It was Benjamin Franklin’s opinion that “Nothing is of more importance to the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue” and I would hazard that very few people would disagree with him. Assisting our people to grow and develop is a key function of every society and it is the reason that education and academia are held in high regard. For over a decade I worked in a University Department of Medicine as a lower level academic and teacher and found this, initially, the most rewarding aspect of my career. Working with students to develop their understanding of medicine, to enlarge their store of knowledge, and to help them develop skills in critical thinking was the most satisfying post I ever held. Possibly even more satisfying than my time in clinical work. I was aware that was I helping train some doctors who, being much more able than I, would go on to help many more patients than I ever would myself.
Towards the end of my spell in the academic world I had started to become a little disillusioned. Fads and popular theories came and went without adequate critical appraisal and I feared the traditions of intellectual independence and rigour in analysis were starting to weaken under pressure from political and financial interference. I stepped sideways back into the NHS for last working years but continued to watch what was happening to my Alma Mater and education in general. It has not been pleasant or reassuring to observe what has followed.
The first onslaught appeared to be on academic freedom and on the idea of free speech. Lecturers were boycotted or banned if they held contentious opinions. A movement to de-platform speakers caught many off-guard and seemed to reach a pinnacle when Germaine Greer was banned by feminists from speaking on campus as her views on transgender issues are not currently mainstream. I’d recalled my university days, as both staff and student, as days of debate and discussion, often heated, often noisy, but always free and ultimately enlightening. I felt, increasingly, that we were failing our students with the growth of ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and the avoidance of discussion.
This coddling was worrisome but much worse was to follow. As I had said, I had seen fads come and go. Usually when critical analysis was brought bear on the current pet theory it started to wither and retreat. However, now that debate is curtailed many theories last longer without proper scrutiny and start to establish themselves as the orthodox view without being having been based on good scientific enquiry. There are now many statements made that are accepted as fact and are now sheltered from questioning. These statements, have just be believed, it is increasingly heretical to question them.
For example take the problem of rape. Here is a terrible crime that concerns us all. We need to find every means at our disposal make this less frequent. Any initial reading on the subject will lead one to encounter the statement that “Rape is about control and power” not sex. In scientific terms this is quite an easy theory to test as it is falsifiable and testable. Unfortunately, on the times when good studies are undertaken about rape they tend to repeatedly reveal that, in a sizable proportion of cases, the driving factor in the crime was the sexual urge. None the less, you will find it very difficult to find anyone who doesn’t repeat the mantra “it’s not about sex, it’s about power” when discussing how we might deal with the problem with rape. This is to our shame as it is a missed opportunity; the task force set up by Obama found (The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) found that using this understanding (that rape is sometimes driven by sexual drives) there are means to reduce its frequency. This is surely what we all want and it is a grave error if we uncritically continue with a theory that reduces our ability to understand this issue and tackle it.
In many other areas statements are made with religious authority : concerning obesity – one can be fit at any weight; concerning racism – once can not be racist towards white people; concerning transgender – every child with gender dysphoria is starting on a permanent path of transition; concerning intelligence – genetic factors are of little importance. These statements fly in the face of prior, tested and scrutinised, claims but flourish while they are guarded from criticism. Like the religious authorities of old, our current academic priesthood brook no questions and cloud their statements in jargon and obfuscation. Alan Sokal the physicist recognised this a generation ago when he hoaxed the editors of “Social Text” with his nonsense paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to Social Text“. Unfortunately, this broadside failed to slow down these changes which continued to expand and affect more academic departments.
Thankfully the struggle continues. Three academics have taken the hoax and multiplied it. They submitted a number of clearly broken papers with clearly implausible, indeed frankly unbelievable, findings to a number of journals. As long as they wrote including the current shibboleths and mantras they could get almost anything accepted for publication: Pages from Mein Kampf (replacing references to jews to white men) was accepted by a gender journal, an article watching dogs in a dog park was accepted as confirmation of rape culture in America, and an article suggesting men should masturbate with sex toys anally to reduce their transphobia and homohysteria was felt to be a valuable advance in our understanding of society. Their article in Areo magazine is a long read but well worth it. It is scarcely believable what they managed to have published, although perhaps it is telling that the paper published in Gender, Place and Culture on “The feminist post-humanist politics of what squirrels eat” was not a hoax (with academic work of this quality it is hard to tell).
These issues are depressing but I am glad to say that at least some humour can be had at their expense. As you would expect, when the Emperor wears his new clothes he manages to garner a laugh from those who are still able to think independently.
I still have hope that it is in nature of youth to rebel and to question authority. I hope that these attacks are the beginnings of a revolt against this new clerisy that has taken charge of our institutions. It is very dangerous to allow those in power to away our ability to question and reason independently. Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognised this as he watched, and lost his life fighting against, the rise of fascism when he wrote in his article “On Stupidity” :-
“On closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.
The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.
The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.
He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.”