All posts filed under: Education

Britain’s Academic Free Speech Bill

The British Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, recently set out proposals to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England. These include: appointing an Academic Freedom Champion with a remit to champion free speech and investigate alleged breaches thereof; stipulating that universities will have to “actively promote” freedom of speech on campus; and introducing a tort that will allow individuals to seek redress for breaches of their rights to free speech and academic freedom. The announcement sparked a lively debate in the British press and on social media, with some commentators welcoming the proposed changes, and others arguing that they are unnecessary and/or actively harmful. As I see it, this debate can be broken down into two key questions. Are free speech and academic freedom under threat at English universities? And if so, are the new proposals worth supporting? In this essay, I will argue that the answer to the first question is an unequivocal “yes,” and the answer to the second question is a qualified “yes.” Before proceeding: what is meant by “free …

The Threat to Academic Freedom: From Anecdotes to Data

Academia has become a closed system, a moral community defined by a set of sacred progressive values. The surge of no-platformings which took off in America in 2015 and hit Britain in 2018–19, or the fivefold jump in the rate of cancelling American academics which took place in 2019, present merely the tip of an iceberg of self-censorship and conformity. In this essay, I present extensive new survey data on the scale of the problem in the US, Canada, and Britain from my new report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology entitled “Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship.” This leads, at the end, into a discussion of policy solutions, where I argue that only government intervention can break the spiral of conformity gripping the contemporary university. The British government’s recent policy white paper on academic freedom, which adopted most of the recommendations of my previous co-authored report, “Academic Freedom in the UK,” is a blueprint that other jurisdictions are invited to follow. My current report represents an expansion …

How a Single Anonymous Twitter Account Caused an ‘Indigenized’ Canadian University to Unravel

In a recently published Quillette article, Political Science professor Frances Widdowson described the difficulties that Canadian university administrators face when they seek to “Indigenize” their schools. Everyone in academia seems to agree that Indigenization is an urgent task, but the particulars are typically ill-defined. As Widdowson reports in a newly published book, these efforts at Indigenization (sometimes referred to as “decolonization”) comprise a combination of symbolic gestures, ramped-up affirmative-action programs, mandatory anti-racism courses, and demands that Indigenous folklore be accorded epistemological stature on par with science. At Concordia University in Montreal, for instance, a dozen researchers are collaborating on a project called “Decolonizing Light,” whose aim is to “investigate the reproduction of colonialism in and through physics and higher physics education.” Our scientific understanding of light as constituting electromagnetic radiation perceptible to the human eye, these scholars explain, is the historical product of “a white male dominated field [i.e. physics] disconnected from social life and geopolitical history. [Its] narrative both constitutes and reproduces inequality.” Widdowson (who isn’t Indigenous) has been criticized for casting doubt on …

Decolonising Math is Rooted in a Decades-Old Conflict

For decades, a conflict has been simmering in the elementary school classrooms of the English-speaking world. On one side are those who place mathematics understanding above all else and whose teaching methods involve asking students to figure out ways to solve authentic mathematics problems, focusing on the process while de-emphasizing the importance of obtaining correct answers. On the other side, often painted as stuffy traditionalists, are those who assert the importance of explicit teaching, practice, and memorization. Welcome to the math wars. The origins of the math wars stretch back to the educational progressivists of the 19th century. Drawing on the writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while reviling the strict discipline and recitation of the school house of the 1800s, they demanded a new, reformed mode of education. Learning should proceed through experience. After all, kids can learn lots of things through pure immersion, from recognizing individual faces, to speaking their mother tongue, navigating their local area or sharing resources with friends. Why should they not learn math the same way? Why can’t learning be more …

Against Dilettantes

“Welcome to the country of amateurs,” a good friend said when I first arrived in England. That was 20 years ago and, now that I’ve had time to think about it, my friend stands corrected. He should have said, “Welcome to the country of dilettantes.” Because there is a difference, you see. While both species belong to the verminous family of the overambitious and the under-qualified, an amateur poses a lower environmental threat. Aware of his limitations, he keeps a certain distance from his subject and treats it with respect. A dilettante, regrettably, does no such thing. Instead, a dilettante dabbles. In anything, everything, trying his hand at things he is not remotely qualified to do. A fellow with no linguistic training writes a book on the English language. Another fellow with no literary training writes a book of literary criticism. Hacks of every genre, from lifestyle to cookery, opine on politics and economics. I meet a lot of publishers. Where I come from, an average publisher has a postgraduate degree in philology and a …

The Problem With ‘Indigenizing the University’

The idea that academics need to “Indigenize” the Canadian education system has become popular in recent years. The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), Universities Canada, and the Deans of Education all have expressed support for this idea. And the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created to address the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system, concluded that Canada’s education system “must be transformed into one that rejects the racism embedded in colonial systems of education and treats Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” The TRC report cites the work of Indigenous academic Marie Battiste and the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ statement that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.” Specific proposals at various Canadian universities have included curriculum changes, an overhaul of academic disciplines, and the incorporation of Indigenous “ways of knowing” in tenure and promotion processes. Many …

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking

Michael J. Fox, the third president of the United States, was responsible for establishing Presbyterianism as the state religion of the new federation after its peaceful secession from the English empire. Or did he? When you read that sentence, you probably scrunched up your forehead or raised an eyebrow in disbelief. Maybe you know that Michael J. Fox is the actor who played Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies. Maybe you know the third president of the United States was Thomas Jefferson and that on point of principle, the United States has never had a state religion. I suspect you are probably aware that its citizens fought a war to gain independence and you may know that this independence was gained from Great Britain rather than England. What I am pretty sure you did not do was attempt to look at the sentence from multiple perspectives or evaluate the source. The development of the capacity to think critically is an aim of education on which most of us can agree. It is …

The Attack on Timothy Jackson Is an Assault on Liberal Education

Those interested in campus culture may have followed the debate concerning the Journal of Schenkerian Studies at the University of North Texas. Though limited to a very specialized discipline, that debate is no tempest in a teapot. Its implications go well beyond the borders of music theory and should be read as a symptom of the larger problem of higher education in the age of the fetishization of identities. The protagonists of the Schenkerian studies case are Philip Ewell, a professor of music theory at City University New York, and Timothy Jackson at UNT, also a professor of music theory. The debate is about whether we should teach an Austrian Jewish musical theorist of the early 20th century despite the fact that said theorist was also a German nationalist and, in certain writings, expressed his belief in the superiority of German culture. British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley once wrote: “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.” I do not intend to whitewash Schenker’s bigotry. A bigot he was—no less and no more than …

A (Failed) Campaign to Smear a University of Toronto Scholarship Student as a Bigot

Arjun Singh is an Indian-Canadian student of mixed Sikh and Hindu ancestry, set to finish a four-year undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in just three years, while reportedly boasting a 3.96 cumulative GPA in his course work with the departments of Political Science, International Relations, and American Studies. His LinkedIn page indicates that he speaks multiple languages and has work experience with the US State Department. So no surprise that this high achiever has earned numerous awards and scholarships. In recent days, however, 13 fellow students (six of them white, for those who count these things) publicly expressed their claimed “shock” that Singh had received the Political Science department’s $1,000 David Rayside Undergraduate Scholarship, awarded to “students who have demonstrated commitment and leadership in co-curricular activities, on or off campus, promoting greater public understanding of social and cultural diversity and enhanced inclusion of historically marginalized populations: for example racialized minorities, women, Indigenous communities, immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities, sexual minorities. Award is based on academic achievement and financial need.” On January 31st, …

Sexual Assault and the Taboo of Sound Advice

One recent Friday, campus police at University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), sent out a school-wide welcome email offering safety tips to students, some of whom are incoming freshman and the rest of whom would be on campus for the first time in a while. “With the first week of classes now underway,” the email began, “I’d like to take this time to remind you that University Police Services is focused on preserving an environment where you can study, live, and work safely.” The opening tips were in the realm of those familiar body-language prescriptives that some find hokey but that self-defense experts swear by: “Look confident, keep your head up and walk with a confident stride.” The email emphasized that merely making eye contact could establish one’s status as an alpha and thereby “deter a potential attack.” The advice continued: “Be aware and alert to your surroundings. Don’t talk on your cellphone or listen to music when you are in an unfamiliar area” and “If you jog alone, stay in public areas that are …