Reclaiming the University
The tolerance practised by modern elites is tyrannical. They say: ‘You must listen to what I am going to say. Then you must either praise my virtue or shut up. Because if you try to say you disagree and why, you deserve to be, and you will be, hounded out of all decent society’ […] Modern elites do not desire tolerance. They demand unconditional surrender. They want absolute victory for an uncontestable dogma that they see as unchallengeable — or at all events is not to be exposed to the risk of challenge. The modern elites call for their creeds to be tolerated. Then they call for them to be compulsory. Then they want them to be exclusive. This authoritarian claim overlooks the roles of both courtesy and reason. – Dyson Heydon1
Universities, in Western democracies, have been under sustained scrutiny and subjected to much serious criticism in recent years for the betrayal of their age-old mission as centres of rigorous critical thought and as fierce defenders of freedom of expression. Their Humanities faculties have been the particular targets of these attacks. What has been extraordinary about this contemporary critique is that it has by no means been confined to ‘the usual suspects’ – conservative commentators – but has drawn arguably its most febrile contributions from individuals who are (as modern cant phraseology might put it) Left-identifying. The American feminist, Camille Paglia, has put the matter bluntly, this year: “Universities are an absolute wreck right now”;2 the British professor, Frank Furedi (also with impeccable left-wing credentials) has written a book-length study: What’s Happened To The University? A Sociological Explanation of its Infantilisation (2017). He lambasts the degeneration of universities into ‘safe spaces’ where no challenging or confronting idea might be hazarded lest someone take offence, and where trigger warnings have to be provided in case a student stumbles, unprepared and un-forewarned, upon an idea in a text that queries his or her preconceptions (which was once the very reason you came to study at any university worthy of the name);3 while the Australian Marxist scholar, Michael Wilding, declares that “Universities no longer function as repositories of the accumulated history and culture of our society but as money-making institutions offering contemporary career courses.”4
The reason for such outspoken reactions from the Left is not far to seek. Those of genuine commitment to that position were unstinting defenders of the essential and hard-won freedoms of the people: of thought, expression, assembly. That these have been betrayed and trashed by universities is shocking enough for those of us of conservative persuasion, but for activists, such as Furedi, who participated in or are the inheritors of the campus revolution of the later 1960s, to find that universities, of all places, have become centres of proscribed thought (which, by definition, is non-thought) and the silencing of unapproved or ‘inappropriate’ expression is, as it should be, as incomprehensible as it is shocking and ludicrous. Just taking censorship, as an example. If ever there was a cause that campus radicals of the later 60s were zealously committed to, it was the abolition of all censorship, in speech and writing. Now, with a kindred zeal and effectiveness that would elicit the envy of any totalitarian regime, universities are policing all aspects of thought and expression, sniffing out with a Salemesque, McCarthyist zeal the slightest whiff of ‘incorrect’ opinion – a few words and phrases, uttered in private and even satirically, will do (humour is one of totalitarianism’s first victims) – for public shaming and eradication of those guilty of Thoughtcrime. That term is George Orwell’s, from Nineteen Eighty-Four, his chillingly accurate, dystopic prediction of the freedom-oppressing world to which we in the West have now succumbed. The Thought Police rule on every campus, roaming about, like the scriptural Devil, seeking whom they may devour. In Australia, Monash University, for instance, has instituted trigger commissars to scrutinise all texts on campus for potential warnings.
On the Right, more predictably, the critiques of what has become of the university in our time are as abundant as those from the Left. English philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, identifies “universities’ war against truth”;5 Brendan O’Neill writes that “universities are now factories of conformism…. Students are the new masters – and the result is campus tyranny”6 (one’s only reservation, here, is that the tyranny is by no means confined to the students; the administrators are past masters in its exercise); Alison Wolf questions whether universities today do any good at all, in her aptly-titled essay, “Degrees of failure”;7 Ross Gittins claims “We’ve turned our unis into aimless, money-grubbing exploiters of students”;8 while Kevin Donnelly identifies “Barbarians at the door after the left’s long march’, arguing that ‘the cultural left now controls the academy.”9 And so on.
The situation in America is neatly summarised by Jim Goad:
American colleges no longer teach people how to think; they command people what to think, with the constant looming Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of anyone foolish enough to express a dissident thought.
American colleges are no longer institutions of higher learning. It would be more apt to refer to them as state-sanctioned seminaries for the secular religion of Cultural Marxism. Instead of strolling out of college with nimbler minds, students now stumble out into the real world with their brains scrubbed clean of the ability to hatch a single independent thought.
And as they enter a hostile job market with their useless Master’s Degrees in Postmodern Gender Modalities Among Hamsters, your average hapless college grad is saddled with a life-crippling average debt of nearly $40K to banksters who finance all this brainwashing. Student debt in America is currently close to $1.5 trillion—nearly twice as much as all credit-card debt combined.10
Nonetheless, the universities proceed, taxpayer-funded and unfazed, as no-one in the political sphere is (at least to date) prepared to take them on and call them to account. This is due to the lamentable fact that the politicians’ constituency, the public at large, are ever-reluctant to take an interest in the processes of education – even when these are being manifestly eroded. Their interest is focused on the outcomes of education, and indeed they are increasingly bemoaning the consequences of what the erosion of standards within the institutions is producing, while ignoring the causes. We are seeing this, for example, in the business and professional worlds’ ever more vocal concern about the illiteracy and innumeracy of high school and even university graduates, turning up in the workforce unable to recognise an ungrammatical sentence (or write a grammatical one) or perform simple arithmetical tasks; in the worsening problem of the low quality of people entering the teaching profession from university Humanities and Education faculties and the poor showing of their students in various testing regimes, and (what is more slowly emerging and harder to immediately identify, but most disturbing of all) a generation of university graduates brainwashed by the processes of social engineering to the point where their critical faculties have been left undeveloped and stunted. Where such graduates make their way into the media and education – as those from the Humanities faculties, especially, tend to do – the propagation of ‘correct’ race, class and gender orthodoxy, instilled in them and insisted upon at school and unquestioningly and ruthlessly enforced at university is daily becoming more apparent in the risible poverty and shameless bias of commentary in much of what passes for journalism and current affairs, and in the contents and ideological persuasion of school curricula, particularly in such subjects as English (the one compulsory subject).11
It is grim, indeed, to contemplate the implications for the maintenance and flourishing of a free, democratic society – where freedom of speech and the expression of any and every point of view, for the purpose of reasoned discussion and assessment, form the cornerstone – of the instruction of generations of students in jackbooted conformity to ‘correct’ political and socio-cultural ideology. Once, the essential purpose of a university was to nurture catholicity of thought and debate by exposing students to the best that has been known and thought in the world, free from any constriction or censorship of inquiry and develop their skills and openness to the widest possible range of ideas. This is the very source of the word, ‘university’. You went to university to enlarge your mind, not to narrow it.
So the formidable questions present themselves: why are universities so palpably failing to do what they should be doing and why have the high standards of these institutions been so fatally compromised; how could the wholesale traducing of the very idea of a university as the place of free and untrammelled inquiry have come about, turning them into centres of mindless, mandated conformity to strait-jacketed orthodoxy of opinion; why are our societies allowing this to continue when it is being so abundantly exposed by informed writers from a range of ideological standpoints, and what, if anything, can be done to reclaim the universities from the nadir to which they have descended?
The source of the range of problems besetting the contemporary university, as of so many problems in contemporary society, is to be found in the 1960s. The previously unheard-of idea was introduced, then – in that period of immense social upheaval, when radical notions were taken to their extremities and often beyond, into the la-la land of plain absurdity – that ‘everybody should go to university’. We are paying a tremendous cost today for the commitment to this fatally flawed notion, which, it was maintained, would be a Great Leap Forward for equality and a formidable challenge to whatever remained of the wretched elitism and exclusivity in the world of higher education. No one promoting this nonsense paused for a moment to query whether making higher education available to anyone who wanted it might have the disastrous effects that, indeed, it has had on standards, right across that system: that so far from raising everybody up to a stellar level of intellectual attainment, it would drag all but the most resilient and talented (that is, those who should be at a university in the first place) down to the lowest common denominator of so-called achievement. This has brought us to the scandalous point today where many degrees are worthless and where degrees in such ‘disciplines’ as ‘hospitality’ (offered at Bachelor’s and Master’s level in several Australian universities) should not be there in the first place. It was only a matter of time before this would begin to dawn on young people who, now, are wisely thinking twice, as they have not done for two generations, when it was taken for granted that ‘everybody should go to university’, about whether ‘uni’ is worth bothering with at all. The radicals who wanted everybody to have a degree failed to foresee that if such a utopia came into being, the possessing of a degree – regarded once as a glittering prize – would be increasingly devalued and the very constituency they were seeking to advance, those who would not previously have been remotely considered as university ‘material’, were putting themselves through a process that, so far from affirming them and building their self-esteem, has left them more bereft and bitter than before, in possession of a pointless piece of paper. That those students today who can be bothered turning up to collect their testamurs on graduation days routinely throw a hired gown and hood over t-shirt, jeans and runners is a snapshot of the regard they have for the award they have received and the institution that has granted it. “When everybody is somebody”, as Gilbert and Sullivan wisely observed, “then nobody is anybody.”
Education is for the educable, and higher education for the highly educable. This truth was briskly disposed of as the preposterous doctrine of the silly ‘sixties that everyone is potentially of university quality started to take hold, and it now has an iron grip. Whereas only 2% of young adults went to university immediately prior to the outbreak of World War II, now some 50% of the same age group do so, and this percentage is ever on the rise. Extraordinarily, the exponential growth in university numbers is regularly a cause for strident, utterly uncritical celebration, from such as Ministers of Education who, in trumpeting the fact that more people than ever are going to university, conveniently overlook any consideration of the quality of education and learning that that bloated cohort is receiving, or how the experience of the highly educable, who should be engaged in higher education, is being compromised by the need to accommodate, in classes and assessments, people with tertiary entrance scores so low that it must be seriously questioned whether they can even read or write.12 It is as plain as day that if universities are to accommodate and graduate students (now seen as customers, who must be satisfied) who should not be at a university at all, standards have to be concomitantly lowered so that a sufficient proportion of the enrolled students do indeed leave with a degree, and the government funding which depends upon the churning out of graduates will continue to flow. This funding is vital to sustain vice-chancellors’ ‘packages’ and the multiplying legions of deputy vice-chancellors and others of that mushrooming caste – the university administrator – that has come to dominate university life, marginalising the professoriate and academics, and which evoke the business-world model to which universities have haplessly succumbed.
One of the great ironies of the outcomes of the ideology that has turned higher education into the “absolute wreck” that Paglia describes is the downgrading of TAFE and the vocational education sector at large. The anti-elitists have presided over a situation that has rendered disreputable the excellent education and training that this disregarded sector should be well-placed and funded to provide. The Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, has repeatedly insisted this year that the idea must be rejected that the only path for high school graduates is to go onto a university.13 But the ideologues, in their generations-long zeal to destroy the allegedly elite character of a university education, have sent multitudes of students on to university because they regarded even the thought that a young man or woman might have a vocation to (for example) one of the trades and find satisfaction and a lifetime’s lucrative employment therein after study at TAFE, as a demeaning alternative to three years of Gender Studies. Blinkered ideology routinely trumps intelligence and common sense. Tellingly and typically, the anti-elitists have turned out to be the most gross elitists of all. And, in the process, as we have argued, they have degraded what is on offer at universities. So the students they affect to be so concerned about are, as the result of their policy, the losers not once, but twice over.
And as if all this were not enough, the process of making university education available to everybody, no matter how palpably unsuited they might be for it, has generated the phenomenon of credentialisation – an ugly name for an ugly thing. Because the mere bachelor’s degree is such a debased currency (everybody has one, because everybody is going to university), you now need to possess two or three of them, or better still, a Master’s or two, to stand out from the crowd. And why stop there? Let everybody have a doctorate of some sort, so that everybody might feel that they have benefited from anti-elitism and inclusiveness. One routinely sees, after people’s names, lists of multiple degrees and diplomas from which you could extract the entire alphabet.14 So, yet again, the very opposite outcome has been achieved from the original ideological inspiration: now there is furious competition to be more credentialled than the next person, elitism beyond the ken of the supposedly loathsome elitist dispensation of old.
The enormous folly of the destruction of the universities was initiated so that nobody would feel excluded or inferior, not possessing a degree. Now everybody – having been included – has an inferior degree. A great ‘outcome’! No-one should be hoodwinked, observing the building works proceeding apace on all campuses today, that this – like the exponentially burgeoning students numbers – is a sign of progress and the ongoing elevation of university life and its standards: these glittering edifices are constructed on sand, and those who remember the biblical parable of the house so built by a foolish man, will remember its denouement: ‘great was the fall of it’.15
How is this catastrophe to be addressed? How can the idea of the university and of a university education as having value in and of itself be reclaimed, and that lost value restored? The foregoing is a mere sketch of the problem, omitting discussion of numerous pressing issues – such as the scandal of the international student market, where overseas students, with only elementary written and spoken English, are admitted to degree courses (even, ludicrously, in postgraduate English Literature) and must be passed so that the lucrative cash-flow into university coffers can be sustained; or the matter of the increasing casualisation of teaching and its plummeting quality as the poor relation of research, with the serious impact that that is inevitably having on the standard of university education.
A root and branch reform of the entire university sector is needed. We would look in vain to State and Federal Ministers of Education, of either persuasion, for such a policy, locked in, as they are, to the failed paradigm that has been in place for half a century. The colossal error of the Dawkins era, turning Colleges of Advanced Education into so-called universities (so everybody could have a degree and not feel ‘excluded’) must be reversed and the emphasis recovered on the quality, not quantity of students at university, and a concomitant attention to proper funding for and appreciation of the non-university tertiary vocational-educational sector. With regard to entry to universities, the truly crazy situation of students being admitted to such supposedly high-level study with ludicrously debased tertiary entrance scores needs to be completely over-turned and a thorough audit of the intellectual quality and rigour of content of the vast smorgasbord of university courses currently on offer.
Most importantly, the idea of a university, true to its name, must be recovered – as expressed by that most distinguished of university men, George Steiner:
A true university serves neither political purposes nor social programmes, necessarily partisan and transitory. Above all, it rebukes censorship and correctness of any kind. What we have done through political correctness: the lies we are teaching or having to accept, the questions we are not allowed to ask – not even to ask, no question of answering. A university should honour anarchic provocation.16
– Barry Spurr was educated at Canberra Grammar School and the Universities of Sydney and Oxford. He was a member of the Department of English at the University of Sydney for forty years and was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry and Poetics. Professor Spurr’s numerous books and other publications cover the fields of literature, and theological and liturgical aspects of it, from the Renaissance to contemporary poetry. His best known monographs are Studying Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) which is now in its second edition, See the Virgin Blest: Representations of the Virgin Mary in English Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and, most recently, ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’: T.S. Eliot and Christianity (Lutterworth, 2010). Prof. Spurr’s last contribution to the Sydney Traditionalist Forum was to its 2016 Symposium (“Transcendence: Community, Nation, Civilisation; Religious Aspects of the Present Turmoil”) titled “‘Falling Towers’: T. S. Eliot, the Decline of the West and the Doctrine of the Incarnation.”
- Dyson Heydon, “Liberalism built on Christian principles is lost on Modern Elites” The Australian (online) (4 November 2017 @ 12:00) <theaustralian.com.au> (accessed 7 November 2017).
- Discussion between Camille Pagia and Dean Gillespie, “Reason Weekend” (28 April to 1 May 2016) published by ReasonTV (19 May 2016) <youtube.com> (accessed 8 August 2017).
- Frank Furedi, What’s Happened To The University? A Sociological Explanation of its Infantilisation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).
- Michael Wilding, “University Libraries Should Preserve Printed Books” The Australian (online) (23 August 2017) <theaustralian.com.au> (accessed 24/8/17).
- Roger Scruton, “Universities’ war against truth” The Spectator (online) (11 June 2016) <life.spectator.co.uk> (accessed 2 September 2017).
- Brendan O’Neill, “Students are the new masters – and the result is campus tyranny” The Spectator (online) (26 August 2017) <spectator.co.uk> (accessed 28 August 2017).
- Alison Wolf, “Degrees of failure” Prospect (online) (14 July 2017) <prospectmagazine.co.uk> (accessed 4 September 201717).
- Ross Gittins, “We’ve turned our unis into aimless, money-grubbing exploiters of students” Sydney Morning Herald (online) (17 September 2017) <smh.com.au> (accessed 17 September 2017).
- Kevin Donnelly, “Barbarians at the Door After the Left’s Long March” The Australian (18 October 2017) p. 3.
- Jim Goad, “Let the Colleges Die” Taki’s Magazine (blog) (20 November 2017) <takimag.com> (accessed 1 December 2017).
- For further details on the impact on this discipline, see my essay, “Reclaiming “English” in Catherine Runcie and David Brooks (eds), Reclaiming Education (Sydney: Edwin Lowe, 2018) – in press.
- It is reported that students with ATARS below 50 are being enrolled in some Australian universities – even in courses which will lead them into teaching: Eryk Bagshaw and Inga Ting, “NSW universities taking students with ATARs as low as 30” Sydney Morning Herald (online) (27 January 2016) <smh.com.au> (accessed 6 December 2017).
- Michael Atkin, “Crippling skills shortage coming due to vocational education cuts, Business Council says” ABC News (online) (30 November 2017) <abc.net.au> (accessed 3 December 2017).
- I saw this after someone’s name recently: DipTeach, GradDipRelEd, GradDipRelEdStud BEd, BTheol, CPE, PostGradDipArts MA, PhD.
- Matthew 7:24-7.
- George Steiner, “How to Reform the Universities?” Universitas Lecture at The Nexus Institute, Part III (22 February 2013) <youtube.com> (accessed 1 December 2017).
This article is to be cited according to the following convention:
Barry Spurr, “Reclaiming the University” SydneyTrads – Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum (24 December 2017) <sydneytrads.com/2017/12/24/symposium-ii-barry-spurr> (accessed [date]).
There was already talk of obligatory university education by 1952, in the US, at least. Excellent analysis, really an enjoyable read.