Category Archives: Free Speech

The Need for a Progressive Attitude

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In her thoughtful essay ‘The Crisis in Education’, Hannah Arendt addresses the difficulty of teaching in the modern world. If you go into teaching with the sole purpose of making a real difference, changing the world one child at a time, you might end up doing nothing of the sort.

A revolutionary or radical attitude is needed in the adult realm because we always need to remake our world. The world is always on the verge of ruin and a traditionalist conservative view where one stands and merely ‘admires the ruins’ will do nothing to make the world a great inheritance for our children.

We should try to make the world a better place than it is. Always. This doesn’t mean an unalloyed progressive mindset is a good thing. It does mean that our arguments are continual, our disagreements fundamental and our need to work together essential. Education has an important role in this, we need to prepare children to take part in the conversations, the arguments and help them develop the wherewithal to do, to contribute and to make change.

In order to do this one can imagine the unthinking classroom being full of novelty, in which the ruins are not examined and the future is always in sight. A classroom that shapes the new utopia and children practice the skills with which they will actively make their contribution. A room where their will is the authority and in which the teacher has the role of guiding them, responding to their playful desires and wishes. This world, shaped by the teacher’s idealism, and the burgeoning youthful enthusiasm will not be tainted by the old.

Here then is the paradox, this world that comes into being will not be radical, as it will have no root. Shaped by a tyranny of the present, it won’t understand the ruins it knocks down to build its gleaming new pathways and concrete blocks – or even the blocks it is cladding. Arendt sees the role of the teacher as a difficult one for an idealist, for the teacher’s job is to bring the past into the realm of the young:

To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity… But this holds good only for the realm of education, or rather for the relations between grown-ups and children, and not for the realm of politics, where we act among and with adults and equals. In politics this conservative attitude–which accepts the world as it is, striving only to preserve the status quo–can only lead to destruction, because the world, in gross and in detail, is irrevocably delivered up to the ruin of time unless human beings are determined to intervene, to alter, to create what is new…

Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation… Because the world is made by mortals it wears out… The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting–right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is always, from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction…

the modern crisis is especially hard for the educator to bear, because it is his task to mediate between the old and the new, so that his very profession requires of him an extraordinary respect for the past. 

If, however the teacher is determined to make the child make the future in a certain way by dictating the terms of the newness of the world that they make we defeat our darker purpose. The child cannot be told how to draw the new world, they can however be painted pictures of the old one, and these pictures must be painted with warts and all. Cromwell is a great example, hugely important figure, hugely flawed and the English Civil War and its ramifications painted in as many shades of grey one can muster.

As the past isn’t one story but a continuation of one damn argument after another, children should be made aware of these arguments, that we admire ruins but the reason that they are ruins might be this… or this… we conserve in order to learn. We treat the pupil as a stranger to these facts and fictions we teach and by presenting arguments, dialectic, we give them the old world to ensure they will be able to intervene, alter and create the new.

The balance between presenting the old and the arguments within is a careful act. This includes, for example, what should be read and how it should be read. These questions are vital when considering the design of a curriculum and if we listen to the words of Arendt we are helped in our choices.

The trivium curriculum gives shape to these choices – the grammar – ‘the structures, the ‘ruins’ of the past, are examined in context, and, later, examined when the arguments of the past and the present are brought to bear, and, finally, the pupil, with this knowledge, is given the wherewithal, the ‘voice’ with which to express herself. She expresses herself freely within the constraints offered, by accepting or rejecting these chains (or degrees thereof) and offers herself up to the criticism of her teacher and, eventually, her peers. This is a truly progressive approach, rooted in the past.

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On Milo and Free Speech in Schools

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The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. JS Mill

This week saw Milo Yiannopoulos banned after discussions with the DfE’s Counter Extremism Unit from speaking at his old school, the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, a school from which he was expelled eleven years ago. Apparently the concern was that there might have been demonstrations against him that might have got out of hand and the reputation of the school might be harmed in some way. Meanwhile, in Scotland, (Gorgeous) George Galloway who had spoken at  Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire that morning was later ‘attacked’ (Glitter Bombed) by a group of five people led, according to Galloway by a ‘Trans and an anarchist’, at a speaking event at the University of Aberdeen.

As Galloway said:

Few weeks go by when the ‘identity politics’ crowd don’t strike one campus or another either physically or with their ‘no platform’ demands.

Galloway is right, there are too many people who rather than argue and debate with people wish to close down debate entirely and whether they are groups of demonstrators or state agencies we should do whatever we can to ensure free speech in our places of learning.

Katie Hopkins wrote in the Daily Mail (check your personal triggers at this point) that:

Rather than let the 220 pupils who had signed up to hear him speak, listen, challenge him and make up their own minds, it was decided that exposing pupils to anything other than a liberal viewpoint could be damaging.

Hopkins has a point when she says that too many, so called ‘liberals’ are:

The… champions of diversity who will not tolerate diversity of thought or opinion.

This is an important point. If children in our schools, who can access a wide range of opinions online, are unable to access a range of thoughts, ideas and opinions when at school and are able to see how these ideas stack up under scrutiny then are they being educated properly?

But there is a problem with extreme views, they are not ‘harmless’.

In the Guardian the murderer of Jo Cox MP, Thomas Mair, was described in the following way:

Mair was racist and a terrorist in the making, his home stuffed with far-right books and Nazi memorabilia and his mind brimming with a belief that white people were facing an existential threat. “The white race,” Mair once wrote, was about to be plunged into “a very bloody struggle”. His greatest obsession, however, and his deepest bitterness was over those white people whom he condemned in his writings as “the collaborators”: the liberals, the left and the media.

Mair accessed his local library’s computers, looking up such things as the BNP, white supremacists, Nazis and public shootings, the Ku Klux Klan, the Waffen SS, Israel, serial killers and matricide. His hatred fuelled by his reading and his reclusiveness.

If we were to apply Mill’s principles on Liberty to Mair, we would have to make a decision about what point someone becomes a danger to others. This is a judgement call and would also necessitate some form of scrutiny of a person’s private life in order to ascertain whether they might be a danger.

David Aaronovitch pointed out in this week’s Times:

I have yet to come across an example of a public figure murdered by a mad liberal whose home was found to be stocked with books by John Stuart Mill and covered in slogans calling for proportional representation

The centre must hold. There are certain aspects of a person’s views that might alert us to further problems. This is where ‘society’ takes a view but one in which it can overreach itself, Mill, again:

when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its public functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right; or any mandates at all in things in which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.  

Those who call for a no platform have a point, we know people have been radicalised  by hate preachers and fundamentalist Muslim extremism and far right extremism are two of the most obvious dangers to our way of life but is that a good enough reason to ban Milo from speaking at his old school?

No. There is considerable difficulty at the heart of Mill’s liberal utilitarianism, but it is not, in his view, for the State to make moral judgements about us unless those actions are going to harm others. The school invited Milo and wished to question him about his views, this is clearly not a school in which pupils will be brainwashed by his ideas and then go on to do harm to others. That his views can be easily found online, often in the context of having little scrutiny means that they would probably have had a ‘safer’ space in which to analyse his thinking than they do now as the talk failed to materialise. The idea that the school which expelled Milo would have some harm done to its reputation is ridiculous and if potential demonstrations are a problem then it’s for the police to ensure freedom of speech is upheld as a principle as far as is possible.

It is the danger of views not being open to scrutiny that should worry us more. The more we can argue with those with whom we disagree the better. That some are a danger to others is not the argument, we know this and these people should be dealt with before they can do harm to others. If only Mair could have been prevented from carrying out his disgusting crime, the better for us all.

If anything, more schools should be inviting the likes of Milo and Galloway to speak to their pupils, however, it might be better that schools forgo the idea of having people  ‘preach’ to their pupils and ensure, instead, that equally eloquent speakers are pitched against them. Debate specific issues, invite these people to make their argument in the context of the topic of your choice and through the discipline of a formal debate so that their views can be tied down and exposed to forensic examination.

It’s the hiding away of views or the exposure to unchallenged platitudes that can foment more trouble.

Schools and Freedom of Speech

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Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions

David Hume

Try as we might to be rational beings, devoid of emotions, especially in times of crisis it is in times of crisis when we can’t help but notice we are nothing of the sort. When we experience visceral reactions to events we often give words to our feelings and we shout out into the void. Such has been the temerity of recent events to upset our proverbial apple carts that we can’t help running around, picking up those metaphorical apples, only to see them roll further from us and the few we have clutched to our bosom look lonely in comparison, so we shout. Our beliefs, traditions, certainties guide us in the best of times, these beliefs are not the result of reasoned argument, rather they are the result of custom. Those of a rational bent might say that this is a bad thing but I would argue it is a positive. Positive because it retains as central to the human condition a healthy dose of doubt although we might forever ignore this fact feeling. Rather than use reason to defend our feelings, use it, when we can, as the slave to our deep seated uncertainties. Feelings and reason, side by side, with feelings the ‘master’ and reason the ‘slave’; we feel wronged, but have we been, we feel on top of the world, but should we?

When beliefs are challenged, when certainties are taken from us we become fearful, tearful, angry, depressed… and it is at moments like this when instead of being most sure that we are the only righteous ones in the world and everyone else is mad, bad and dangerous to know, we should be at our most doubtful. As I look around for ‘I told you so…’ justifications for my thoughts, evidence that I was right and you were wrong, so that my conscience may be salved, I should do so with underlying doubt. When circumstances change we have to examine our outlook in response.

Those of a liberal disposition who have spent the last few years in the ascendancy, changing the world economically and socially to be more individualistic, global, connected, tolerant, competitive, creative are having to come face to face with the idea of nationhood, nationalism, community, intolerance, the desire to disconnect, the downside of competition: areas where optimism might fear to tread, and it’s a shock. Some people who last week were castigating other people for a lack of optimism are the pessimists now.

Should they be? Why not? It would be dishonest to their feelings to be anything but. Yet, if custom is to be our guide, there are positives – firstly principles: this is a time to reexamine and make positive changes – witness our two political parties reacting to their gut instincts – time for change that restates what their parties might be for and the pursuit of power in a democracy. That this is occurring now should be no surprise and is an essential part of making things better. A general election ought to follow. A liberal party and, maybe, other parties of the centre need to strengthen if our two main parties veer to left and right, why? Custom: we need the centre.

Look at the large global companies, countries, organisations that have moved beyond the human scale and look to how some of these big brands have delighted in being ‘disruptors’ for the communities they have long since lost touch with, desiring instead to be part of an almost bizarre homogenous, idealistic, utopian, cosmopolitanism in which all people can live in a non-multi-cultural space in which diversity is to be celebrated by all wearing pastel colours, drinking Starbucks, connecting via Apple, driving a Volkswagen, wearing Nike, and supporting Manchester United; diverse under the same or similar branded umbrella. This vision of liberalism became far from liberal, intolerant of diversity it sought to impose a happy-clappy utopia onto the world. Now liberalism is in danger of losing its grip entirely maybe it is time to reject this pseudo-liberalism and replace it with the real thing.

Schools can be part of a solution, by returning to first principles and rather than trying to ‘disrupt’ themselves they should concentrate on what they do best and provide stability in troubled times. Schools should be building links with community, nation and nations, and instead of a tick box pursuit of liberal idealism where nobody is right wing, racist, sexist, or homophobic, where all things intersect and victimhood takes centre stage, where intolerance of intolerance is in danger of closing down debate and where ‘western’ means all things bad, we need our feelings to guide us and have them brought out into the open.

And then what? Blood on the walls? Reason must counteract – argument and debate – patient, well argued, well thought through and, yes, emotional too. For too long we have tried to deny some voices and then recoil in horror when they shout and we resort to the most extreme measures to shut them up, and so we should… As Aditya Chakrabortty  points out racist belligerence, boorishness and downright dangerous viciousness can be encouraged when “cabinet ministers, party leaders and prime-ministerial wannabes sprinkle arguments with racist poison. When intolerance is not only tolerated, but indulged and encouraged.” This needs to be stamped upon as it has been in the past, let custom be our guide – draw on the cry from The Battle of Cable Street: ‘They shall not pass’ and resist with every sinew. But might it be better to also challenge these thoughts at their root rather than just relying on suppressing them when it is almost too late?

When I was at school I had a friend who was proud of his National Front views, he would air them regularly, even to his friends who were black. Instead of no-platforming him, we played, talked, debated with him, told him he was an idiot, got angry, argued and continued over time so to do. We didn’t think it through, this was no co-ordinated plan, we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘no-platforming’, we were just kids, trying to make sense of a complex world. It worked… well, by worked, I mean he changed from being a fascist to becoming a sweet, loving, anarchist hippy/punk type; whatever floats your boat maaaaaan.

In schools, voices should not be shut up – for this is where debate is of most urgent importance, because these children are makers of the future and it is within them that solutions need to be found. This is not easy but it is an essential part of strengthening a consensual democracy. Space needs to be found for arguments to be exposed and not shut away so that feelings turn into simmering resentment and airing of reactionary thoughts retreat back into the safe space of home or group. Our institutions need to encompass real difference, not become ‘safe spaces’ for those who all agree. We need unsafe spaces – not dangerous spaces but spaces where confrontation and debate can take place and instead of intimidating people on trams, at bus stops, and through Naziesque propaganda, the challenge to these, what I consider, abhorrent ideas needs to happen not from a position of shocked defence but one of engaged attack.

All should understand that a muscular liberalism can assert ‘moral truths’ about conduct, that violence and bullying is wrong and that this might include grey areas but if in a school election there is a fascist candidate let them stand and face the arguments and maybe, even, vitriol from their peers. Let them feel it. Liberal democracy needs voices, it is consensual not through physical violence, nor from the violence of excluding people from that debate, but from the  agreed position that freedom of speech is one of its central tenets. Abhorrent views need to be challenged in the open and not just dismissed as ‘wrong’ and closed down.

It is customary to say that free speech is sacrosanct, do the customs of your school have that enshrined? Teach kids to argue and debate about stuff and get them busy strengthening their community so that they can reach out to each other, to the future and to the world with ‘an open hand’ rather than, later, with a closed fist.