MP’s letter isn’t the real problem: Universities shouldn’t be teaching Brexit anyway
Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Staff   

Senator McCarthy’s name is being hurled about again, and not in a tone of approbation.

The cries have been provoked by Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, who was this week found to have written a letter to university vice chancellors – on House of Commons letterhead – asking them for details of what students are being taught about Brexit.  This being a comparatively high-brow ding-dong, along with cries of ‘McCarthyism’, there have also been accusations of ‘Leninism’.

Supporters of Heaton-Harris have in turn accused the university vice chancellors of ‘false-outrage’, but Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, has conceded to the BBC that the letter ‘should probably not have been sent’ and has further speculated that Heaton-Harris’s letter may have been ‘an academic enquiry rather than attempt to constrain the freedom that academics rightly have’. Johnson has even speculated with a straight face that Heaton-Harris’s enquiries ‘may in time lead to a book on these questions.’

It is a classic dispute between two parties with equally insincere claims.  On the one hand is the pretence that Heaton-Harris was not being slightly high-handed in writing such a letter.  On the other lies the pretence that academics in Britain must live in a state of persistent fear that the jackboots of this minority Conservative government may lead us sooner rather than later towards full-scale military junta.

The solution is simple. Universities in Britain should not be teaching anything about Brexit. Not a syllabus, and not a word.

At the risk of spoiling everybody’s grandstanding, there is an obvious way to avoid any and all such arguments in future. The solution is simple.  Universities in Britain should not be teaching anything about Brexit.  Not a syllabus, and not a word.  Should anyone wish to discuss Brexit at British universities – and they are certain to – then it should be outside of class-rooms.  I should stress that this is not a Brexit-specific injunction.

If there is one single development that has damaged the reputation and reach of academia in recent years it is the decision of universities to enter into that same rampant present tense-ism which now runs through every other part of the national culture.  The cliché of academia consisting of ‘ivory towers’ and people studying obscure texts is a long-outdated myth.  Two major events have provoked the change.  The first is the decision of universities to allow the study of recent literature and history which would better be described as ‘current affairs’.  In the not very distant past, a humanities degree in history or a literature degree would almost solely encompass areas on which the fullest possible view could be taken (the study of people’s whose reputations had settled and events on which the archives were available).  Which meant the study of nothing closer than 40-50 years ago.  It made good academic sense: the study of the present encourages a lack of discipline and encourages students to wallow in partial and incomplete pictures.

A second cause has been the expansion of the university sector. The introduction of tuition-fees has resulted in competition between universities for students to take their course (and thus bring the university money).  This has lead to a visible sexing-up of the courses on offer, not least in degrees such as ‘Politics’ which would better be described as degrees in ‘current affairs’.  And this is at the more respectable end of things.

Forget Chaucer. Students at Durham University are offered a module called ‘Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion’ designed to place the series ‘in its social, cultural and educational context and understand some of the reasons for its popularity.’ Credit: Patrick Seeger/DPA/PA Images

Of course it is hardly surprising that students would share the narcissism (and ease) of being interested in their own age more than in the detailed study of the past.  But the study of the past is what such degrees are for.  To develop a view on key authors you may otherwise not read and to study areas they are unlikely to approach in everyday life.  Through skills and knowledge acquired students can certainly gain a far more informed view of the present.  But without it students skate only on a thin layer of knowledge – one which lies over whole seas of ignorance.  They favour the ease of the new over the challenge of the old – the excitement of studying the present tense over the importance of learning how to think in the past.

Everybody who has ever interviewed or hired a recent university graduate will know the experience.  I give just two – among hundreds – of my own.

Some years ago I had a student put my way from a top UK university to speak to me as part of her research.  Her tutor knew that I was interested in the Middle East and knew that I had been in the region during (and observed parts of) the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.  Perhaps four years after the ceasefire this student was writing her undergraduate dissertation on the conflict also known as the Second Lebanon War.  As I asked this student what they knew about the conflict and what areas I might be able to help with, I recognised that what she was pursuing was not yet fit for academic study.  True, there were newspaper sources.  But these are only ever partial guides, and other than the scattergun survival of certain newspaper’s reporting online, the girl’s university did not seem to expect her even to go to a newspaper archive to get a full view even of the way the media covered the conflict.  She had read little or none of the reportage.  And it soon became clear that she was lacking in even the most basic knowledge of her subject.  Not all of this was her fault.

By that time no Israeli archives on the conflict had not been released.  No known Hezbollah archives existed.  She had carried out no field research.  Neither side’s political or military leaders had yet written their memoirs or given long extemporised accounts of the conflict.  To ask somebody in such a position to weigh up accounts, let alone come up with an explanation for the conflict and its consequences, might be a test in natural cunning, but it could not be described as an academic discipline.

Students favour the ease of the new over the challenge of the old – the excitement of studying the present tense over the importance of learning how to think in the past.

One other example was a student who recently approached me asking me to be interviewed for his university dissertation on ‘Islamophobia’ in modern Britain.  As I spoke to him I realised that the course he was studying (Politics) was expecting him to do something that society itself had not done and could not do: It expected him to have a view on something that is at best an unsettled, ongoing debate.  From his questions alone I could tell the amount of rampant indoctrination that his professor had engaged in but what he was being taught – and what he was being asked to produce – was partisan pamphleteering.  In the end I advised the student of what was true, and then advised him of the lies that he should nevertheless relay if he wished to have his work passed by his examiner.

You can rail against the injustice of this indoctrination.  Brexiteers will rail against professors teaching anti-Brexit diatribes to their classes just as anti-Brexit politicians will rail against any professors who are found teaching their classes to take part in pro-Brexit diatribes.  The debate on different topics will of course veer in different directions.  But it is not enough to be cross when your own particular political views are not replicated in the classroom or to be silent when they are.  The truth is that none of this belongs in the classroom.  A 40-year rule should be reintroduced, with subjects coming any closer than that in date recognised as not ready or fit for academic study.

If people want to stop lecture-hall indoctrination, they should first of all remember what such halls are for.  Such a memory might also help provoke some much-needed wisdom and perspective in this age of promiscuous information.