A joke about education in Soviet Russia:
– My wife has been going to cooking school for three years.
– She must really cook well by now!
– No, they’ve only reached the part about the Twentieth Communist Party Congress so far…
Maybe it’s not so much funny as telling; but what it is telling of is the hijacking of a non-political activity — cookery, but it may as well be biology or history or maths — for a political end.
That end was not (or not only) to stuff your mind with state-approved facts (“facts”); it was to fashion a new man. Enthusiastic about “progressive” causes, responsive to peer pressure and ready to join in exerting it, and completely self-righteous, Homo Sovieticus would be the raw material of the Marxist New Jerusalem. As Stalin put it when toasting tame writers: “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.”
Communism has passed away. But the production of souls, or rather their engineering, survives in the capitalist Anglosphere. In our Higher Education sector it doesn’t just survive — it thrives, in the form of political indoctrination passed off as “training” or “mission statements”, specifically on the Thirty-nine Articles de nos jours: racism, unconscious bias, transphobia and the rest of it.
St Andrew’s, for instance, insists that students pass a “diversity” module in order to matriculate. Questions include: “Acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful starting point in overcoming unconscious bias. Do you agree or disagree?” The only permitted answer is “agree”. But what if you don’t feel, and don’t want to accept, personal guilt for anything? What if you think (like Nietzsche) that guilt itself is counterproductive? As one student aptly commented, “Such issues are never binary and the time would be better spent discussing the issue, rather than taking a test on it.”
My own university, Cambridge, wants academic staff to undergo “race awareness” training. This advises you to “assume racism is everywhere”. Attendees are also reminded that “this is not a space for intellectualising the topic”. You might have thought “intellectualising” — ie thinking about — it is the kind of thing Cambridge academics should do. But don’t feel bad about getting that wrong; or at least, don’t feel bad about feeling bad: we are also told that these sessions aim at “working through” the feelings of shame and guilt that you might have on your journey in “developing an antiracist identity”.
It isn’t just Cambridge and St Andrews. There is anti-racism or “unconscious bias” training being offered to, or more likely thrust upon, staff and/or students at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Goldsmiths, KCL, Liverpool, Oxford Medical School, Sheffield, Solent, Sussex and doubtless hundreds of other universities and departments across the country.
It isn’t just training either. The very purpose of a university is being redefined. You might think they exist to conduct teaching and research. That would be naïve. Most universities now routinely call themselves anti-racist institutions, where this means: actively campaigning for a political end. For instance, Sussex says: “[a]s an institution we must actively play our part in dismantling the systems and structures that lead to racial inequality, disadvantage and under-representation”. Bristol expects all its members to “stand up” to racism “wherever it occurs”.
The truth about the St Andrews bias test
And on modern definitions, it may occur more often than its perpetrators or victims have ever noticed. For a thoroughly representative example: one Cambridge department tells students that expressions of racism include “beliefs, feelings, attitudes, utterances, assumptions and actions that end up reproducing and re-establishing a system that offers dominant groups opportunities to thrive while contributing towards the marginalisation of minority groups”. Notice that this definition is effectively suppressing beliefs (not just behaviour) on the vague and possibly intangible basis of whether they “reproduce a system”.
Now imagine being a clever, white 18-year old, not at all racist and not at all privileged either, away from home for the first time, in a lecture or class in (say) sociology, or politics, or philosophy, where a lecturer asserts, perhaps quite aggressively, that white people are inherently racist. Your own experience screams that this is wrong. But do you challenge it? Of course not – after all, it may have, and could certainly be presented as having, the effect of “marginalising minority groups”; and your own institution has told you, through formal training and via its website, that this is racism and we must all stand up to it.
So you keep quiet. So does everyone else; and the lie spreads. Repeat for white privilege, or immigration, or religion; perhaps also, given similar training and encouragement, for abortion, or the trans debate, or… Repeat for a thousand students a day, every day, for the whole term.
There is in Shia Islam the most useful concept of Ketman. It is the practice of concealing or denying your true beliefs in the face of religious persecution. At best our hypothetical student spends her university career – possibly, the way things are going, the rest of her life – practising a secular form of Ketman. Or worse: habitual self-censorship of her outer voice suffocates the inner one too; she starts to believe what she is parroting; she denounces others as racists, or transphobes or whatever; and then after three or four years, starts working for a publisher, or a media outlet, or a big corporation; and the euthanasia of the West continues.
I should say that anti-racist training or rhetoric does not only appeal to the ideologues who appear to welcome that process. There are other motives, of which at least one is quite understandable. Genuine racism and racial discrimination do exist – there is less now than 30 years ago, but you still notice it. You notice or hear about slurs, pointed comments, racist graffiti or physical violence; you notice being overlooked.
I remember looking for a room to rent when I first started working in London. All my white friends had found one pretty quickly. But for some reason, whenever I showed up to see one it had “just been taken”. I’ll never know how much of this was racism in my own case; but I do hear, and I have no reason to doubt, that similar things happen today.
But bringing in diversity training because racism still exists is like prescribing leeches because people still get headaches. As hundreds of studies attest, it just doesn’t work. It may even exacerbate existing prejudice. Making this training compulsory is especially likely to be counterproductive. A 2016 study of more than 800 US firms finds that:
five years after instituting required training for managers, companies saw no improvement in the proportion of white women, black men, and Hispanics in management, and the share of black women actually decreased by 9%, on average, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women shrank by 4% to 5%. Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance-and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.
Paying for something with no proven benefits is bad enough. Compulsory training may actively be making things worse.
Another motive, equally understandable but less laudable, is corporate self-interest. I remember arguing at length about training with a well-intentioned senior functionary at a Russell Group university who finally “justified” it on the grounds that “At least we’re doing something”. Doing something, at least seeming to do something, is a familiar practice: oil companies that ostentatiously invest in renewable energy, or tobacco companies that publicly support health research. Since summer 2020, what has especially moved the highly-paid bureaucrats running higher education is the need to look as if you care about racism. Hence, perhaps, all the expensive and useless training; hence the solemn statements about George Floyd and police violence; hence the rhetoric of the “anti-racist” (not just not racist, but anti-racist) university.
One obvious problem of corporate whitewashing is the unevenness with which it is applied. Racism is bad, but so is much else. And yet our soi-disant “anti-racist” universities rarely if ever call themselves “anti-genocide” or “anti-corruption” or “anti-censorship” or (for that matter) “anti-corporate-bullshit”. In summer 2020, you could hardly move for universities making fatuous assertions of “solidarity” with victims of racism. But you won’t find similarly prominent (and probably not any) support, from the same sources, for free speech in Hong Kong or for the non-extermination of the Uyghurs. But then upsetting China might affect your bottom line.
This isn’t empty whataboutery. Making corporate statements on racism, and not on these other things, means implicitly ranking anti-racism as the more pressing cause. Confiscating their time and attention for anti-racism training means imposing the same judgment on its staff and students; in effect, doing our thinking for us. Thanks for the offer, but I think we can manage for ourselves.
Whatever the source of demand for training, supply has rushed in to meet it. The winners are (a) the university leaders who can loudly proclaim their woke credentials and (b) the diversity-industrial complex whose clients they are. The immediate losers are the staff and students who expected, and deserved, to give or get education not indoctrination; but in time the losers will be all of us.
It isn’t too late, though. The obvious solution is the immediate and permanent scrapping of any kind of politically or ideologically oriented training or induction. It has no place in a university.
Then, enforce explicit institutional neutrality. In February 1967, the President of Chicago University appointed law professor Harry Kalven Jr to chair a committee tasked with preparing a “statement on the University’s role in political and social action”. The upshot was the Kalven Report, which stated in the clearest possible terms both the essential function of the University and the essential requirement for political neutrality that followed:
The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society… A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community… It cannot insist that all of its members favour a given view of social policy.
These words should be installed in 10-foot high neon in the office of every Vice-Chancellor in the country. And their universities should commit, publicly and non-negotiably, never to take a corporate stance, in any direction, on any political or social question.
The Higher Education Bill currently going through Parliament imposes a new duty on universities to promote the importance of free speech. Clarifying what this means will be the job of guidance to be issued by the Office for Students. That guidance should recommend both the scrapping of political training and the adoption of institutional neutrality. Doing that and then enforcing it would clearly signal, what I very much hope is true, that the regulator sees the difference between properly run universities and the sheep-factories that they are on the way to becoming.