I consider myself a liberal, but being one these days is confusing. Today’s so-called liberals in progressive clothing often lead the charge when it comes to illiberal intolerance of everyone, from people who dare to vote the wrong way to people who express religious views (see the venom heaped not only on the Christian bakers in the recent gay cake row but also on rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for defending their freedom of speech).
So often today, what passes for debate is preaching to the choir, flattering audiences with shared platitudes that become self-congratulatory echo chambers. This should be of real concern for educators. How might we teach students to think for themselves if they embrace a fashionable safe-space philosophy that excludes “uncomfortable” ideas?
One positive strategy is to invite in external speakers. The admirable charity Speakers for Schools has popularised such an approach to broadening students’ horizons. So how tragic that one school was recently castigated for inviting the wrong sort of speaker.
Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury arranged, and was then forced to cancel, a talk by former student Milo Yiannopoulos. The controversial Breitbart journalist was due to speak in November in front of a crowd of 220, who had signed up to attend with the permission of their parents, until the Department for Education’s counter-extremism unit stuck its oar in. This surely was an example of all that is insidious about the government’s Prevent strategy. Here is the censorious consequence of what many educational critics have warned against – that under the auspices of countering radicalisation and promoting British values, free speech in the classroom is threatened.
Autonomy under threat
Yiannopoulos, a notorious troll and Donald Trump supporter, describes himself as “the most fabulous supervillain on the internet” – the scourge of safe-spacers and social justice warriors.
I should make it clear (these days it is necessary to explain that defending someone’s right to speak is not the same as agreeing with them) that I am no admirer of many of his political ideas or “feminism is cancer” provocations. But I have been appalled at the reactions of my fellow liberals to his effective no-platforming at the school. Those I supposed would be outraged by the use of Prevent in this way have not only failed to criticise what happened but have even applauded it.
This represents a real threat to institutional and teacher autonomy. The school’s head, Matthew Baxter, pointed out that even though staff and students were “overwhelmingly in favour” of the talk going ahead, the “objection to our hosting Mr Yiannopoulos came almost entirely from people with no direct connection to the Langton”. The pupils themselves have noted that “it is not right that people outside our community should dictate our activities”. They are right to be outraged.
How tragic that a school was castigated for inviting the wrong sort of speaker
Cue teaching unions (usually so keen to warn of the dangers of government interference in schools) expressing their outrage, too. However, unbelievably, when they weighed in it was on the side of Prevent.
Christine Dickinson, local secretary of the NUT, rather than being up in arms about the DfE’s intervention, attacked the school’s decision to invite someone who is “well known for his inflammatory views to speak to their pupils without contest”. The Association of School and College Leaders has responded by working on “fresh advice” to teachers and lecturers about external speakers, to check “whether they are going to breach any legislation around inciting hatred or violence”.
The ATL’s general secretary Dr Mary Bousted used the incident to argue that schools have a “particular duty of care” when it comes to “exposure of pupils to extreme views”. But who defines extreme? Bousted went on to say: “School is a place where pupils have a right to feel safe.” Safe from opinions that teaching unions deem unsafe?
Even more shocking in light of what should be a commitment to academic freedom, “a group of scholars” from the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University issued a public statement, pompously declaring: “It is our duty, as independent members of the British education system and the academic and scientific community to demand responsibility from the school’s administrators and urge them to take back the invitation to Mr Yiannopoulos.” Who needs state censors with these liberals about?
That self-styled progressive academics, usually most vociferous in damning Prevent on campus, cited an Ofsted report criticising education providers for “falling short in protecting learners from risk of extremism” and arguing that the invitation to Yiannopoulos “could contravene with school regulations surrounding extremism and radicalisation” is a stunning piece of doublethink. Likewise, even though these 50 academics generously conceded that “inviting keynote speakers to debate with students as part of the philosophy of the school deserves all our praise because it is very healthy and intellectually challenging”, they conclude that teenage pupils should never be exposed to a speaker such as Yiannopoulos.
Why? Because he “has the capacity to be highly persuasive, mesmerising and inflammatory” and “how can we expect sixth-form students to be able to decipher the full implications of his message…to critically deconstruct it?” The answer is surely by educating them and allowing them to hear diverse views.
Ironically, by glamorising Yiannopoulos and turning him into a free speech martyr – while simultaneously insulting sixth-form audiences as incapable of challenging him – our illiberal liberal academics have inevitably sparked national interest among teens in his writing. I know of two schools where pupils are petitioning to invite him next term.
Perhaps such progressive educators, always so keen on advocating student voice, might listen to the 220 Simon Langton pupils, whose insightful open letter explains that they did not need to be protected from “so-called indoctrination”, as they wanted to tackle his views head on: “Our goal is not to support Milo, but to pursue the truth and interrogate rhetoric.” These smart kids conclude that “there’s no such thing as free-ish speech”. Hear, hear.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas @Fox_Claire