When I first heard about the Daily Telegraph’s attack on subjects offered by the University of Sydney and UTS, my first reaction was boredom.
I was not, I should add, bored by the descriptions of the subjects. Nor by the words of the two academics mentioned, who are both internationally esteemed.
No, I was bored by the rhetoric employed. The same old ‘university as communist bogeyman’ rhetoric, trotted out with a relentless lack of imagination.
The rhetoric that I’m describing dates back to at least the early ‘90s, in the work of US commentators such as Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza rose to prominence in 1991 with his revealingly titled book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. This text bemoaned what D’Souza perceived to be the growing emphasis on race and gender in North American higher education curricula. According to D’Souza, this emphasis had resulted in a fetishisation of victimhood, and the silencing of dissenting (read: right-wing) voices.
In Australia, attacks against an illiberal academy have been launched by the likes of Andrew Bolt, Jennifer Oriel and Kevin Donnelly (in short, a Who’s Who of News Corp).
These writers have advanced an argument very similar to D’Souza’s. That is, university has been overtaken by postmodern ideologues — or ‘cultural Marxists’, to use a popular term — who are more interested in indoctrinating students than educating them. Students are being taught that Left is right, and that there’s political mileage in being marginalised. Conservative and moderate voices are being censored, we’re told, and an unnecessary emphasis has been placed on race and gender, as well as sexuality.
In the recent Daily Telegraph article, for example, the University of Sydney’s Jane Park is accused of encouraging students to ‘pat dogs to understand racism.’ The article’s author has deduced this based on the fact that Dr. Park brought her dog to a lecture. A snippet of that lecture is quoted:
It is not just about let’s hate all men and white people. That can be fun for like five seconds and then it gets boring. Also my dog is white. It is about white dog privilege. The idea of divide and conquer which brought us here — colonisation, capitalism, patriarchy … our identity and our value is defined by our commodification as being valuable in a capitalist society that has to become something else, that has to become definable.
I can’t speak for Dr. Park, but it sounds as though she’s using humour to help teach students about crucial and sometimes confronting issues. For the article’s author, however, this (decontextualised) quote is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the contemporary university. The writer approvingly quotes conservative commentator Kevin Donnelly as saying that this contemporary university is a place where ‘students are no longer able to have robust debate because everyone is part of some victim group.’
Yes, the rhetoric that I’ve just described is simplistic. Yes, it relies on gross generalisations and straw men/women. Yes, it ignores the realities of life in today’s universities. You seldom hear the above commentators talking about the increasing casualisation of academic labour, or staff cutbacks. You seldom hear Donnelly, Bolt and co talk about xenophobia and misogyny on campus, or students being forced to balance study with ever longer hours of paid employment, or student debt.
Yes, this rhetoric is really, really boring.
I wonder, though, if boredom is the only thing that myself and other scholars feel about attacks such as that launched by the Telegraph. I wonder if boredom masks another, altogether less palatable emotion.
I’m talking about terror.
Post-911, the term ‘terror’ is commonly associated with the violence wrought by state actors, usually those of Middle Eastern origins. In fact, terror is actually what is being wrought on scholars who write and teach about topics such as race, and who acknowledge that racism is still, y’know, a thing.
The commentators inflicting the terror are mostly white (Dinesh D’Souza, who’s still doing his shtick, is an exception), and their weapons are their words.
And what harsh weapons those words are.
You see, the attacks on the ‘ideological academy’ are not just merely the obscure musings of tabloid titans. These attacks have (directly or indirectly) contributed to a climate in which researchers are afraid to voice opinions that go against the status quo, lest they be punished. This fear of punishment is based on reality, as the following two examples attest:
- In 2005, then-Education Minister Brendan Nelson vetoed a number of successful Australian Research Council applications. His reasons for doing so were never spelled out, but there was a rumour that the vetoing was done on political grounds (e.g. the grant applications in question didn’t align with Nelson’s politics). Nelson’s interference came after a long-running series of articles about the apparent left-wing bias of the ARC. These articles were penned by Andrew Bolt and Padraic McGuinness.
- In 2016, News Corp launched an assault on the Safe Schools Coalition Australia (SSCA), which had been operating out of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. The initiative was accused of everything from promoting gender fluidity (a bad thing, according to critics) to grooming children for sexual abuse. La Trobe briefly suspended the SSCA’s founder after remarks made on her private Facebook account received media coverage.
I’ve also heard stories of academics being reluctant to teach or write about certain topics because they might be accused of being ‘ideological’ or ‘going too far’, and that they might receive negative feedback on subject experience surveys. (Those surveys are famous for containing racist and misogynist missives). Such stories have been told by precariously employed academic staff members, as well as those who have tenure.
In a 2004 study of terror, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes:
I am a teacher of the humanities. In the humanities classroom begins a training for what may produce a criticism that can possibly engage a public sphere deeply hostile to the mission of the humanities when they are understood as a persistent attempt at an uncoercive rearrangement of desires, through teaching reading.
Spivak mentions ‘the humanities,’ but I suspect her words have relevance to all scholars who want their teaching and research to contribute to a more just world. This quote also suggests why scholars and subjects such as those attacked by the Daily Telegraph are so vital.