Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?

A couple of people have asked me my opinion on an article published on Vox this week.  Writing anonymously, a university lecturer laments the entitled, consumerist tendency amongst his students, which means that they complain whenever they are exposed to ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable.  The article carried hyperlinks to examples where academics—both students and in some cases teachers—have successfully shut down discussion or caused events to be cancelled because they were deemed ‘offensive’ or upsetting.

If this is a real trend then it’s appalling.  As I and others have argued previously and constantly, there are numerous benefits to having offensive statements made openly.  Such statements can be countered and challenged on the one hand; but they may actually have some merit and change minds and morality (for example, women’s suffrage or gay marriage).  Offence can shock people out of complacency, or be the only thing that makes people question traditional values and the structure of their society.  Finally, it’s far better to have offensive views out in the open, rather than driven underground where they can fester and grow, and where those who have been censored can claim to be a ‘free speech martyr’.

I do want to raise a few aspects of the article that give me pause for thought, however. Continue reading “Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?”

A-Level Media Studies Should be Compulsory

The Daily Mail reports that state schools are ‘failing to equip’ pupils for leading universities. While private schools funnel their pupils into ‘facilitating subjects’ like Mathematics and English Literature,

Figures show that state school pupils are significantly more likely than their privately-educated counterparts to take A-level subjects which are less valued by universities, such as media studies, performance studies and dance.

Commenting on the figures, Tory MP Chris Skidmore said:

Every pupil regardless of their background must be encouraged to study the subjects that matter

Two things. First, it is very worrying that a small group of research led univesities can dictate what subjects ‘matter’.

Second, Media Studies should be on the list of ‘facilitating subjects’, and yet it is not.

This weekend, we discovered that The Sun has been manufacturing stories to suit its ideological ends, while other newspapers pretend to interview people they have not. The Leveson Inquiry just exposed some of the shocking complicity between news organisations, the politicians and the police, yet it continues unabated. The impact of celebrity culture, and the unhealthy body images marketed to us by the media, are perennial concerns. Arguments about free expression or political correctness are everywhere. Some crucial democratic issues (such as the blacklisting of unionised workers) are suspiciously under-reported. We complain constantly about the priorities the broadcasters give to different stories in their daily programmes: Snow disruption, or the conflict in Mali?

Moreover, eeverything we know (or think we know) about the things that matter, is funnelled to us through the media organisations. Even social networks are filtered for us, presenting us with the news and views that they think want to hear (the better to advertise to us). It is essential that citizens are media literate enough to understand how the information we receive reaches our eyeballs. It is crucial that we are skeptical and savvy enough to question the news organisations that claim to serve us.

I took exclusively ‘facilitating subjects’ at A level, and never had the opportunity to choose Media Studies. I wish I had. Let’s make sure the next generation does not suffer from the same educational deficit. Media literacy is as essential to our democracy as basic numeracy. It should be a compulsory subject in our schools.