Alexander Ewing ponders platforms and upstart undergrads

Re-reading Timothy Bradshaw’s recent Quad Talk column about dangerous trends in the habits of student activism has me in a reflective mood.

We are in a moment, he claims, when a number of voices are under threat due to the language of ‘No Platform’.

He mentions a few examples. For instance, in response to her views about trans women, more than 3,000 people signed a petition attempting to prevent Germaine Greer, often referred to as an ‘outspoken feminist’, from giving at lecture (which went ahead) at Cardiff University.

Regardless of where we stand on the issue, these examples provide us with what are called ‘teachable moments’, if I may use this admittedly nauseating academic neologism. There are various ‘political questions’, to use another phrase.

On what grounds should we ban speech? Is it a decision for the state or the institution?

Does it matter whether we have a choice to listen? Does it matter that on this occasion Dr Greer did not intend to speak about transgender persons? Upstart undergrads would surely push Dr Bradshaw to elaborate further. There is a difference between ‘no platform’ and ‘not this platform’.

The latter brings up common disagreements – misunderstandings, in my view – about what the university is for (or at least should be for).

In some ways, this is a symptom of a resurgent form of intolerant liberalism – deceptively cloaked in the language of pluralism and tolerance – that dismisses a whole host of views as systematising, imperialist or hegemonic, to name but a few favourites. For these reasons, among others, many believe there is no obligation to give, or utility in giving, particular views airtime in the university. It is here where we can escape them, shout them down and pull down statues that represent them.

In other ways, though, it reflects the rhetoric of ‘relevance’ often purveyed by governments in relation to the role of the university (eg to increase employability or boost the economy) and the metrics by which the state measures ‘output’ and ‘impact’.

But what intolerant liberalism and ‘neoliberalism’ (if you prefer the Corbynite concept du jour) try to take away from the university is its primary provision – conversation.

Indeed, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott reminds us that the university remains distinct because it best preserves the space and time necessary for “adventures in human self-understanding”.

Its purpose is to preserve a moment in life liberated from contingent wants and pressures. It initiates us into what he calls the “art of conversation” in which we engage with other voices and modes of understanding the world.

One should not limit other life experiences unnecessarily. But I am impelled to suggest to student activists that calling for social change is not their primary endeavour at university.

They are here to first engage with differing views in order to better understand society – and indeed themselves.