A toxic new phenomenon is hitting our universities and causing concern among the commentariat. It is the increasingly muscular determination of student culture to shut down viewpoints with which it disagrees, which usually breaks along lines defined by an evolving identity politics. With the no-platforming of individuals long-associated (in the minds of a certain generation) with free-speech and the challenging of social injustice, the situation has taken on a new urgency, with more and more sharpening their nibs and drafting the same conclusion: the kids are out of control.
And since these students arrive at university following 13 years in the state education system, one is forced to consider the question: have we helped create this phenomenon?
In our schools, the importance of "safe spaces" is something that has long been recognised. Perhaps not in the way that the term has come to be applied in our universities today, but certainly in the recognition that the learning process requires a certain protection that allows us, and our students, to address challenging issues honestly and openly. In short, one is less likely to get kids to engage with a discussion if there is a fear of mockery and shame associated with it.
And in a way, this is unsurprising – we rightly promote tolerance, respect and equality, all of which direct the outer limits of both how and what we communicate. Kids need to have a comfortable environment to grow, develop, to be – it is our duty to provide that.
But if the outcome is what we have now, then we must surely ask: are we getting it wrong?
On the margins
Now, to change tack a little, a question: how often, during their whole 13 years at school, do students receive a consistent socially conservative message? How often in 13 years do students have a sustained critical engagement with socially conservative viewpoints? Indeed, how often, during their entire schooling, do students ever receive socially conservative viewpoints presented in sensitive and sympathetic tones?
Answer: very rarely.
And when they do, it is too often framed in the language of rejection. The socially conservative viewpoint has been "othered" – something to be acknowledged, for sure, but usually to deny. To such an extent that the fundamental legitimacy of these beliefs are rejected; the property of "others", people not like us, with our education and our civility and our morally superior ways.
In other words, mirrored in our schools is something of what the the MP Jon Cruddas has diagnosed as Labour’s alienation of "the Settlers", "who are socially conservative and are concerned with home, family and national security. They value safety, a sense of belonging, their own cultural identity and the continuity of their way of life. They want to avoid risk. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them."
The problem is this creates a cultural vacuum between schools and home, since it means students are only ever likely to come across socially conservative viewpoints at home, and are most likely to hear them challenged at school. While one might think this natural, indeed defensible, it also inculcates a subtle prejudice against social-conservatism as being anti-intellectual, the articulation of ignorance, something ill-associated with the scholarly. It not only forces a choice upon a student, but also reinforces a sense of intellectual superiority in having made it in a particular direction. To be liberal is to be more intelligent. Haidt’s dilemma plays out in our schools every day.
Which is ironic, since there is little doubt that the cry-bully phenomenon is a deeply anti-intellectual movement, with the collapse into the personal really representing the disregard of the academic. But this also interweaves with wider educational presumptions and forces us to ask another difficult question: does our child-centred approach elevate the self-referential as beyond critique? Does it mean our students are less likely to be challenged, to be told they are wrong, their views lacking validity, having been elevated well above their role and status (student interview panels, anyone?)?
One might be inclined to say yes, but there is an obvious caveat here: those students with socially conservative views, which (as a rule of thumb) quite often means the poorest and the religious, will very much be challenged when they are perceived to be wrong. In other words, safe spaces tend to exist in one direction, defined by a hierarchy that takes particular form according to wider social mores, and that overarching injunction to provide a safe space, which usually means for the expression of the transgressive against presumed historical norms and prejudices.
This elevates the perceived transgressive to the progressive, for which we are morally obliged to provide a platform and a "safe space" for expression.
Are schools the problem?
Of course, none of this explains the cry-bullies phenomenon, which is as much about methodology (no platforming and denying freedom of speech) as opinion (why students are embracing this way of thinking.)
But I wonder if, putting the two together, a potential perspective emerges: a new liberal ethic which demonises impediment to personal gratification and agency, combined with a moral demand for safe spaces which castigate the closing down or challenging of this new liberalism (again, this tends not to be the case for socially conservative viewpoints – except for the issue of abortion, perhaps, which has proven more resilient), which produces a sense of both entitlement and superiority that renders alternative narratives simply beyond the pale.
This is to such an extent that we send students off to university with all the mission of a moralist but none of the skills of the apologist. Their views appear self-evident, having been incubated in an environment in which schools are more inclined to protect them from scrutiny. Or, in the words of one American student, in a recent iteration of this phenomenon: "It is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not. Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here."
And so we observe the new phenomenon of "cry-bullies" in university shutting down any and all expression they dislike. Feelings of community override intellectual dispute, precisely because for those who hold to it, the alternative lacks intellectual merit and is solely an expression of malice or prejudice designed to hurt feelings.
In other words, exactly the kind of thing over which schools would (rightly, I think) intervene.
But it seems to have become something else. And now we’re hearing about it. Not because it is terribly new – it has been an issue for years depending on your moral and/or political compass – but because it is turning upon itself and putting into the firing line precisely those who, historically, were at the forefront of challenging the prejudices of a previous generation with their own cries of "bigot!".
In other words, the hunters have become the hunted. And yet now, perhaps, both must stand together to combat a more pernicious anti-intellectualism that risks the dignity of something bigger than both: the point of having any education at all.
Michael Merrick is head of RE in a secondary school in Cumbria. This blog originally appeared on his website, Outside In