What are the implications for society of erosions of freedom on university campuses?
The German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine once commented – in translation – that ‘where people burn books, they will at the end also burn people’.
An assault on ideas and their expression will echo far beyond campuses. Dr. Bret Weinstein, who resigned from Evergreen College after being labelled a ‘racist’, says that the culture of intolerance grew on college campuses first because colleges are ‘soft targets’. This is particularly the case in the humanities, which deal above all with ideas germane to the human condition. ‘The steady decline in humanities majors is an unmistakable signal that this once noble field has become a wasteland.’1.
The decline, the institutionalized intolerance, and the inability to debate and civilly disagree is now spreading to other institutions, including, in Weinstein’s view, ‘the highest levels of the tech sector and the press, with the courts not far behind’.
In America, the ‘progressive’ left has achieved numerous ‘successes’ in broader society beyond university. Examples abound. In 2017, engineer James Damore was dismissed by Google because he argued in a leaked memo that women were to technical jobs. A YouTube user received a ‘community guidelines’ warning for supposed hate speech for putting a video of a conversation between Sam Harris and Douglas Murray (authors who might best be described as classical liberals) on his playlist.
There have been claims of a ‘concerted purge of conservative employees at Apple’. Ian Buruma, renowned author and journalist, was forced to resign from the editorship of the New York Review of Books. Buruma published an essay by a Canadian broadcaster who had been accused of sexually assaulting women. The broadcaster, who was acquitted on all charges, had lamented his status as a pariah. He was accused of adopting a ‘self-pitying tone’. Many interpreted Buruma as ‘showing a lack of interest’ in the accusations against the broadcaster.
It suggests one of two possibilities: either the women’s movement of the past four decades in America has achieved very little, or the tech generation’s sense of what is unfair is so broad and over-sensitive that anything forms a basis for complaint.
Camille Paglia, academic, author and veteran feminist, has drawn attention to the consequences of this. She has found the ‘headlong rush to judgement by so many well-educated, middle-class women in the #MeToo movement” startling and dismaying. Their elevation of emotion and group solidarity over fact and logic has resurrected damaging stereotypes of women’s irrationality that were once used to deny women the vote’.2.
These (and analogous) trends, visible in the Fallist movement and in the pronouncements of numerous academics, activists and commentators, have been visible in South Africa, too. The possible impact of all this on wider society in South Africa is mixed. On the positive side, the number of university students, particularly in the humanities, who will be going out into the workplace is tiny and their ‘progressive’ views will have a limited effect.
The world of work will expect a student to adapt to the workplace. Graduates will achieve little by expecting a workplace to adjust to their expectations. Anyway, larger companies have long had personnel policies to deal with some of the issues that might concern graduates.
Graduates will have a great deal to learn in the workplace that they were never taught at university. The graduate needs to approach work with a level of humility and a preparedness to learn. Workplaces in general are not as accommodating as universities – and even those able to fit into social justice NGOs will find that they require work skills, too.
Likewise, government departments may provide a ‘progressive’ environment for employment – but ‘progressive’ policy-making does not guarantee a ‘progressive’ workplace.
South Africa needs many more people with technical and vocational skills than it has need for academics. Our basic challenges are so great that most of society won’t have the time or inclination to indulge the social justice temperament. We have a far smaller pool of opportunities and accumulated wealth than developed societies to subsidise this sort of ‘work’.
But the damage that is being done by the Fallist movement, and by indulgent academics and administrators, is real. The most immediate risk to our society is to the reputations and status of our universities unless we are willing to accept their diminution in status internationally, which we shouldn’t.
It matters to parents who pay fees whether our universities are places worth sending their children to. Middle class parents, many of whom are alumni of our universities, were horrified at the racism, threats and vilification their children faced from 2015. Some removed their children from universities to others locally or internationally.
For parents and alumni, it wasn’t just the racism and criminality that jarred; many saw an insufficient inclination or inappropriate interventions by university management to manage the crises. Parents and alumni were left angry and dismayed. They are also concerned that the value of their degrees is being diminished. They looked at what was unfolding and were concerned for the institutions, for the safety of those involved in them and at the prospect that the enormous financial sacrifices they were making would ultimately be for nothing. Never mind that a degree may not provide the totality of preparation for the world of work, if things progressed as they were, it would likely provide scant introduction to it.
There probably isn’t an immediate threat of resurrection of a Fallist movement, but what is being taught and by whom is of great concern. The insistence by the ‘progressive’ left that much of the knowledge taught is Western, as opposed to universal, is incomprehensible and worrying. The uncritical manner in which the need for ‘decolonisation’ has taken hold – with little debate about what this meant, why it was desirable, which aspects of which courses and what parts of the institutional culture should be revised, what could be removed and what should take its place – is a warning. This is a ‘debate’ that eschews debate, revelling instead in acclaim and moral force.
The brevity of the Fallist movements’ existence was due to unclear (and ultimately unachievable) goals, an incoherent strategy, a deliberate refusal to appoint leadership and general ill-discipline, rudeness, and criminality.
Currently, though, there is huge pressure, subtle and not so subtle, by ‘progressive’ academics, staff and students to press ‘progressive’ agendas. This includes changes to curricula, some of which may be justified but some may not. More insidious is the pressure on tenured white academics to resign.
And in the last few weeks, all of his has been aggravated by the relaxation of minimum admission entry requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Students now need just 30% in the language of learning and teaching at their institution of choice. Students would also have to obtain between 50-59% in four 20-credit National Senior Certificate subjects.
Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University Jonathan Jansen is critical of the change. Jansen says: “This is a continuation of the mediocrity seen in the lower grades now being applied to universities.
“Now, universities will be taking even more students who are less prepared with an even greater failure rate, and this is bad.”3.
If some academics of stature feel that they can’t sustain the pressure, we are likely to lose them to overseas universities. We need to consider the evolution of private universities or ‘institutes of higher learning’.
There are about 200 private tertiary education organisations. Most provide technical or vocational training. Those that do provide academic education can’t call themselves universities, because they don’t provide the necessary breadth of facilities. They are ‘institutes of higher learning’.
The Stadio Group is one example of a private ‘university’, which offers business, commerce, education, training, creative industries, law, security and political science. Stadio is considering introducing faculties for information technology, engineering, manufacturing, agriculture, nature conservation, architecture, the built environment and ultimately a medical faculty.4.
For private ‘universities’, a humanities faculty staffed by top academics could attract more students because of a wider breadth of subjects. However, we can’t afford to rely on private ‘universities’ to fill the gaps.
The ability to express views freely has diminished on South African campuses. Society, however, looks to academia as the apex of intellectual rigour to uphold and develop our freedoms. Many universities which fought for freedoms under apartheid are succumbing to the illiberal forces of the hard left. Curtailing freedoms at universities has dire consequences for the continuing democratic nature of society. As Heine warned, the degradation of the battle of ideas can tip into a staggering debasement of society as a whole, not least its propensity to accept tyranny.
Paglia was horrified at how classical liberal academia did virtually nothing to fight the onslaught of the ‘progressives’. A great many university stakeholders are classically liberal and want their universities to advance not remove freedoms. But they must take the fight to the tyrannical minority and society must give them any help they need.
As Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said: ‘Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor never the tormented.’
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the last of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
1. Uri Harris: The Institutionalization of Social Justice, Quillette, 17 November 2018;
2. Camille Paglia: It’s Time for a New Map of the Gender World, Quillette, Interview by editor Claire Lehmann, 10 November 2018;
3. Jonathan Jansen: Lowering university entry requirements ‘a move to mediocrity’, Cape Talk, 4 December 2018
4. Chris Gilmour: Prognosis for private tertiary education positive in long term, BusinessLive PREMIUM, 19 September 2018;