12 May 2024

Weekly Briefing: The slow death of academia

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Like many smug middle teenagers, I used to harbour dreams of spending three years at either Oxford or Cambridge for my undergraduate degree. Having visited both a couple of times for school trips and listened to interminable anecdotes about punting and fiery union debates, either seemed like the ideal environment to nurture my ballooning adolescent ego. So when it became clear that this wasn’t to be, I was, needless to say, disappointed.

But as the years have rolled by, the academic resentments of my early-20s have been slowly usurped by the sheer terror of adulthood. So the admissions tutors of Oxbridge need not fear, it’s all water under the bridge (bites lip).

That being said, I can’t help but feel slightly vindicated in my educational underperformance when the bright young things of Oxford and Cambridge show themselves to be anything but.

So this week, I observed the pro-Palestine protests at Cambridge with a level of schadenfreude. Like a shoal of keffiyeh-clad carp, more than 100 students set up camp on the grounds of the university’s King’s College on Monday, calling on their alma mater to: ‘disclose all of its research collaborations and financial ties with companies and institutions complicit in Israel’s genocide and then to divest from these’.

But dismantling the Zionist superstructure can be mundane work, so the students have been keeping themselves entertained with a regimented timetable of ‘kite making’, ‘wellness circles’ and ‘tatreez workshops’ (which I’m led to believe is a kind of embroidery). All of this is of course secondary to the main attraction – a lot of sitting.

In addition to the encampment, a number of student activists descended on the Cambridge Student Union to disrupt a talk being given by Peter Thiel. Thiel, whose company Palantir has defence contracts with Israel, was lambasted as a ‘genocide profiteer’ and a ‘far right campaigner’.

There’s much to unpack here. The most immediately striking aspect of the protests is that they are clearly ineffective by design. With all the good will and huffing and puffing in the world, if Lord Cameron can barely influence Israel’s operation in Gaza, then it’s hard to imagine the provost of King’s College having much sway. But these students aren’t entirely stupid – they know this. That’s the entire point. If a demonstration has inbuilt futility, it justifies a state of perma-protest and thus perpetual victimhood.

But what’s most depressing is that this episode marks a turning point in the long process of importing the culture wars playing out on American university campuses to British soil.

In City Journal this week, a disgruntled student at the University of Southern California aired his grievances at his peers conducting a pro-Palestine protest of their own. What he noticed is what many of us have realised but perhaps haven’t articulated. That when pressed on why they are demonstrating, many activists are unable to cogently explain their presence beyond a few incoherent sentences peppered with mentions of ‘genocide’ and ‘apartheid’.

That students find it difficult to martial their arguments shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. This is the predictable result of a number of universities pursuing ‘decolonisation’ at all costs.

Take Cambridge, for example. Only last year it was reported that the university’s library was asking lecturers to flag ‘problematic’ books that students may deem to be offensive or harmful. Quite rightly, a number of dons were disgusted upon discovering this and decried the initiative as ‘Orwellian’.

More recently, Cambridge crossed the Rubicon into total absurdity when it offered a funded PHD studentship to prove the link between its Museum of Zoology and Britain’s ‘violent’ colonial past. Not only is the research taxpayer-backed, but the prescriptive nature of the research excludes any possibility of approaching the topic with an open mind.

Measures like these run contrary to the core mission of higher education – that students are intellectually equipped to go into adulthood and contend with a number of opinions, many of which they may find offensive.

By purposely cultivating an environment which deprives students of the best that the Enlightenment has to offer – civility, open debate and critical thought – our universities are rearing a generation of fanatical, myopic bullies. Sensitive topics like the war in Gaza are exactly the sort of things that should be debated in universities, but this cannot happen sensibly in arenas where ideological students are given the whip hand over their professors.

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Joseph Dinnage is Deputy Editor of CapX.