On ‘education’ and Brexit

George Orwell, writing in 1941, made the following observations:

In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.

Since Orwell wrote these words, the English intelligentsia have arguably become even more hostile to pro-English sentiment and English universities are increasingly becoming echo chambers of ideological conformity.

Following the Brexit vote, the University of Leicester published research which reportedly demonstrated that ‘greater access to Higher Education could have reversed the result of the 2016 EU referendum’. Inside Higher Ed reported on the findings as follows:

A statistical analysis of factors influencing voter preferences in the 2016 Brexit referendum found higher education to be “the predominant factor dividing the nation.” A new article published in the journal World Development estimated that an increase of about 3 percent in the number of adults accessing higher education in England and Wales could have reversed the results of the referendum, in which voters voted by a 51.9 to 48.1 percent margin in favor of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

The analysis by Aihua Zhang, the director of a master’s program in actuarial science at the University of Leicester, found that areas with higher proportions of university-educated adults tended to vote in support of remaining in the EU.

The assumption here, of course, is that the Brexit vote was the result of a lack of education and that a university education would disabuse ‘leave’ voters of their wrong-headed views. The problem with such an analysis is that it assumes that voting to remain in the EU is a natural result of simply being more educated, and therefore better informed and more inclined towards making the ‘correct’ choice. The assumption is that higher education is simply about discovering truth, and is therefore value-neutral. Higher education is seen to be a predictor for ‘remain’ sympathies because ‘remain’ is based on facts and academic rigor.

Another possibility, however, is that there is in fact a correlation between undertaking higher educational studies and conforming to a certain narrow groupthink based more on a moral vision than on one of actual academic inquiry. That this is in fact the case, and that Brexit-opposing students have been indoctrinated by academics who ‘are ashamed of their own nationality’, is suggested by the current situation found on university campuses throughout England. Orwell identified the English intelligentsia as ‘Europeanized’ and leftist in orientation. A recent study found that eight in ten British university lecturers are ‘left-wing’. Key findings include:

  • Individuals with left-wing and liberal views are overrepresented in British academia. Those with right-wing and conservative views are correspondingly underrepresented. Around 50% of the general public supports right-wing or conservative parties, compared to less than 12% of academics. Conservative and right-wing academics are particularly scarce in the social sciences, the humanities and the arts.
  • The left-liberal skew of British academia cannot be primarily explained by intelligence. The distribution of party support within the top 5% of IQ is relatively similar to the distribution of party support within the general population.
  • Ideological homogeneity within the academy may have had a number of adverse consequences: systematic biases in scholarship; curtailments of free speech on university campuses; and defunding of academic research by right-wing governments.

The curtailment of free speech on campuses is a very worrying development. In February 2017, The Independent reported:

More than nine in 10 UK universities are restrictive of free speech, according to a new report that raises concerns over the issue of censorship on campuses.

Analysis by Spiked magazine, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, suggested campus censorship had increased steadily over the past three years – with a growing number of institutions actively clamping down on ideas, literature and guest speakers that are not in keeping with their own values.

The Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR), drawn from examining the policies and bans of 115 universities and students’ unions, found almost two thirds (63.5 per cent) were “severely” restrictive of free speech, with more than 30 per cent given an “amber” warning.

Russell Group institutions were found to be significantly more censorious that the average, with four of the five most restrictive institutions part of this group – Cardiff, Edinburgh, Newcastle and the University of Oxford.

Then, in March 2018, The Joint Committee on Human Rights ‘found the discussion of unpopular and controversial ideas is being opposed on campuses across the country, with some attempting to shut down such debates rather than confront them’.

In May 2018, The Times reported:

Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, will announce tough guidance on the issue at a meeting today, calling attempts to silence debate “chilling”.

He will accuse some student societies of “institutional hostility” to certain unfashionable but perfectly lawful views. A “murky” legal landscape, with guidance from various regulators, lets zealots censor those with whom they disagree, Mr Gyimah will say.

The BBC – hardly a bastion of right-wing thought – has reported on ‘Brexit-supporting students getting abuse on campus’.

All of this demonstrates an increasing tendency in universities to impose a moral view. If there are ‘bad’ ideas, then a truly academic approach should be to hear them and then demolish them. That has long been the traditional approach to countering false notions. However, when ideas are simply silenced and forbidden, what we are actually seeing is censorship based on the purported immorality of certain opinions. If it is believed that ideas which run counter to the prevailing orthodoxy should simply be banished, then we are witnessing something akin to the banning of books and ideas more commonly associated with religious zealotry than with academia.

Those with a university education were greatly in favour of remaining in the EU, and the fact that they are ‘educated’ has been linked to this. However, the English university environment is one in which left-wing and liberal academics make up the vast bulk of teaching staff, and campuses are increasingly becoming places in which a certain set of ideologically – and morally – ‘acceptable’ views are the only opinions allowed to be heard. Speakers are silenced and dissenting students are bullied. It is little wonder that those who emerge from such an environment are ideologically uniform and therefore were enthusiastic ‘remain’ voters. That is not to say that there is no merit in ‘remain’ arguments, but that the supposed link between being ‘educated’ and opposing Brexit is not the knock-down argument its proponents seem to think it is.

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