Armidale Class Act: The high price of student protection

Student protection?: Australian universities might not have the same level of censorship as the United States, but it is moving in the same direction.

Student protection?: Australian universities might not have the same level of censorship as the United States, but it is moving in the same direction.

I’m currently working my way through a new publication by Frank Furendi called “What’s happened to the university?” (and finding it somewhat amusing that the publication date is 2017, and no I am not reading it in a time machine).

In the book, Frank argues that universities are subject to a stricter neoliberal reign than other organisations partly because universities are places where one might expect to encounter free thinking, and such a concept is incompatible with neoliberalism.

In contrast, it is considered a risk, as free thinking and free speech can result in situations where people think and say things that others may find offensive.

Censorship in universities in America he argues, demand a degree of conformity that is similar to that expected in authoritarian institutions. He cites cases where, for example, students have complained (and won their complaints) because course readings included material that they found confronting and upsetting.

The argument that universities are responsible for protecting students and ensuring that they are not exposed to material that they might find upsetting is a good example of the infantilisation that accompanies neoliberalism.

In the past, you might have expected to engage in a (maybe vigorous) debate with someone who says things with which you disagree, and you could argue the merits of your position with evidence (and the other person could of course argue their position). Now all the other person needs to say is that what you said offended him/her and your voice is shut down – you cannot defend yourself against a charge of offending someone else

While the University of Chicago recently published a report critiquing the bans and censorship operating widely on American campuses, the principles of academic freedom and free speech identified in this document are being undermined widely.

Some position academic freedom at the opposite end of a continuum with justice and safety on the other end, arguing that academic freedom must always concede ground to justice and/or safety. That means if you say something that some-one else finds offensive then the person’s right to be emotionally safe (and not be upset by what you said) is considered more important than your right to exercise your academic freedom.

Ultimately, this means that the pursuit of knowledge and the struggle involved in challenging oneself with new ideas is considered less important than the need to protect students and others from the emotional stress generated by contentious ideas.

Universities are increasingly monitoring course content and ensuring that any material that might generate emotional stress is removed, so that learning at university is increasingly becoming limited to learning the hegemonic, politically correct script. In other words, academic freedom is becoming more and more subordinate to political considerations.

Frank is writing about America where this has happened across the country. Do we see the same in Australia?

Not to the same extent yet, but the signs are ominous. We have increasing monitoring of what is taught, and how it is taught, by external accrediting agencies and by our own unit monitoring processes.

We have increasing compliance checking to ensure we are only assessing what we claim in our learning outcomes is what students are supposed to learn (ie don’t teach content outside the box) and workload pressures are ensuring that our assessments are moving more and more towards what is easily marked rather than what are good learning experiences for students.

The long term consequence for this is that we are developing a nation of citizens who cannot think for themselves.

In the words of President Obama, spoken at a press conference in Germany this month: “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

We are developing citizens who in Frank’s words “cannot exercise independent judgement, they require someone else to do it for them”. The benign dictator perhaps? 

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