Joanna Rossiter

Independent thought is dying at Cambridge University

Independent thought is dying at Cambridge University
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Who on earth would want to be an academic in 2019? This is the question anyone with a modicum of intellectual curiosity must now be asking themselves. When a PhD student left Cambridge University last week on the grounds that a non-white lecturer 'had repeatedly read out the n-word during class discussions', I harboured a vain hope that the university might express support for the lecturer on the grounds that they were reading from a text and not using their own words. That would have been the logical stance to take.

Instead, we are seeing a capitulation to the accusations of students. Yesterday, it was revealed that the University is providing ‘reverse mentors’ for its academics to teach them about the dangers of institutional racism. How did Cambridge reach a situation where it’s students that rule the roost while academics are treated like school children?

The unspoken assumption is that if you are white and middle-aged you harbour inherent racist tendencies that must be expunged before you are intellectually pure enough to be allowed into a lecture theatre. An academic doesn’t even have to be offensive any more to be taken to task by the thought police: it is assumed that before you even open your mouth you are starting from a position of bias.

Even the term ‘reverse mentors’ is laughable: it implies that the BAME academics and students taking part were somehow inferior before they were mentors. How long will it be before an enlightened member of the student body takes issue with the phrase and the scheme is scrapped on the grounds that it too harbours subliminal racist intentions? I give it a week.

The great sadness in all this is that students are being given the impression by their seniors that quibbles about semantics are more important than rigorous academic study. As the recently fired academic Noah Carl discovered, you can’t simply pursue an intellectual line of enquiry because it interests you or you think it might interrogate existing societal assumptions; you must first make sure that your work ticks all the correct moral boxes.

Mind you, Cambridge is no stranger to this sort of political overhaul. Henry VIII banned the long established study of scholastic philosophy in 1536 and even determined the exact texts that students should read. The difference between then and now is that intellectual freedom isn’t being threatened from above by the state but by academics themselves who either espouse these views, or fear the repercussions of challenging an increasingly vocal student body. Even the college porters have been on the receiving end of the woke brigade. Last summer, the porters of King’s College got into hot water with Dr Priyamvada Gopal who accused them of racism when they neglected to use her academic title, and instead called her ‘Madam’.

Whatever your reason for being on a university campus, there is now only one lens through which your every intellectual pursuit and uttered word is viewed: whether or not what you say or write will cause offence. The message coming from Cambridge is clear: if you value free and independent thinking, don’t go to university and don’t, whatever you do, work for one.