In 1642, as the English civil war broke out, government control of printing presses collapsed. In this new censorship-free environment, all sorts of ideas, previously suppressed were published. Many senior figures became worried, and it was that worry which lay behind the pamphletAreopagitica, by John Milton – later the author of Paradise Lost. Almost four centuries later, Areopagiticaremains a great statement of freedom. “Opinion” wrote Milton – and by “opinion” he meant disagreement – “opinion in good men [and by ‘men’ he meant people] is but knowledge in the making”. Much of Areopagiticaisn’t the easiest of reads. Milton’s love for classical language makes many of his sentences difficult to follow to a twenty-first century reader. But that phrase leaps out.
Milton’s phrase comes to mind in the face of Gavin Williamson’s proposals on free speech in universities. For Williamson, the enemy is ‘cancel culture’; universities are ‘woke’ environments in which dissenting speech outside a perceived consensus is at best unpopular and at worst squeezed out. The evidence for this is pitifully thin. There are a small number of high profile cases in which invitations to outside speakers have been withdrawn (usually) by student societies. But these are so few in number as to be endlessly recycled as examples and in each case the facts, once examined, turn out to be at odds with the media representation.
Government articulates its perception that universities have tended to become ‘mono-cultures’ in which dominant ideas make life more difficult for the relatively small numbers of university staff, though perhaps more students, who hold particular views – in favour, say, of Brexit, or of more culturally conservative ideas. The solid evidence that universities are difficult or unwelcoming places for minority views is scanty at best, but this is a more difficult area to explore. It’s important to acknowledge the concerns of minorities, perhaps especially of minority views which are uncongenial or even unpalatable to the majority, and this needs careful scrutiny. I suspect we are all readier to defend the views of people we agree with than those we disagree with. Universities, and their Student Unions, which are legally separate entities, should and must be places of vigorous debate within the law, but no-one has any right in any setting to be deliberately offensive to others. Milton’s full sentence is even more apposite than the partial quotation above: “where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making”.
Given the paucity of evidence to support what looks like a heavy-handed and risky intervention, it’s difficult to assess what is going on here. As the ‘slow news’ outlet, Tortoise pointed out, “our political class is made up of people who went to more external speaker meetings at university with politicians than proper lectures”. The government has outlined several proposals: speakers who believe that they have been “disinvited” from speaking on campus or staff who feel their views have been obstructed, will be able to sue universities; a “free speech tsar” will oversee universities’ compliance with free speech; universities will have a positive duty to promote free speech. As it is, free speech on campuses is already protected under the law. The 1986 Education Actrequires universities to “take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”. It’s difficult to see what practical consequence the latest intervention will have.
But this is not about practical interventions. It is about political signalling. And that feels uncomfortable from a government of any persuasion. The free exchange of views, the protection of dissent, the subjection of received wisdom to open scrutiny, the protection of minority points of view – these are vital elements in open societies and institutions of advanced learning, and they are too valuable to be the subject of political shenanigans. Of course there are tensions in any society between the protection of dissent and the protection of minority points of view: we all have obligations as well as rights. That requires tact and empathy, hard listening as much as offering opinions. There is legitimate room for discussion about some of the potential tensions here, and how quite different views can be accommodated. Universities, perhaps like all institutions, are having to accommodate to a world in which social media amplify disagreement and too often identify angry discord.
There are always ferocious arguments about what educational institutions – both schools and universities – ‘must’ (or ‘must not’) teach, how they ‘should’ (or ‘should not’) teach it and how different, discordant views might be reconciled. There are especially angry disputations about history, as the parallel arguments about cultural institutions and representations of the past make plain. For me, there’s one irreducible line in English history which I’d like every politician to take note of. It was – seventeenth century again – Oliver Cromwell’s letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650. “I beseech you”, said Cromwell, “in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.” Many of Cromwell’s actions were thoroughly discreditable. But in that line, he was as correct as Milton was.