an academic scandal
According to Wikipedia, “academic freedom” is the principle that
the freedom of inquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy
scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.
In theory, then, the academic environment should support free speech. The current practice, however, appears to fall well short of the ideal.
In campuses all over Britain, student unions are banning speakers whose views are considered insufficiently compatible with fashionable ideals. Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, Boris Johnson and Nick Lowles are some of the individuals alleged to have been “disinvited”, i.e. prevented from giving scheduled talks or lectures. Free speech, various commentators argue, is under threat.
On the face of it, the problem appears to be students rather than staff. Student life may be subject to internal ideological control, but academia itself maintains an objective, impartial approach to research. Doesn’t it?
Are there biases in academic research which parallel the radical stances of student leaders? Some would say: yes.
The Ethics and Empire project
If there are biases in academia, they are difficult to pin down. Most academics are intelligent enough to know that a political agenda cannot be put on obvious display in the way that is possible for students. Students come and go; most of them will not become academics; a record of radical activism while at college may even go down well with some employers. An academic, on the other hand, cannot afford to be seen to be too doctrinaire.
Academics themselves have generally brushed off the recurring accusations of ideological bias, saying that a massive preponderance of leftists in certain disciplines does not reflect prejudice against rightists. Of course (paraphrasing a well-known quote), they would say that. No academic is readily going to admit that his faculty, or institution, is more distinguished by ideological commitment than intellectual rigour.
To expose a bias in academia may require a serious challenge to that bias, and may require the challenge to arrive with heavyweight brand backing, so as not to be simply dismissed and ignored.
The University of Oxford’s Ethics and Empire project, announced in late 2017, and led by Oxford theology professor Nigel Biggar, seems to have met those requirements. The project has led to vitriolic denunciations by fellow academics, and generated controversy in the national media.
The Ethics and Empire project appears to be trying — among other things — to analyse from a fresh perspective the history of the British Empire. Empire is of course a contentious enough topic to begin with. What seems to have aroused special indignation is that the proposed perspective is relatively sympathetic, compared to most scholarship of the last fifty years.
The project has generated open letters of protest from two groups of academic historians. The letters are aggressively disapproving. They are insulting about Nigel Biggar. They sound as if they would dearly like to see the project shut down.
At first sight, it may be difficult to understand what it is about the Ethics and Empire project that could rationally justify mass public condemnation by fellow academics. But rationality does not seem to be the number one priority in this case.
A thought experiment
Imagine the following scenario.
• An academic, who is not a member of a physics faculty, proposes to take a fresh look at the topic of subatomic particles, using an approach that completely abandons quantum theory.
This would be a radical thing to do. Quantum theory is old and well-established; there have been no serious modifications of it for seventy years, and no significant suggestions of alternatives for nearly forty. Some physicists might find the idea of such a project shocking, and disapprove of its being funded.
Imagine also the following.
• At the time the project is proposed, there is serious moral anxiety over something that is regarded as a social evil. Some academics are being investigated about possible connections with this evil, with some losing their jobs over the issue.
Assume for the sake of the thought experiment that the issue in question is communism. This would be comparable to what happened in America under McCarthyism.
Now consider what would be an appropriate way for a hostile physicist to express his disapproval of the proposed project.
The hostile physicist could write a paper, article, or blog post, attacking the project. Or he could try to express his views via an interview with a newspaper. In doing so he would try to maintain a dispassionate approach, limiting his criticisms to intellectual ones.
Here are some things our hypothetical physicist, on professional and ethical grounds, should not do in a public forum:
• gang up with other physicists, and issue a joint statement condemning the research
• sound as if he represents the entire physics community
• suggest that it is wrong in principle to fund the project
• criticise a project backer about something other than the project
• make personal remarks about the dissident academic.
Finally, the hostile physicist should — for obvious reasons — avoid suggesting or insinuating that the dissident academic may be sympathetic to, or connected with, communism.
Our thought experiment illustrates some points of professional ethics.
All of these points were breached, by one or both of the open letters attacking the Ethics and Empire project.
The first of the two letters is from scholars within Oxford itself. It has 58 signatories.
The scholars say that they write
to express our opposition to [...] the agenda pursued in [the] recently announced project entitled “Ethics and Empire”.
Conceding that Professor Biggar has the right “to conduct whatever research he chooses in the way he feels appropriate”, the scholars go on to belittle him by referring to his views as resting on “very bad history”, and by asserting that the project “[cannot] pretend to offer serious history”.
Throughout the letter they sound as if they are representing not only themselves but the entire history profession. Historical scholarship “cannot” do X; “no historian” does Y; “historians are not much moved” by argument Z.
The scholars argue that the project “asks the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes”. This curious remark calls up an image of academic enquiry as didactic, the apparent purpose being to arrive at one or more answers from a predetermined set of possibles. To get a result compatible with the preferred theoretical perspective, it is apparently necessary to ask the right questions, using correct terminology that will lead us in the desired direction.
I am reminded of a teaching guide published by a children’s charity (quoted in the Mediocracy book), which advises on the best way to encourage genuine analysis, allegedly free from bias or prejudice.
If you ‘police’ a pupil’s prejudiced remarks too heavily this may result in them resentfully confirming their prejudice. Try using an open question, e.g. ‘what messages do we receive from the media about girls?’
You could get pupils to brainstorm this, and then run a discussion on the negativity of these messages.
Superficially, pupils are encouraged to consider ‘open’ questions, and to arrive at their own answers, ostensibly without prompting — but the ‘correct’ conclusion is determined in advance. If you do not arrive at the right answer, you must (presumably) have done the analysis wrong.
Is it possible something similar is being practised in university history courses?
The Oxford scholars say that they teach their students
to think seriously and critically about [the histories of empire and colonialism]
yet go on to assert that
Neither we, nor Oxford’s students in modern history, will be engaging with the “Ethics and Empire” programme, since it consists of closed, invitation-only seminars.
Not being invited to seminars need not imply an inability to “engage” with research.
It is interesting that the scholars feel able to announce in advance, on behalf of their own students, and the students of other history tutors at Oxford, a decision on whether students will engage with the project. One might think that the ability to “think critically” would include openness to ideas from heterodox perspectives, as well as the capacity to decide for oneself (independently of one’s tutors) whether a source of information is worthy of consideration.
Analysis vs. morality
At some points in their letter, the Oxford scholars sound as if they favour a value-neutral approach, i.e. analysing historical facts without allowing moral evaluations to colour one’s judgments.
Good and evil may be meaningful terms of analysis for theologians. They are useless to historians.
But this is contradicted by other elements of the letter. The writers approvingly cite Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism — an uncompromisingly hostile Marxist treatment of its subject — as being “morally powerful”. And they end their letter by asserting that they do not believe imperialism “can or should be rehabilitated”. These are not the words of scholars who strenuously eschew making moral judgments.
Although the scholars concentrate on making Professor Biggar seem stupid, rather than evil, there is also a definite hint that there is something morally dodgy about his enterprise (italics mine):
For many of us, and more importantly for our students, [Professor Biggar’s views] reinforce a pervasive sense that [inequalities at Oxford] are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past.
This implication of moral turpitude needs to be seen in the context of a statement by Oxford student society Common Ground, issued a few days before the scholars’ letter, which tried to convey that Biggar’s views were racist.
The reference to students in the scholars’ letter may seem risible. (Think of the students! Won’t anyone please think of the students!) But perhaps the reference should be seen as disturbing rather than amusing. It suggests that if a group of students say they find a research project morally offensive, this is now taken very seriously.
An accusation of racism, or even the merest hint of it, can be enough these days to sink a person’s career. Even if it leads to no repercussions, it is liable to cause distress to the accused person. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Professor Biggar said he had found the Oxford open letter “emotionally quite stressful”.
The Oxford scholars refrain from using the r-word in their letter. However, their failure to distance themselves from the accusation made by Common Ground, coupled with their comment about a “celebratory attitude” a propos inequality, is irresponsible.
The second of the two open letters — signed by close to 200 scholars from (inter alia) Cambridge, Princeton, Cornell and King’s College London — is even more vitriolic than the first.
Its signatories try to convey their shock that Oxford University is supporting the Ethics and Empire project. They wish to register their “concern”, and proclaim they are “disappointed”, “alarmed” and “troubled”. They make the ad hominem comment that if Oxford wants to support a “political project which connects ethics with the contemporary world”, it should look to its own backyard and address
its own repeated failure to diversify its own Faculty and student body.
The signatories complain that the project’s core group “does not represent the diverse constituencies of scholars” working in this field. This criticism seems weak. There is no principle in academia that a project should be staffed with representatives from varying schools of thought.
On the other hand, there is certainly something to be said for having faculties staffed by individuals holding a variety of viewpoints. If the signatories are interested in ensuring that academic history represents a range of constituencies, they may wish to consider addressing their own departments’ failure to embrace diverse perspectives — a goal clearly not furthered by launching public attacks on (e.g.) Nigel Biggar and his project.
At the end of their letter, the scholars call for “peer scrutiny”, demanding that Oxford University clarify
the research protocols that will be put in place to ensure that [the project’s] outputs are subject to due peer scrutiny [...]
It seems the scholars want to make quite sure that the methodologies of the project will meet with the approval of accredited practitioners. But why? Are they merely concerned that the research should not fail to benefit from the available techniques and insights of modern academic history?
Or are the scholars adopting an exclusionary tactic? Do they suspect (and hope) that “scrutiny” by other trained historians will result in a negative verdict that echoes their own condemnation?
Setting a bad example
Ethics and Empire may or may not be a worthwhile project. Its eventual findings may or may not be overly coloured by an ideological perspective (a charge that could surely be levelled at many other history research projects).
Regardless of any possible criticisms, the approach adopted by Biggar’s opponents is unethical, and smacks of bullying. The two open letters represent a disturbing precedent. The one from Oxford scholars is particularly alarming, given Oxford’s position in the academic hierarchy, and the suggestion that academics can expect to be ganged up on even by members of their own institutions.
The signatories’ implicit attitude to academic freedom sets a bad example, not just for fellow academics, but for students.
Consider the following two alternative positions.
A) Enquiry and debate should be respected, even if one disapproves of the approach adopted.
B) It is right to organise protest against research or speech which adopts viewpoints that some regard as offensive.
Which of these two positions are students at Oxford, and elsewhere, more likely to internalise, following publication of the open letters? If B, one has to wonder what this will mean for the impartiality of future social science research when individuals who are now undergraduates become dons. And, indeed, what it will mean for the future of free speech at universities generally.
Repercussions and implications
The Ethics and Empire episode raises a number of important questions. One is how it comes about that two groups of scholars are willing to break professional etiquette and launch a potentially damaging attack on a fellow academic. Part of the answer, presumably, is that this is not about a conflict between competing intellectual approaches, but about the perceived violation of a belief system, commitment to which is thought to override professional considerations.
The episode illustrates how politicised academic history has become. As in the case of some other subjects, history appears to have become highly sensitive to the possible political implications of research findings. This seems to have reached the point of seeking to prevent research which might yield undesirable results, before it has any chance of getting off the ground.
Nigel Biggar himself, it must be said, may be partially guilty of the charge of letting expected conclusions drive research decisions, by holding out that his research will generate answers that we should approve of. In an article in The Times, Biggar justifies reappraisal of empire by arguing that a more positive image of it will help us to reject what he regards as an undesirable belief, namely “that the best way we can serve the world is by leaving it well alone”.
This kind of consequentialism — judging potential research by whether we are going to like its results or its possible implications — is part of an ethos that appears to be becoming dominant in many academic subjects, particularly the non-sciences. Once it has become dominant in a subject, we should recognise that that subject’s usefulness will be severely limited.
The effect on research of subordinating objectivity to the goal of improving society is stark but simple. The conclusions, and apparent implications, of such research become unreliable. They will be distorted by experimenter bias (or its equivalent) to an unknown extent, rendering their supposed insights valueless, except as indications of personal belief or as spurious justifications for political action. Judging by the tone and content of the open letters, and the fact that the signatories appear to represent a majority of their profession, an appropriate caveat may need to be applied from now on to research coming out of academic history departments.
Overall, the Ethics and Empire incident is alarming, because of the evidence it provides about academic bias and cavalier attitudes towards academic freedom, and because of the encouragement it is likely to give to students who are tempted to use terror tactics to enforce their preferred ideology.
Nigel Biggar is an Oxford professor, and a well-established academic. He will probably weather this storm. Perhaps his five-year project will now complete without further controversy. But what of junior academics trying to start their career as historians? How far would one of them get, if they looked like wanting to head in a direction considered incompatible with orthodoxy?
Biggar’s principal collaborator on the project was to have been retired Oxford history professor John Darwin. Two days before the Oxford scholars’ letter was published, Professor Darwin resigned from the project. His explanation was that, when details about the project’s programme for 2018 were published,
it seemed to me to be evolving in a different direction from the previous year’s event. This, coupled with personal reasons, prompted me to resign from the programme on 17 December 2017.
When tactics such as those used by the open letter signatories are deemed acceptable, we should not be surprised if whole faculties, and indeed whole subjects, become intellectual closed shops.
© Fabian Tassano
published 1 March 2018
1. Last significant suggestion of an alternative to quantum theory: I am thinking of David Bohm’s work, culminating in his 1980 opus Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Coincidentally, Bohm was a victim of McCarthyism — he lost his job at Princeton for failing to give evidence against colleagues to the
Un-American Activities Committee.
2. Teaching guide: National Children’s Bureau, Effective Learning Methods, 2005.
3. The Oxford scholars’ letter was published on 19 December 2017. The date of the Common Ground statement appears to have been 14 December.
Common Ground’s statement asserts that Biggar’s views invoke “a racist, hackneyed, and fictional trope about the nature of pre-colonial societies”.
The Common Ground statement was evidently taken seriously within Oxford: within 24 hours the University issued a counterstatement, confirming support for the project (see Cherwell, 15 December 2017).
4. The phrase “think of the children!” was popularised in a memorable episode of The Simpsons.
5. Interview with Nigel Biggar: Sunday Times, 24 December 2017.
6. The numbers of signatories showing on the two open letters, when retrieved on 26 February 2018, were 58 and 195 respectively.
7. Times article by Nigel Biggar: ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’, 30 November 2017.
8. Parts of this article were previously published on the mediocracy blog.