• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Tragic that love of country is now off the syllabus

The politics of fear

Why students feel so vulnerable

Why we shouldn’t fear being alone

The politicisation of identity

Why I’m sceptical about stories exposing Russian antics

Who’s guiding our children?

How ‘gender neutrality’ could screw up the next generation

The EU’s shameful crusade against Hungary

The toxic legacy of parent shaming – and the damage it does to children

Why Sweden’s populist moment matters

The Only Thing We Have to Fear

The great jerk rice debate (what a waste of time!)

Identity politics has conquered the Westminster bubble

Why Labour has a problem with Jews

The campus culture of fear and its costs

The paradox of our safety addiction

How Project Fear wants us all to panic over Brexit

The flight of the elites from the nation state

Now they even want to racialise the World Cup

The mainstreaming of porn

Hungary: The bad boy of the EU

Universities’ risk aversion is hampering intellectual progress

A war that begins in the nursery

Curse of helicopter parenting

Grenfell Tower fire a year on

‘The fear of populism is really a fear of the masses’

Gyáva lett a nyugati ember – Frank Furedi a Mandinernek

Who will speak for the European working class?

1968: The birth of the new conformism

El miedo a vivir con nosotros mismos o la sociedad medicalizada

The truth about Karl Marx

The cultural appropriation police are turning fried chicken, dreadlocks and prom dresses into a race

“La decadencia de Occidente” de Spengler: un siglo de pesimismo cultural

Loneliness can’t be ‘cured’. We must learn to find value in solitude

La apoteosis de la victimización

Orban’s victory: Another blow to the EU oligarchy

The myth of Cambridge Analytica’s power

A culture of bullying? Grow up

Italy has dealt a blow to the EU

Why the people must be sovereign

Stop this moral crusade against circumcision

Don’t blame the young for thinking JFK’s assassination sparked WWI - they’ve been tragically failed

Why they love baiting the Russian bear

My encounter with George Soros’s bright-eyed missionaries left me deeply disturbed

Turning the Army into a Safe Space

Switch off your kids’ phones and let them play outside

No patrimony

The fantasy of the ‘youthquake’

A liberal defence of populism

Turning childhood into a mental illness

The hidden history of identity politics

The meaninglessness of Charles Manson

The rise of duty-free politics

You can’t fine your way to free speech

The long plight of the right on campus

Why cheating has become the norm

Why I wrote a radical democratic defence of populism

Whiteness: a nonsense category

A radical life

Taking out a patent on culture

Exam stress is not a mental illness

Don’t play with fire

A culture war masquerading as a youthquake

Generational revenge: the politics of ageism

Populism on the ropes? Don’t be so sure

A revolt against deference

Masood’s motives? We may never know

Does Erdogan have a right to hold rallies in Europe?

Nincs szükség egy európai transznacionális birodalomra

The Therapeutic University

Universities blame others for plagiarism. They need to look at themselves

‘Just like Hitler’: The diminishing of the Holocaust

If you need a ‘detention director’ in your school you might be getting discipline wrong

There IS an alternative

RIP Zygmunt Bauman

Campuses are breaking apart into ‘safe spaces’

Why Millennials are so fragile

2016: A war of words against the people

Interview: ‘Despite fear, we should focus on the positives’

Standing up to the new school of anti-Semitism

Italian revolt

Populism: a defence

Fidel Castro: A tragic cold war figure

Free speech is at grave risk on university campuses

My Leonard Cohen

How Trump triumphed in the battle for legitimacy

Cast out for criticising PC: the 21st-century inquisition

The rise of safe space segregation

Bookish fools

Universities need to stop treating their students like children

Neem het maar aan van een Dylanfan: de Nobelprijs verdient hij niet

The Orwellian University

I love Dylan, but he shouldn’t get the Nobel Prize

Clownpocalypse: urban legends in the internet age

Workload is a problem in schools because of the ‘McDonaldisation’ of education

Too many academics are now censoring themselves

Walking out of consent classes… What’s wrong with ‘snowflake’ students these days?

Being mentally ill: the new normal?

Don’t turn university into a clinic

There was a time when universities provided a hospitable environment for intellectual experimentation, the questioning of prevailing conventions and the pursuit of robust debate. Even at times when society was dominated by a climate of conformism, the university offered academics and their students opportunities to question prevailing conventions.

Of course, universities were always subject to external pressures and sometimes gave in to demands to regulate the behaviour of their members and silence those with dissident views. But up to the late twentieth century, they tended to provide far greater scope for the free exchange of views than was available in other sectors of society.

That was then. Today, in contrast, the university demands the kind of conformism more historically associated with authoritarian institutions.

Something very strange is going on in universities. In late August 2016, the University of Chicago sent a message to its new intake of undergraduates informing them it does not accept the practice of trigger warnings and safe spaces. It indicated that ‘our commitment to academic freedom’ means ‘we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial’. That Chicago had to justify the importance of academic freedom to its new students suggested that a fundamental feature of university life - intellectual openness and rigour - can no longer be taken for granted.

The letter sent out by the Dean of Students, John Ellison, explained to the incoming students that the University of Chicago rejected calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces. It said:

‘Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.’

When the letter was made public, many academics and commentators said they were pleased that, finally, an important institution like the University of Chicago had taken a stand against attempts to subordinate academic freedom to the imperative of therapeutic censorship. Ellison was praised by many of his colleagues for having the confidence to confront the pressure to institute a therapeutic quarantine zone against free speech on campuses.

However, as a sociologist, what struck me was just how much this letter ran against the zeitgeist that dominates campus life. There are powerful cultural forces at work that encourage the idea that the policing of academic freedom is not what it really is, that it isn’t really the coercive regulation of everyday communication and the repression and stigmatisation of certain ideas. No, the regulation of academic life is now presented, not as a form of authoritarian intrusion, but as a sensible and sensitive measure designed to protect vulnerable students from pain.

Sadly, it soon became evident that not even the University of Chicago was immune from the paternalistic ethos that drives safe-space advocacy today. More than 150 members of the University of Chicago wrote an open letter to freshmen condemning Ellison’s circular and arguing that trigger warnings and safe spaces meet the legitimate needs of students. Their response indicated that active support for the regulation of controversy, criticism and debate on campuses is gaining in momentum. That is why some university leaders went so far as to publicise their disagreement with Ellison. The president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, condemned Ellison’s letter as a publicity stunt, written for ‘those concerned with the bogeyman of political correctness, and those who worry that free speech isn’t the absolute value it used to be’.

Roth was effectively speaking for the cultural establishment that dominates higher education, much of which shares his view. His words expressed the widely held idea that academic freedom is not really a big deal. Those who mock the idea that free speech is an ‘absolute value’ are really saying this freedom should not be taken too seriously. In Roth’s and many other academics’ outlook, academic freedom is at best a second-order value that is subordinate to ensuring that students are made to feel comfortable and are not offended by words and ideas they might find distressing.

Others go further than Roth and claim that academic freedom and free speech have become weapons wielded by those who possess power against the weak and vulnerable. The following statement by the sociologist Jennie Hornosty illustrates this approach:

’[W]hat does it really mean when universities have been dominated by white male elites who define knowledge, curriculum, ways of being, and the organizational culture in their image? What does it mean to talk of academic freedom in a class society with multiple layers of inequality?’

For Hornosty, when balanced against the issues of inequality and oppression, the value of academic freedom pales into insignificance. Instead of drawing the conclusion that in an unjust world the promotion of academic freedom is particularly necessary for creating the conditions for change and progress, many argue that social reality, the existence of ‘multiple layers of inequality’, means that academic freedom is not a useful thing, and might even have a pernicious influence through extending certain people’s power.

We need far more than an occasional letter that reminds students of the value of academic freedom. The prevailing paternalistic culture of higher education needs to be challenged thoroughly and consistently. Universities have to re-educate themselves, and re-appropriate academic freedom as the foundation of their work. There is no better place to start than through altering the relationship of the university with its students. We need to take students seriously and expect them to be able to act as adults who posses the capacity for moral autonomy and independent learning, and who can cope with difficult and even ‘dangerous’ ideas.

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