Joanna Williams of ‘spiked’ on ‘Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity’

I'm Joanna Williams I'm the education editor of spiked online my forthcoming book is academic freedom in an age of conformity confronting the fear of knowledge that's published with Palgrave Macmillan and it's coming out in January 2016 I've been interested in the issue of free speech for a long time I started working in the university as an academic about seven or eight years ago now and it's just talking to people talking to lecturers you've become increasingly aware not just of the restrictions that are placed on free speech by students but also the restrictions that academics experience not just from official government legislation or come from heavy-handed managers for example because those examples of attacks on academic freedom unfortunately quite easy to spot and I guess what I've been interested in for about the past couple of years now is the idea that there is a broader culture of conformity and our kind of pervading censorship that doesn't just come from legislation or diktat but actually comes from colleagues and a growing climate of things that you just can't say in academia so speaking to someone on Friday who works at a university in this country which I won't name in the wake for Charlie Hebdo massacres which he was obviously quite moved by he stuck a poster on his office door and it was one of his posters I'm sure you're very familiar with people who have been wearing the little pin badges it was literally black and said in white lettering just sweet Charlie they've been all around the world politicians prime ministers presidents have been wearing these badges he had it as a poster on his door a senior colleague came and knocked on his office door and told him to take it down the colleague said to him you can carry on displaying the poster but you must display it inside your office you can't put it on your office door because we have a high proportion of our students may be offended by this poster and we don't want to upset the students so you must put that poster on your door he was surprised by this he did comply with it and he actually said it was only one he was really talking to me that it struck him that that was an example of his academic freedom being called into question he said he hadn't had any interest in the issue of academic freedom whatsoever I thought it was just one of those issues which would never have an impact upon his life because he doesn't do anything controversial no message had gone round to all the staff at the University say and you are banned from displaying this poster so there was no anger it was done very nicely over a cup of tea if you wouldn't mind we just don't want to upset the students if it's not too much trouble please could you take it down and move it inside and like I said he did so people conform people do these things but actually that's how I think restrictions on academic freedom really play out today a threat to academic freedom that I think the whole world should know about is something that I suspect the whole world might actually know about but not recognize it as a threat to academic freedom Tim hunts is a Nobel Prize winning scientist professor certain hope to give him his full title he has been working in the field of microbiology and cell research for many many years has a lengthy and illustrious career and by all accounts system much to promote the work of women over that time he was at a conference in Korea he was speaking to a group of media science reporters and he made an off-the-cuff remark where he said problem with women in labs is that men fall in love with them women fall in love with men and women cry now this is a stupid thing to say and I know lots of very very successful and very capable women scientists who do not cry and who do not fall in love with every man that they meet so I don't think it was a brilliant remark for him to make however there was no need whatsoever I don't think for that remark to have left the room instead there was a journalist who then tweeted this comment out of context tweeted links to her overview of what was said and this then sparked a Twitter campaign and a media campaign whilst Tim hunt was on the plane traveling back to London from Korea his wife who is also I think it's worth saying a very very eminent scientist herself I was found up entitled your husband needs to resign from this university when he comes back the outraged culture clearly is there and clearly does exist on social media but I think what you have within higher education is a bid to preempt the outrage so rather than even controversial things happening outrage being sparked like we see with the Tim hunt case more often you get attacks on academic freedom designed to preempt the outrage from happening in the first place so another story that people have told me as I've been traveling up and down the country and again this is a story which I'm sure will be familiar to people in America and all around the world it's why lecturers like myself working within universities have invited other languages from other institutions to come in and speak either to their students or to other colleagues its what academics are encouraged to do it's how you disseminate knowledge it's how you build up collaborations and build up relationships with people are speaking to an academic from it happens he's from Canada and he had invited a scholar from New Zealand to come and talk to the students and members of staff in the education faculty at the Canadian University where he works the scholar of female academic from New Zealand is fairly controversial even though I think what she argues is just common sense by arguing that all children should be taught the same maths program she is has been in Hawaii has been interpreted as her arguing that Maori maths is wrong and that children who come from a Maori culture should be told that their maths is wrong and they should be taught a different type of maths to the one that comes from their culture so because this is what she argues and because that scene has been quite controversial the Canadian University where she was invited to speak actually withdrew the invitation they told the lecturer who had invited her to speak and we cannot have her speaking at our University because it will upset the students it will attract bad publicity for the university looking much more in depth at the philosophical origins of the concept of academic freedom and it's linking the concept of academic freedom to the need to challenge concepts of truth and really my understanding of knowledge and the advance of knowledge is that that is how historically since the Enlightenment or within academia a much shorter space of time knowledge has advanced by people putting forward a truth claim and that would then be challenged by people who had a different concept or different understanding or a better superior understanding which would they would then say well no what you're saying is wrong we can prove it's wrong and actually this is the case instead so you'd get a clash of ideas you'd get competing concepts and one would win out the best version the version most nearest to the truth would win out I think what's happened in academia over the past kind of 3040 years is that people have given up on that project of advancing truth claims and now what we learn particularly within humanities and social sciences is that there isn't any such thing as a truth claim and there's no connection between knowledge and truth what we have is multiple truths and they're all relative and that everybody is just putting forward a different version of truth as they see it

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