by Tom Crew
Monday, 15
June 2020

Safetyism: The new university doctrine

The irrational aversion to risk is rooted in the place it ought to be challenged
by Tom Crew
Cambridge University. Credit: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images

A university without a library is like a home without a roof. And so, despite the insistence of many universities that their libraries remain “open online”, higher education has all but come to an end in the UK. A sector that remained open during the Second World War and provided a home to dissidents and the otherwise persecuted — from Theodor W. Adorno to Sir Ludwig Guttmann — has closed itself as quickly and as meekly as the church.

The University of Cambridge, where I am a doctoral student and which, in 1933, helped form the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), seems to be leading the retreat: declaring an end to group lectures for the whole of the next academic year and generally falling over itself in eager deference to government “advice”.

Speaking at the Albert Hall at an event organized by CARA in 1933, Albert Einstein urged the audience to “resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom”. As contentious as references to the 1930s might be, when in our entire history has “intellectual and individual freedom” been as besieged as it is today?

While the encroachment on individual freedom might seem clear enough, the situation for intellectual freedom is not much better. Aside from the now everyday phenomenon of censorship, it seems generally accepted that freedom of expression must yield to the demand for “safety”, as though the free exchange of ideas is a luxury reserved only for stable conditions.

The continued closure of university campuses and the dearth of dissenting voices from within their ranks suggest that this attitude — the irrational aversion to risk and the attendant need for control — is deeply rooted in the very place where it ought to be challenged. For who decides what counts as safe? And even then: might the apparent eradication of risk not harbour its own hidden dangers? There are clearly serious problems with the elevation of safety and security to the pinnacle of our hierarchy of values.

Indeed, beyond its potential for abuse, as well as its tendency for unintended consequences, it is doubtful whether maximal safety can ever constitute a desirable aim. “For believe me!”, as Nietzsche writes, “the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously!” The alternative can only ever be a variation of the dystopian hygiene of Huxley’s Brave New World — a world as bereft of risk as it is of meaning.

Universities are supposed to be the guardians of our intellectual liberty. During these times of crisis we might expect them to defend this principle more eloquently and forcefully than ever before. Their readiness to shut themselves down begs the question whether they believe in — or even understand — their own purpose.

Join the discussion

  • There is no such thing as safe and unsafe. Risks are either broadly acceptable, tolerable if reduced to as low as reasonably practicable or unacceptable. The risks to the student population from Covid are so small as to be laughable. The risks to the older professors is more significant but it cannot be beyond the wit of these great sages to mitigate them to a tolerable level.

  • A university is a robust space where students are challenged. If it is unwilling or unable to challenge, then it isn’t really a university.

  • I dont think universities are any longer places where the main idea is not, accumulating grades, but learning to think for yourself, not the functionalist utilitarian, left sided brain activity, that dominates to bring in more money for chancellors and the colleges and providing baby care to students who need to learn to grow up.

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