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The Closing of the Academic Mind

| March 16, 2016

Bobst Library at New York University.

Bobst Library at New York University. (Rupert Ganzer)

By Chris Patten

I would wager that I have been Chancellor of more universities than anyone alive today. This is partly because when I was Governor of Hong Kong, I was made Chancellor of every university in the city. I protested that it would surely be better for the universities to choose their own constitutional heads. But the universities would not allow me to resign gracefully. So for five years I enjoyed the experience of giving tens of thousands of students their degrees and watching what this rite of passage meant for them and their families.


When I came back to Britain in 1997, I was asked to become Chancellor of Newcastle University. Then, in 2003, I was elected Chancellor by the graduates of Oxford University, one of the world’s greatest institutions of learning. So it should not be surprising that I have strong views about what it means to be a university and to teach, do research, or study at one.

Universities should be bastions of freedom in any society. They should be free from government interference in their primary purposes of research and teaching; and they should control their own academic governance. I do not believe it is possible for a university to become or remain a world-class institution if these conditions do not exist.

The role of a university is to promote the clash of ideas, to test the results of research with other scholars, and to impart new knowledge to students. Freedom of speech is thus fundamental to what universities are, enabling them to sustain a sense of common humanity and uphold the mutual tolerance and understanding that underpin any free society. That, of course, makes universities dangerous to authoritarian governments, which seek to stifle the ability to raise and attempt to answer difficult questions.

But if any denial of academic liberty is a blow struck against the meaning of a university, the irony today is that some of the most worrying attacks on these values have been coming from inside universities.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, some students and teachers now seek to constrain argument and debate. They contend that people should not be exposed to ideas with which they strongly disagree. Moreover, they argue that history should be rewritten to expunge the names (though not the endowments) of those who fail to pass today’s tests of political correctness. Thomas Jefferson and Cecil Rhodes, among others, have been targeted. And how would Churchill and Washington fare if the same tests were applied to them?

Some people are being denied the chance to speak as well – so-called “no platforming”, in the awful jargon of some clearly not very literate campuses. There are calls for “safe spaces” where students can be protected from anything that assaults their sense of what is moral and appropriate. This reflects and inevitably nurtures a harmful politics of victimization – defining one’s own identity (and thus one’s interests) in opposition to others.

When I was a student 50 years ago, my principal teacher was a leading Marxist historian and former member of the Communist Party. The British security services were deeply suspicious of him. He was a great historian and teacher, but these days I might be encouraged to think that he had threatened my “safe space.” In fact, he made me a great deal better informed, more open to discussion of ideas that challenged my own, more capable of distinguishing between an argument and a quarrel, and more prepared to think for myself.

Of course, some ideas – incitement of racial hatred, gender hostility, or political violence – are anathema in every free society. Liberty requires some limits (decided freely by democratic argument under the rule of law) in order to exist.

Universities should be trusted to exercise that degree of control themselves. But intolerance of debate, of discussion, and of particular branches of scholarship should never be tolerated. As the great political philosopher Karl Popper taught us, the only thing we should be intolerant of is intolerance itself. That is especially true at universities.

Yet some American and British academics and students are themselves undermining freedom; paradoxically, they have the liberty to do so. Meanwhile, universities in China and Hong Kong are faced with threats to their autonomy and freedom, not from within, but from an authoritarian government.

In Hong Kong, the autonomy of universities and free speech itself, guaranteed in the city’s Basic Law and the 50-year treaty between Britain and China on the city’s status, are under threat. The rationale seems to be that, because students strongly supported the pro-democracy protests in 2014, the universities where they study should be brought to heel. So the city’s government blunders away, stirring up trouble, clearly on the orders of the government in Beijing.

Indeed, the Chinese authorities only recently showed what they think of treaty obligations and of the “golden age” of Sino-British relations (much advertised by British ministers), by abducting a British citizen (and four other Hong Kong residents) on the city’s streets. The five were publishing books that exposed some of the dirty secrets of China’s leaders.

On the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party has launched the biggest crackdown on universities since the aftermath of the killings in Tiananmen Square in 1989. There is to be no discussion of so-called Western values in China’s universities. Only Marxism can be taught. Did no one tell President Xi Jinping and his Politburo colleagues where Karl Marx came from? The trouble these days is precisely that they know little about Marx but a lot about Lenin.

Westerners should take a closer interest in what is happening in China’s universities and what that tells us about the real values underpinning scholarship, teaching, and the academy. Compare and contrast, as students are asked to do.

Do you want universities where the government decides what it is allegedly safe for you to learn and discuss? Or do you want universities that regard the idea of a “safe space” – in terms of closing down debate in case it offends someone – as an oxymoron in an academic setting? Western students should think occasionally about their counterparts in Hong Kong and China who must fight for freedoms that they take for granted – and too often abuse.

chris patten pope francisChris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, is a former conservative member of Parliament, a former EU commissioner for external affairs, and a former chairman of the BBC Trust. He is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. He oversaw Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom in 2010. (© Project Syndicate)

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13 Responses for “The Closing of the Academic Mind”

  1. TBG says:

    So where is OUR safe spaces on Flagler Live? For those of us who do not want to hear insulting or threatening or simply disagreeable views that are many times expressed here.

    Where are the our safe spaces?

    Quote: “There is nothing more ill-liberal than a liberal”. ….William Buckley

  2. Lin says:

    It is difficult to express a non-liberal viewpoint without hearing all kinds of insults and self-righteousness but we must just press on.

    That this suppression of free speech is happening on college campuses is extremely worrying and unexpected. The brainwashing that this administration is engaged in with the not saying Islamic terrorists as an example is part of that “control the language control the world”, quote attributed to Stalin and other tyrants.
    When the conservative speakers were not allowed to speak in campuses and/or the pie throwing started during the last election cycle I thought it couldn’t get worse. But the mostly liberal administrations are just doing more damage by not allowing ideas to flourish.

    The world is not a safer place with safe zones neither is the USA

    Press on free speech.

  3. Buylocal says:

    Politicians must love the way we are duped into being either liberal or conservative.
    Like herding sheep.
    How in the world can all issues be decided on your classification?

  4. Sherry says:

    And, Lin. . . I would point out that peaceful “freedom of speech” works both ways! For example, when the Republican leading Presidential candidate, Trump, threatens and reviles any one who protests at his rallies, and also black balls and allows the “man handling” of journalists who may ask “tough” questions regarding his bigotry, is he not trampling over the freedoms you say those “Liberals” are quashing?

    Why is it that you feel Republican’s freedom of speech is more sacred than a Democrat’s?

    As for me, I will continue to speak out against bigotry, labeling and hatred of human beings. . . regardless of the political party of the person who spews that poison. Like I’ve said before. . . if the shoe fits. . . if not, then there should be nothing to be upset about at all.

  5. Sherry says:

    TBG, in my opinion Flaglerlive is a wonderful place where political discourse thrives. It is not appropriate or desirable for there to be a “safe” place on this site. . . that’s the whole idea. . . that’s what this article is saying we should actually avoid. I should point out though, that the article makes exceptions for things like racial hatred, gender hostility or political violence. . . and unfortunately there is plenty of that kind of “talk” in the comments here as well.

    I am thinking that if you need a “safe” zone, where everyone thinks exactly the same. . . perhaps you should try FOX. . . not Flaglerlive.

  6. Lin says:

    You made my point Sherry

    We can have an exchange of ideas without the name calling
    I’m talking about being open to ideas no matter who they come from
    And not attaching motives

    There should be no safe space from free speech
    Colleges should be places to air it out without recrimination and hurt feelings

    I won’t get into Trump baiting
    I’m not defending anything here but a freedom

  7. YankeeExPat says:

    Let’s face it; you can’t talk him out of anything!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnF1OtP2Svk

  8. Outsider says:

    I think the author is spot on here, and serves as a reminder to a few on this site who constantly remind us knuckle-dragging Neanderthals of their superior intelligence and education, presumably obtained from the very institutions of higher learning that are guilty of suppressing free speech. Recently, when a member of the clergy was invited to speak on homosexuality at a university, virtually the entire audience walked out, with a professor leading the way. I thought the reason you go to school is to hear as many sides of an argument as possible and then make a decision using your own thinking. But no, this supposed learning institution instead denied it’s students the opportunity to hear an opposing viewpoint which may or not have changed their minds, but certainly would have possibly given them insight and understanding as to how others reach their conclusions. To make matters worse, we are constantly derided for our differing opinions, and assigned labels that are not correct. If we oppose illegal immigration the left tells us we hate hispanic people; if we oppose homosexuality, we are “homophobes,” even though I have no fear of homosexuals, much less an irrational fear of them; if we oppose President Obama because of his policies, it’s because we hate black people. Donald Trump’s rally was overrun with leftist protesters, who triumphantly claimed they shut him down. So, in example after example it’s the left that in fact shuts down free speech, by liberally applying labels such as “hate speech,” which I might add is protected under the first amendment, hence the police protection provided at KKK rallies, xenophobic, hater, racist, etc. as justification for silencing speech they disagree with.

  9. The puckered mouth of Donald Trump says:

    You realize that your freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from having people walk out on your rhetoric, or freedom from being derided for your opinion, right?

  10. Sherry says:

    And ‘outsider” you do understand that using words like “leftist” in a blaming and derogatory manner is just so much defensive finger pointing from the explosive pot calling the kettle black, right?

  11. Outsider says:

    Yes puckered mouth, I do. However, the article is about closing the academic mind, if I read the title correctly, and refusing to listen to other viewpoints is one way of doing that. Having a supposed institution of higher learning promoting ignorance by encouraging individuals to shut out other views, and free speech at the same time doesn’t do much for the “learning” process now, does it?

  12. Outsider says:

    Sherry, I did blame the “leftists” for causing the disruption because it was organized by MoveOn.org, funded by George Soros, and attended by open border activists, all of which would be considered left of center organizations, and members would be leftists; there’s nothing derogatory, it’s just stating the facts. I have no problem being called a “rightist,” “conservative,” or a “right wingnut;” I will wear all those badges with honor.

  13. Sherry says:

    And, I do not need to be shot in the head to know that I will walk out rather than under go such a thing. Not everything should be endured in the pseudo name of “education”. Some concepts are so repugnant that a “healthy” responsible and diverse society should and will continue to reject them. . . and the people that try to impose them.

    Personally, this is my opinion of Donald Trump. I consider him and those that support his hate and bigotry as very dangerous to our nation and I will continue to speak out against him and them at every opportunity. Please note, my opinions of him come from my own “education” on his corrupt and contemptible history as a dishonest, businessman and by listening to his endless rants against humanity.
    Donald Trump continuously inflames violence and divisiveness among our citizens! He and his campaign team are personally responsible for setting such a hate filled tone at his rallies. He revels in the protests because as a narcissistic megalomaniac he thrives to the attention it brings.

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