent analysis if you are not aware of the case.

Jonathon Haidt, who started the Heterodox Academy, has been saying for several years that the dominance of left-wing opinions in western universities is growing more and more significant. Several courses, such as gender studies, are havens for left-wing ideologues, because accepting current left-wing orthodoxy is basically a pre-requisite for believing that such courses should even exist. Haidt calls on Universities to make their intentions clear – are they Social Justice Warrior training camps, or are they supportive of freedom of enquiry? If the first, then don’t hide it. If the latter, then why not sign the Chicago statement?

In February, Donald Trump issued an executive order, which re-enforced the requirement for Universities to enable freedom of speech on college campuses.

It’s great to see that Australian Universities may be facing the same ultimatum. I doubt very much that this broader issue is less severe in Australia than in the USA. If UWA is Australia’s University of Chicago, then surely LaTrobe is our Brown. Most of the “references” in the various government publications and fact-sheets relating to all the modern grievance topics—gender wage gaps, LGBTIQ rights and freedoms and suicide rates, the safe schools programme—appear to come from a self-referencing cabal of academics at LaTrobe.

The response from universities so far has been underwhelming. Gareth Evans, Chancellor of the ANU and former Labor luminary helpfully contributed this to the discussion: “these various developments, rare and overblown though they may be, do raise the issue of, variously, free speech, academic freedom and academic autonomy about which we do need to get our heads clear and perhaps think afresh.”

For the universities to try and measure the depth and width of the “problem”, if there is one, is to get the cart before the horse. The universities first need to re-confirm what is their reason d’etre. What is their purpose and role in society?

Modern universities exist in a state of tension between two functions: teaching and researching. Their global rankings are determined by the quality of their research, which attracts students. Students are then beneficiaries of their teaching, and are their main income stream (universities will even engage in research below cost, in order to get the ranking to then attract the students).

You may think that, in their function as teachers, universities are meant to teach the next generation what is true and what is not. For instance, some will respond to the call for academic freedom and reduced bias by referring to an extreme case: Would you allow a university lecturer to teach that the earth is flat, for instance? If not, then you are acknowledging some role of scientific “consensus”—at least in creating a curriculum. This was levelled at me in an online discussion about climate change. It was claimed that providing debate was a good principle, if both sides are equally reputable and hence deserving of a platform.

I disagree. If a side is reputable, then surely it should prove that by winning the debate. Take the example of someone who believes in a flat earth. How would that really play out at a university? Suppose a set of science students were given a project to write a paper presenting the case for the earth being flat. To do so, they would have to research an obscure topic; they would have to learn how to shift mindsets into a different paradigm and actually see things from a different point of view. Those are immensely useful skills. Should the flat earth society give a guest lecture at the university? Sure, why not. I would attend; it would be fascinating.

In pre-school, we teach children absolute ideas. When we teach spelling and grammar in primary school, we teach fixed rules. When we test high-school students in math and physics we expect exact answers. But increasingly, we are not teaching facts, but methods. We are expecting students not only to ask ‘what?’, but to ask ‘how,’ ‘why,’ and ‘what if?’

At a university, students learn from researchers. Less and less are they imbibed with knowledge, more and more they are being invited to join their teachers at the forefront of knowledge. The land of discovery where there is a fuzzy line between known and unknown and many things that appear to be on one side will soon return to the other. It takes no hubris to say to a pre-schooler “this is right and that is wrong”. At university, however, such an attitude is anathema to successful research, and stultifies successful teaching.

I remember fondly my final-year subject Advanced topics in fluid mechanics. Having moved past the fundamentals in previous years, each lecture in this subject was a presentation of the latest research in a number of very specific areas, from the design of bicycle helmets, to the investigation of how bees can fly. That was the new mode of teaching: this is what we know, this is what we think, this is what we know we don’t know, what do you think?

In another exceedingly helpful response, University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence told the Sydney Morning Herald that any problem of self-censorship for fear of repercussions is not peculiar to universities, but is a broader cultural problem and that the right and the left are as bad as each other.

Sure, in a way he’s right. As our Prime Minister has said, “we need to disagree better.” Nevertheless, Peter Ridd was fired from a university after he did not engage in self-censorship and is a very good example of the real problem.

Also, according to Senator Amanda Stoker, he’s wrong about the left and right being equally guilty. Every instance of censorship she could site was the left shutting down the right’s freedom to speak. It is actually quite logical that the left would be more prone to this method. In the marketplace of ideas, censorship is equivalent to controlling the means of production; its epistemic communism, if you like.

History shows that, in the sciences at least, progress is not continuous. Rather, the greatest progress occurs in occasional leaps. Paradigm shifts. Between these leaps, progress is slow. The slow progress occurs when we add to existing ideas. The paradigm shifts occur when we remove faulty ideas that we did not realise were incorrect.

In the marketplace of ideas, censorship is the ultimate hubris. Censorship says that in the land of discovery, where everyone bends their unique minds to the forefront of knowledge, where questions are the currency and answers are the produce, some questions and some answers are not allowed.

Maybe some universities have given up the mission of discovering more about the world while developing the skills of higher thought in everyone that passes through their doors. Maybe some have embraced social constructionism and just want to construct socialists. I’d like to be able to tell which ones they are, so I can go somewhere else.

So good onya Dan Tehan, you tell em!

Nick Kastelein is a Christian and a conservative who grew up and lives in Adelaide where he works for an engineering consultancy.

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