It almost feels wrong to raise the issue of free speech in universities now. Last March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to cut federal funding for colleges that fail to uphold freedom of speech. In Britain, the government has recently repeated its warning that universities must uphold free expression or face state regulation. In this politically charged context, the proper response seems to be to insist, with Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, that everything is “just fine, thank you,” or to contend, as the Times Higher Education’s Chief Knowledge Officer Phil Baty does, that “universities are the greatest threat to the populists’ playbook of division, authoritarianism and intolerance.”
The problem is that neither of these things is true. Free speech is not doing “just fine,” and universities unfortunately do not match Baty’s description of them as institutions that “question received wisdom … disrupt the status quo [and] challenge authority.” If only. It is undeniable, though, that education has come to be understood as a key political dividing line of today’s populist politics. In 2016, in light of the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump, David Runciman already pointed to the “alarming prospect” that education was becoming “a fundamental divide in democracy—with the educated on one side and the less educated on another.”
There is a tendency to assume that the problem lies with the less educated, and to propose solutions involving greater educational opportunities. Yet, while reforming what Matthew Goodwin describes as “our education apartheid” is a noble goal, as a political response it is less attractive. While education is generally thought of as fostering liberal, tolerant values, it is now increasingly recognised that in certain respects education tends to result in greater intolerance. When it comes to political arguments from conflicting perspectives, the most educated are the most closed-minded. What’s more, the highly educated tend to embrace an ugly form of elitism towards those who lack formal qualifications. The problem is not the people who are less educated, in other words, but the view that the highly educated have of them.
Education and Liberal (In)tolerance
The role of education in encouraging tolerant, liberal values is, as one researcher puts it, “one of the most replicated findings in social science.” Yet it has become clear in the last few years that this only applies to certain kinds of tolerance. With respect to people with opposing political ideas, the more educated are the most intolerant. That was the finding of a 2017 study by P. J. Henry and Jaime Napier, which showed that “education is related to greater ideological prejudice.” Though acknowledging an association between education and “more tolerant attitudes toward myriad out-groups,” such as ethnic minorities, sexual minorities and immigrants, Henry and Napier found that such toleration does not extend to “opposing political groups.” Instead, education makes people less tolerant—and the higher the level of education, the stronger the effect.
As well as being less tolerant of political opponents, more educated people are also prejudiced against the less educated. A series of seven international studies reported in a 2018 article by Toon Kuppens et al challenged “popular views of the higher educated as tolerant and morally enlightened.” The researchers coined the term educationism to describe how the less educated are seen as “more responsible and blameworthy for their situation, as compared to poor people or working class people,” and elicit “more contempt,” less sympathy and “more anger.”
While political intolerance and educationism exist at both ends of the political spectrum, the fact that greater education is also associated with more liberal attitudes means that one would expect the education system to produce people who are both more liberal, and more intolerant of their political opponents.
There is certainly plenty of evidence that liberal views are associated with greater political intolerance. This has been the finding of numerous opinion polls and academic studies in the US and UK over several years (summarised here by Noah Carl). These have repeatedly shown that Labour/Democrat supporters are more likely than Conservative/Republican supporters to block or unfriend someone with different political views on social media, and are less likely to see such people as potential friends or acceptable marriage partners for their children. Liberals are more likely than conservatives to stop talking to someone with opposing political views, and less likely to post online content from a political perspective different from their own.
If we view this evidence of liberal prejudice alongside the fact that, as Kuppens et al note, “education is the best demographic predictor of people’s opinion on current political conflicts such as those surrounding Donald Trump and … Brexit,” then the reactions of those on the losing side of those votes make perfect sense. Liberal fears of low-information voters being led astray by fake news and slogans on buses is exactly what one would expect. It is no surprise that Remain voters are much more likely than Leavers to take a negative view of people who voted differently from them, or to view Brexit as a “knuckle dragging carnival of the irredeemably stupid.”
We have been here before. As John Carey documents in The Intellectuals and the Masses, a hundred years ago the intrusion of the lower orders into public, political life prompted an outpouring of “fury, loathing and fear” from the refined, cultured elite. William Inge, Cambridge professor and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, wrote in the Evening Standard in 1928 that “democratic man is a species of ape”; while Virginia Woolf imagined “that anonymous monster the Man in the Street” as a “vast, featureless, almost shapeless jelly of human stuff.” It is hard not to hear an echo of such dehumanising ideas in the view of Brexit voters as gammon. In the early twentieth century, even radicals such as Max Horkheimer thought that, since “the general intellectual level of the masses is rapidly declining,” truth had to find “refuge among small groups of admirable men.” Now, Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan informs readers of the New Statesman that “Brexit illustrates the central problem with democracy,” namely that most voters are “ignorant,” “misinformed” and “usually have little clue what they are doing.”
Democratic shocks such as the Brexit vote have been the key drivers in bringing this elitism back to the surface. But there is a whole constellation of values and beliefs that work as in-group markers. Recent post-Brexit polling has indicated that the top three issues on which people find it “hard to respect someone with an opposite view” are climate change, same-sex marriage and immigration. And it was Remain voters who were most likely to “think less of someone who didn’t agree with them” on these questions. These all tend to be understood as issues on which disagreement is simply unacceptable. Dissent, and you will likely be labelled a denier, a homophobe and a racist.
Given that the most educated are the most intolerant on questions of politics, one would logically expect to find that, contrary to the normal understanding of the role of higher education, universities are the most censorious institutions and the least likely places to find open debate. This is, indeed, exactly the case on all the key issues around which contemporary educated intolerance coalesces.
Every month seems to offer a fresh illustration of how extraordinarily difficult it now is to have an open discussion of gender and sexuality in universities, for example. In February 2020, more than 160 academics and students demanded that Oxford history professor Selina Todd be barred from speaking at the University of Kent, claiming that, as a gender critical feminist, she is transphobic. The previous month, Todd’s own college had provided her with bodyguards because of threats she had received, while feminist professor Kathleen Stock was prevented from speaking at the University of East Anglia because of fears of protests by trans activists.
Sometimes, universities seem to go out of their way to foster an atmosphere of suspicion and denunciation in the name of diversity. In January, Sheffield University unveiled a new scheme to pay students to tackle microaggressions perpetrated by their peers, and to lead “healthy conversations” about racism. The same month, it was reported that the university had produced an induction video encouraging students to challenge “racial bias” in the curriculum. The previous month, it emerged that Berkeley had gone beyond the University of California’s requirement that prospective faculty members must affirm their support for diversity, and was discarding any applications that failed to demonstrate sufficient enthusiasm for its diversity policies, regardless of applicants’ qualifications and academic records.
Failure to conform on the issue of climate change, meanwhile, is ruining the careers of even established academics. Professor Judith Curry, for instance, formerly chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech and a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, was effectively hounded out of academia under pressure from climate change activists. Such activists include fellow scholars: Roger Pielke Jr. wrote in February that “academic blacklists” are compiled by groups such as Skeptical Science, founded by an assistant professor at George Mason University, and endorsed by the American Geophysical Union and by prominent academics, such as Michael Mann. Pielke’s father, an eminent atmospheric scientist, has also been targeted by the group, who aim to “bring him down.”
Behind such relatively high-profile cases lies the subtler, everyday thought-policing of intellectual life. Terms such as inappropriate or problematic are routinely used to signpost the boundaries of acceptable opinion so that arguments are closed down or pre-empted. If all else fails, potentially disagreeable views can be branded as harmful. This is now an entirely normal way of conducting—or rather, avoiding—discussion in academic and other professional settings, and is employed routinely not so much because there are frequent challenges to conventional opinion, but as a way of signalling one’s righteousness and superiority.
Yet the supposedly sharp contrast between the enlightened intellectual elite and more backward attitudes in wider society does not really exist. Brexit provides the clearest illustration: the surprise 2016 referendum result was commonly understood as having been driven by “irrational xenophobia.” Researchers soon claimed to have discovered evidence of widespread personality traits—“collective narcissism,” “right-wing authoritarianism” and “social dominance orientation”—that explained the vote to leave the European Union. Yet now it seems that the weight of evidence is against such views. Polling commissioned by the BBC showed that the percentage of people who thought that immigration has a negative impact on the UK fell steadily from 64% in 2011 to 26% in 2019. Other polling has found that “British people are more persuaded of the benefits of immigration than any other major European nation.”
In 1977, when Barbara and John Ehrenreich first analysed the rise of the professional-managerial class (PMC), they described it as caught between a “conflict with capitalist greed, irrationality and social irresponsibility” on the one side and an “objectively antagonistic relationship” to the working class on the other (see their original two-part essay here and here). Though fully aware of the “elitism” and “moralistic contempt” that flowed from the PMC’s role in the “management and manipulation of working-class life,” the Ehrenreichs remained convinced that the left should “forge an alliance between elements of the PMC and the working class.” No doubt that looked plausible in the 1970s, with Vietnam-era radicalism fresh in the memory. But the political defeat of the working class at the end of the 1980s led the PMC to fall back on what the Ehrenreichs called its “recurring vision” of a technocratic society run by “bureaucrats, planners and experts of various sorts.”
Ironically, while technocracy has thrived in the intervening years, the PMC itself has not—certainly not in academia, where casualised, part-time working, intensification of labour and declining pay and conditions have become commonplace. As the Ehrenreichs noted when updating their thesis in 2013, “the PMC lies in ruins.” In these new circumstances, they write, “members of the PMC face a choice”:
will they cling to an elitist conception of their own superiority and attempt to defend their own increasingly tenuous privileges, or will they act in solidarity with other working people and help craft a politics capable of creating a better world for all?
Seven years on, it looks as if too many have taken the first option.