For those on the political Right, the university is now occupied territory, but not so long ago the universities were an enemy from a Leftist perspective. Terry Eagleton, one of Britain’s most famous Marxist academics, bemoaned in 2010 in Left-wing newspaper The Guardian that we had ‘witnessed in our own time … the death of universities as centers of critique’. Eagleton’s remedy for this authoritarian co-opting of higher education by the hated Tories is worth quoting in full;
Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future. We will not change that simply by increasing state funding of the humanities as opposed to slashing it to nothing. We will change it by insisting that a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities, not just to the study of Rembrandt or Rimbaud.
In passing, do we imagine that White men like Rembrandt or Rimbaud are afforded much study time on today’s campuses? But Eagleton certainly got what he wanted, just not in the way he expected. The ‘free play of the mind’ is now tightly controlled ideologically, and any ‘critical reflection on human values and principles’ is only permissible within strictly policed guidelines. A very modern cliché has it that universities now tell the student what to think, not how to think, and so their original purpose and spirit have been completely inverted.
Centers of learning existed long before universities began to resemble our familiar if fading institutions. Plato’s Academy, Islamic schools such as Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, and English Cathedral schools were all proto-universities. In Latin, universitas was a general term not specific to organized pedagogical structures, and the universitas scholarium was the forerunner of the university in that it was independent and defined by its relative academic freedom.
At the earliest European universities of the 12th century — French in northern Europe, Italian in the south — students would study philosophy as a matter of course, an introductory discipline to prepare them for their core studies, usually theology in France, medicine and law in Italy. Aristotle was the core curriculum and, by the 13th century, students at Paris or Bologna would familiarize themselves with the Stagirite’s Organon (meaning, roughly, the ‘tool’), the central text which would enable them to construct rational arguments, understand and perfect rules and techniques of clear thinking, and follow the laws of excluded middle, demonstration, induction, deduction and the rest of the Western intellectual apparatus which would follow its course to the Enlightenment. This notion of the university as a nursery of thought stayed broadly in place (the dominance of the Medieval church notwithstanding) until the late 20th century. Then something happened.
A key marker of the decline of the American university — a decline which can be extrapolated in the usual way and with the usual transatlantic time lag to Britain and Europe — is Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. Universities are vital, Bloom writes, for reasons which would be sure to enrage the new ‘woke’ academics;
A great university… made a distinction between what is important and what is not important. It protected the tradition, not because tradition is tradition but because tradition provides models of discussion on a uniquely high level.
Here we see why the classical university kicks the hornets’ nest of a new generation raised on equality and its offspring, equity. Importance/non-importance implies a natural hierarchy of value, anathema to the new Left. Tradition was seen as vital, and tradition is always White and therefore oppressive. Finally, ‘models of discussion on a higher level’ are not inclusive, and inclusivity is a central pillar of the new academic order. The White canon is no longer seen as the fons et origo of wisdom, but as occupied territory to be won back or, failing that, subject to scorched earth policies. And so the university is a key battleground if education in any meaningful sense is to be destroyed, and this is being achieved by reducing intellectual activity to a pre-fabricated kit which need not — indeed, must not — be thought through, merely learnt by rote, as children once learnt their times-tables.
The guiding stratagem of this woke scaling of the ivory towers is to radically modify the received model of truth, and then to impose conformity to the revised model. This involves re-ordering the natural relationship between subjectivity and objectivity.
John R. Searle, in a 1993 paper entitled Rationality and Realism, What is at Stake?, noted that there were serious and deleterious changes being made in universities, ‘not just to the content of the curriculum but to the very conception of rationality, truth, objectivity, and reality that have been taken for granted in higher education, as they may have been taken for granted in our civilization at large’.
Once you start removing the foundation stones of post-Enlightenment thought and reason — the difference between subjectivity and objectivity and the ratiocinative superiority of ratio over emotio among them — then truth is in freefall and epistemology becomes a yard sale of random ideas randomly priced.
In order to genetically modify truth, the curriculum must be altered first in order to remove any of the pre-existent tools, to echo Aristotle, that might enable the student to think independently. A seminal document in this decommissioning of truth is “Occupy the Syllabus” (which can be read here), produced in 2015 by Rodrigo Kazuo and Meg Perrett, then students at UC Berkeley, ironically the home of the Freedom of Speech movement in the mid-1960s. The opening line is a mission statement for the whole document: ‘We have major concerns about social theory courses in which white men are the only authors assigned’.
The co-authors lament that a course on ‘classical social theory … did not include a single woman or person of colour.’ Sometimes, they continue, ‘we were so uncomfortable we had to leave the classroom in the middle of lecture [sic]’.
That 2015 was year zero for the ‘occupation of the syllabus’ is further evidenced by Professor Edward Schlosser, writing in Vox in June of the same year — six months after Occupy the Syllabus — in a piece called “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me”:
I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts… That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad.
Plato’s Republic discusses education at length, and one aside echoes down the centuries: ‘A teacher… is afraid of his students and flatters them, while the students despise their teachers.’
And teachers have every reason to fear their students, as the next stage of occupation after subverting the syllabus is to make the faculty conform, and expunge those who don’t. Once you have your scripture, you need heretics. An example comes from my own alma mater in 2021, when a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex was hounded from her post for comments concerning transgenderism made in lectures and a book. Professor Kathleen Stock is a mild-mannered analytic philosopher, and despite being a lesbian and quite happy to use ‘preferred pronouns’, this was not enough to save her from the student mob. I wrote about this case at the time here.
The case of Professor Stock caught my attention as it also concerned my own subject, philosophy, which brings us to the next stage of occupation. The curriculum has been severely culled, and now increasingly lacks the work of white men. To paraphrase a line from Jaws, we’re going to need a smaller library. Next, the heretics are, if not burned at the stake, then at least made unemployed and perhaps unemployable. These are all subtractions; what is to be added?
We are now all too familiar with the academic presence of CRT, gender-queer theory, African studies and the rest of the grievance portfolio. Philosophy seemed more of a challenge for the occupying hordes. It is difficult to dumb it down, but it can be done. Dr. Ian M. Sullivan is an assistant professor of philosophy at The University of Arcadia in the USA. His work is symptomatic of what has happened to the Humanities. ‘Through queer philosophy,’ we are told, ‘Dr. Sullivan gains an alternative framework to explore classical philosophical writings’. The classical (meaning White) approach to philosophy is erased and replaced with exciting new challenges.
And there are also challenges for the university administrators. The universities are in a bind. They must do well on their DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) score in order to guarantee government funding and keep their jobs which, at least in the American university system, are by appointment or election. On the other hand, well-off Asian, Arabic and African families do not send their children to Oxbridge, at great expense, to learn queer theory. So there are two conflicting revenue streams to protect.
And so the academic occupation is well advanced. What of the physical university? For the post-modern, progressive student of the Humanities, occupying the refectory is somewhat passé, as students already own today’s campuses. That’s not to say that some undergraduate collective has gone about the place buying up head leases and freeholds at auction, but rather that students now dictate even the topography of Western universities, with their safe zones, racially segregated events, free-speech gazebos, controlled speaking venues, and various other means of protection against the micro-aggressions and White privilege which lurk in every seminar and common room.
How did the universities of 12th-century Western Europe become the malevolent kindergartens of today? Bloom implicitly explains why it is that the old model of the university has been decommissioned:
‘The successful university is the proof that a society can be devoted to the well-being of all, without stunting human potential or imprisoning the minds to the goals of the regime’.
‘Imprisoning the minds to the goals of the regime’ should be the new university motto beneath the crest of every university.
The toxification of the universities, the poisoned wells of academia, will have a wide effect very quickly. Once a ‘woke’ generation or two have passed through higher education, replete with all the new and accelerated, grievance-based prescriptions and proscriptions they have learned in lieu of a real education, they will pass into the workforce, most of them working for the Western public sector, in other words, for the government, the state. Very soon, throughout the West malevolent and uneducated graduates in worthless non-subjects will assume full control of public administration and finances, the arts, media — both mainstream and alternative — and the law. They have already won the battle, essentially, but are about to bayonet the wounded.
While recognizing that students now run universities, it is also worth noting that the university at Bologna in the 12th century was also run entirely by the student body. They decided on the faculty, they set the curriculum, theirs was the ultimate voice of arbitration. How extraordinary that today everything has stayed the same and yet everything has changed. Today’s Western university — or ‘uni’ as students in Britain call them, the word ‘university’ having become as archaic as ‘manufactory’ — has become an ideological boot camp in which everyone is taught and required to march in lockstep, and this means removing the possibility of independent thought.
‘We shall proceed to a standardization of the intellectuals’, wrote Nikolai Bukharin in The ABC of Communism. ‘We shall manufacture them as in a factory’.