Open Education

I would wager that I have been Chancellor of more universities than anyone alive today.

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May 27, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

I would wager that I have been Chancellor of more universities than anyone alive today. This is partly because when I was Governor of Hong Kong, I was made Chancellor of every university in the city. I protested that it would surely be better for the universities to choose their own constitutional heads. But the universities would not allow me to resign gracefully. So for five years I enjoyed the experience of giving tens of thousands of students their degrees and watching what this rite of passage meant for them and their families.

When I came back to Britain in 1997, I was asked to become Chancellor of Newcastle University. Then, in 2003, I was elected Chancellor by the graduates of Oxford University, one of the world’s greatest institutions of learning. So it should not be surprising that I have strong views about what it means to be a university and to teach, do research, or study at one.

Universities should be bastions of freedom in any society. They should be free from government interference in their primary purposes of research and teaching; and they should control their own academic governance. I do not believe it is possible for a university to become or remain a world-class institution if these conditions do not exist.

The role of a university is to promote the clash of ideas, to test the results of research with other scholars, and to impart new knowledge to students. Freedom of speech is thus fundamental to what universities are, enabling them to sustain a sense of common humanity and uphold the mutual tolerance and understanding that underpin any free society. That, of course, makes universities dangerous to authoritarian governments, which seek to stifle the ability to raise and attempt to answer difficult questions.

But if any denial of academic liberty is a blow struck against the meaning of a university, the irony today is that some of the most worrying attacks on these values have been coming from inside universities.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, some students and teachers now seek to constrain argument and debate. They contend that people should not be exposed to ideas with which they strongly disagree. Moreover, they argue that history should be rewritten to expunge the names (though not the endowments) of those who fail to pass today’s tests of political correctness. Thomas Jefferson and Cecil Rhodes, among others, have been targeted. And how would Churchill and Washington fare if the same tests were applied to them?

Some people are being denied the chance to speak as well – so-called “no platforming”, in the awful jargon of some clearly not very literate campuses. There are calls for “safe spaces” where students can be protected from anything that assaults their sense of what is moral and appropriate. This reflects and inevitably nurtures a harmful politics of victimization – defining one’s own identity (and thus one’s interests) in opposition to others.

When I was a student 50 years ago, my principal teacher was a leading Marxist historian and former member of the Communist Party. The British security services were deeply suspicious of him. He was a great historian and teacher, but these days I might be encouraged to think that he had threatened my “safe space.” In fact, he made me a great deal better informed, more open to discussion of ideas that challenged my own, more capable of distinguishing between an argument and a quarrel, and more prepared to think for myself.

Of course, some ideas – incitement of racial hatred, gender hostility, or political violence – are anathema in every free society. Liberty requires some limits (decided freely by democratic argument under the rule of law) in order to exist.

Universities should be trusted to exercise that degree of control themselves. But intolerance of debate, of discussion, and of particular branches of scholarship should never be tolerated. As the great political philosopher Karl Popper taught us, the only thing we should be intolerant of is intolerance itself. That is especially true at universities.

Yet some American and British academics and students are themselves undermining freedom; paradoxically, they have the liberty to do so. Meanwhile, universities in China and Hong Kong are faced with threats to their autonomy and freedom, not from within, but from an authoritarian government.

In Hong Kong, the autonomy of universities and free speech itself, guaranteed in the city’s Basic Law and the 50-year treaty between Britain and China on the city’s status, are under threat. The rationale seems to be that, because students strongly supported the pro-democracy protests in 2014, the universities where they study should be brought to heel. So the city’s government blunders away, stirring up trouble, clearly on the orders of the government in Beijing.

Indeed, the Chinese authorities only recently showed what they think of treaty obligations and of the “golden age” of Sino-British relations (much advertised by British ministers), by abducting a British citizen (and four other Hong Kong residents) on the city’s streets. The five were publishing books that exposed some of the dirty secrets of China’s leaders.

On the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party has launched the biggest crackdown on universities since the aftermath of the killings in Tiananmen Square in 1989. There is to be no discussion of so-called Western values in China’s universities. Only Marxism can be taught. Did no one tell President Xi Jinping and his Politburo colleagues where Karl Marx came from? The trouble these days is precisely that they know little about Marx but a lot about Lenin.

Westerners should take a closer interest in what is happening in China’s universities and what that tells us about the real values underpinning scholarship, teaching, and the academy. Compare and contrast, as students are asked to do.

Do you want universities where the government decides what it is allegedly safe for you to learn and discuss? Or do you want universities that regard the idea of a “safe space” – in terms of closing down debate in case it offends someone – as an oxymoron in an academic setting? Western students should think occasionally about their counterparts in Hong Kong and China who must fight for freedoms that they take for granted – and too often abuse.

Adapted from project-syndicate.

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This was an article on Education.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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24 Comments


  1. author is against idea of ‘safe space’ .
    university should be free to discuss and debate. shouldn’t be limited like chinese uni.

    Reply

  2. The author argues that the freedom to share ideas and have one’s ideas challenged are vital in maintaining a free society. Academic limitations, especially ones in political nature, undermine the key principles of discussion and debate.

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  3. (7 paragraphs in_

    Author=many chancellors
    University should=freedom (from external governing entities)
    Students + teachers deny this freedom=ironic (CW)

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  4. universities = freedom, freedom at universities limited, debate necessary

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  5. University should be free of government interference

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  6. US and British University: “safe haven”- due to political correctness.
    China and Hong Kong: Gov’t channels the information in university.

    Debate and discussion in the classroom setting at the university must not be interfered by political correctness(US and Britain) and authoritative gov’t(China and Hong Kong).

    Reply

  7. Academic institutions represent freedom of speech of ideas and debate, should be indep of gov control. Western education centers which internally attack free speech principals should look at Chinese universities being attacked externally by Gov to realize the importance of independent academic institutions.

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  8. MIP: univ = free speech but denied from within (west); contrast to east=restricted by gov.

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  9. The author informs the audience about the importance of freedom in speech and collaboration, as well as in the exchanging of ideas in an academic setting. Universities should be places that allow debate and arguments. The passage gives examples of places that don’t allow this due to government interference, and asks the question, “Is that a real university and is this what we want?”

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  10. MIP: freedom of speech =/= fully allowed (Western universities); no freedom Chinese universities

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  11. The author expresses opinion against freedom of speech at the college level. Compare and contrast between two types of censorship: (1) governmental censorship e.g. mainland China on Hong Kong universities (2) censorship from within e.g. “safe space” at US universities.

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    1. oops, I meant “The author expresses opinion against censorship of freedom of speech at the college level.”

      Reply

  12. The author argues that during his extensive experience with universities as a chancellor, he has come to realize freedom of speech, research and debate is vital to the foundations of a university. However, in recent times government interference and censorship in universities is threatening the very constitutions of what makes universities great. He argues that in places like the UK and USA, authorities within universities are making it difficult for students to learn and discuss to create “safe spaces” for those that might be offended and to delete historic figures who may are deemed as politically incorrect to halt “extreme” views and opinions. While in places like China and Hong Kong, academic liberty is being targeted by government censorship to dictate views and opinions so they fall in line with what the government deems to be correct to keep the population from rebelling against them. The author aims to get us thinking about what we take for granted and whether these approaches against academic liberty should be considered

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  13. author has some authority in speaking as an experienced educator (principle). He believes that a good institution should be free from government interference and encourages students to speak and debate freely. The problem with current education in the UK and the US is that campuses “shielded” students from outside reality and that defeats the purpose of education. The problem of education in China and HongKong is that the government of Beijing interfere how and what schools should teach students which doesnt allow students think and debate freely, also americans and british students take their “freedom” of debate for granted.
    author’s tone: almost criticizing current education especially in China and Hong Kong, unhappy with how campuses are unable to provide students the kind of education with freedom of debate and learning all perspectives.

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  14. Western university students oftentimes take their liberty and freedom of speech for granted and elect to shelter themselves from opposing viewpoints, while ironically, students in Eastern nations lack these same rights and fight for less restrictions on the scope of their learning.

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  15. MIP: Free speech= fundamental to Uni’s + Uni’s should be in control of. Uni’s at risk of decreased freedoms (from “within” in West, from government in Asia).

    Reply

  16. Author knows from experience being a Chancellor to so many Universities, the requisites for being a good university. He posits that a university should strive to promote freedom of speech and this can only be done through proper governance, not one that is authoritarian.
    Author is against universities in the West that seek to stifle freedom of speech simply because “safe spaces” of the faculty and students should be observed and they should not have to be sensitised to views that do not resonate with them. In that sense, their right to not be offended should be respected. Author is concerned that when people assume that their “safe spaces” are threatened, they don’t attempt to engage in worthwhile discussions and ideas cannot be thoroughly challenged and people don’t think beyond their comfort zone.
    Author still believes that limits should still be imposed in regulating free speech. After all the freedom to express doesn’t equate to freedom to provoke. Universities should exercise self-control but definitely not disallow debate and discussion.
    While westerners have abused and taken for granted their freedom to engage in free speech as it an inalienable right in their own countries, people living in the East must fight for this right back home given their governments’ heavy censorship and their emphasis on political correctness.

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  17. PC/ safe space undermines democracy. Within university attack

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  18. MI: we are basically taking our freedom from granted because in Chinese universities, people’s freedoms are controlled by the government whereas in the western world, teachers and students within universities are the ones who are restricting discussion

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  19. MI: Freedom of speech is vital to learning, and independence from gov, promotes discussion of clashing ideas, western universities luckier than others

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  20. Universities = should be free from government interference = should control their own academic governance. Freedom is often abused from inside.

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  21. Universities require freedom for knowledge; arguments are constrained and attacks are from the inside. intolerance should not be tolerated. China is even worse. Author = negative

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  22. MP: universities are places where people should be able to share their ideas, but this doesn’t always happen-in the US/UK, there are safe spaces but those are often shut down and in China its worse
    author: for speaking up and fighting for the differences one cares for

    Reply

  23. Universities should promote speech freedom, and tolerant the diverse/conflicted ideas. US, UK, China (both Hong Kong and mainland) all do not perform perfectly for their respective causes.

    Reply

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