The BBC, the NHS and the welfare state are three national institutions that make even the most ardent universalist proud to be British. These organisations are so lauded that any criticism is often admonished as offensive to dedicated and self-sacrificing public servants and insulting to vulnerable service users. Calling into question the vastness of the BBC or the limits of the NHS is rarely done in polite society.
Dr. Adam Perkins, a lecturer in the neurobiology of personality at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, has confronted this taboo. In his book published late last year, The Welfare Trait, Perkins challenges Britain’s welfare state. He argues that individuals with ‘anti-social tendencies’ such as aggression and a fondness for rule-breaking, are more likely to be unemployed. He suggests an ‘employment–resistant personality profile’ can be identified and that this character trait is supported by benefit payments and passed from one generation to the next
Although dressed up in the pseudo-scientific rhetoric which is now equally popular with those on both the political left and right, Perkins’ view that work-shy adults become feckless parents and raise degenerate offspring has a long and ignoble history. Were it not for the liberal prohibition on questioning any element of the welfare state, his book may have passed with little comment. Instead, the outrage that greeted Perkins’s work has spilled over from academia into newspapers, social media and back into higher education once more.
In February this year a talk Perkins was due to give about his book at the London School of Economics was cancelled at short notice. The LSE reportedly took the decision to postpone the debate when they became ‘aware of some negative social media activity’ related to the event. Perkins’s talk was rescheduled for Wednesday 29th June and took place without any problems.
I have no desire to defend the arguments put forward in The Welfare Trait. However, I am fundamentally opposed to any ideas being considered off-limits for debate in a university. To be clear: pushing for a lecture to be cancelled, or disrupted so that it is either postponed on health and safety grounds, or goes ahead but speakers are unable to be heard, is censorship and it is to the detriment of all within universities and wider society alike.
Of course, not everyone has a right to demand an audience within a university and there is no onus on institutions to distribute open invitations. However, when an invitation has been issued it suggests someone thinks that person worth hearing. Even if only one person wants an event to go ahead then to threaten disruption or to petition against the speaker is to deny that individual the right to hear particular views. By hosting speakers universities are not legitimising people or viewpoints but legitimising debate.
Disrupting a lecture or a debate prevents arguments from being aired. This does not just have an impact upon the speaker but upon all those who want to hear alternative viewpoints. Those advocating for the disruption of a debate assume their views are infallible and that they have nothing to learn from those with whom they disagree. However, calls for disruption also expose a lack of confidence in the would-be censor, they presumably consider their own arguments as too vulnerable to stand up to scrutiny. When debate is curtailed then academia stops acting as a marketplace of ideas, sifting out the erroneous and insubstantial, and instead becomes an echo chamber where only certain views are heard.
All too often there is little need to resort to censorship to restrict the flow of ideas in universities. Perkins reports having experienced a barrage of ad hominem social media attacks; colleagues warning him off publication and a professor lobbying for him to be banned from the conference circuit. In addition, academics may refuse to peer review publications or to share a platform with those whose views they oppose; they may choose not to provide references or to support funding bids or promotion applications. These are all ways of isolating individuals through sending out the message that in academia, ‘You can’t say that!’ Collectively, such practices contribute to the creation of a culture of intellectual conformity within universities.
A poll conducted by the Times Higher Education prior to last year’s general election showed that an overwhelming majority of academics intended to vote for either Labour or the Green Party, a far greater proportion than in the population as whole. There may be many reasons for this lack of political diversity: perhaps academics rate more highly work with which they sympathise and then recruit in their own image.
Such bias should not be a problem but it does make it even more important that alternate views are heard within the academy. A diversity of viewpoints is essential for the pursuit of knowledge, most especially in social science disciplines. It allows awkward questions to be asked of researchers’ hypotheses and prevents confirmation bias.
Welcoming all ideas into academia does not mean all research is equally valid. Many academics have taken up Perkins’s work, challenging the methods he has employed, his interpretation of the data and the conclusions he has drawn. Scholarship as a whole improves through such challenge and critique. Engaging in debate leaves open the possibility that the consensus view might be wrong and the minority view right. The more ideas challenge academia’s political consensus, the more there is a need for such ideas to be heard. Questioning the scope of the welfare state and its impact upon those who claim benefits is a legitimate area for investigation.
Many academics support the rhetoric of academic freedom. But to defend academic freedom we need to do more than support an audience for those whose views we agree with on the one hand and to complain about state censorship on the other. We also need to grapple with the far harder and less palatable task of arguing for the right of those we disagree with to be heard. We need to disrupt the culture of conformity and challenge the restrictions on what can and cannot be said that stem from the morally righteous majority.
Joanna Williams has taught in schools, further and higher education for more than 20 years. Most recently she was senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and director of the University’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education. She is the author of Consuming Higher Education, Why Learning Can’t Be Bought (Bloomsbury, 2012) and Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Williams is the education editor of Spiked and a frequent contributor to British and international education debates, most especially in the Times Higher Education, the Telegraph and Guardian.
Academic Freedom in Crisis: The Series
Introduction: Academic Freedom in Crisis | Daniel Nehring and Dylan Kerrigan
The Transformation of UK Higher Education Since 1968 | Hugo Radice
The Soviet System, Neoliberalism and British Universities | Craig Brandist
The Financialisation of Academic Knowledge Production | Dylan Kerrigan
The Never-Ending Audit®: Questioning the Lecturer Experience | Daniel Nehring