One of the debates I spoke about on Monday about the purpose of university education put forward the two following propositions:

  1. The purpose of a university is to be the guardian of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness, preserving pure inquiry from dominant public opinions. (An interesting choice of words – a lovely phrase ‘preserve pure inquiry’ i.e. keep questioning, do not be swayed by lazy opinion.)
  2. The purpose of the university has changed to a focus on social mobility. University should allow more people to transform their lives and, if necessary, at the expense of some academic rigour. (This bends to the view that we must seek wider access in universities regardless of grade equality, in order to engineer social diversity – controversial in schools like this, but equally worth serious inquiry.)

These two views helped shaped the debate, which in fact went on to touch on themes such as its relationship to industry practice (i.e. should we be educating for pragmatic workplace reasons – that is to say vocational subjects), and themes like socialisation and student wellbeing.

These strands, I argue, are not just the preserve of universities, but of a well-rounded education itself, which should be academically pure, socially transformational and a preparation in its broadest sense for future life. We, I hope, try to embrace all of that here.

Now the context in which I spoke earlier in the week was that of freedom of expression, a freedom granted by law to all of us, but by an Act which also recognises the responsibilities of all of us to accept those freedoms in a responsible manner. What on earth might that mean in our own context?

The Human Rights Act also enshrines freedom of thought in law. This, I suggest, is a whole deal easier to state than freedom of expression. It would be hard to legislate against freedom of thought per se, but should people be free to express all of their thoughts? Well, no, according to the Act – not if that expression contravenes law, national security, public safety, health, morals, rights of others, information received in confidence, or the authority and impartiality of the judiciary. That is a lot of exceptions! And who, for instance, is in charge of the protection of morals? Should one, for instance, be free to express sexist, racist or homophobic views in the interests of freedom of expression? And yet, can one actually learn or get to the heart of anything without being provocative? Surely one must have the freedom to be able to express even outlandish views if one is going to be able to make progress with one’s learning?

Well, I would suggest two ways around this maze of difficulty. The first is that questions asked in the right way enable exploration in a safe way. For instance, if you wish to understand what is sexist or not, just keep asking. Socrates used to ask question after question of people until the truth slowly revealed itself. This Socratic technique is safe because it resists bald assertions which can lead to offence. When you are interested in something, when you wish to learn, when you wish to explore, just keep asking questions, keep interrogating, keep burrowing deeper. It will shape your thinking.

There are potential side benefits for you, too. I have been speaking to quite a few people recently who are considering making an application for Oxford or Cambridge. So many applicants seem to think this is all about great grades and attending societies. But it is not about that at all – though obviously one needs good grades to be considered, and attendance at societies may help light a few flames. It is about your innate curiosity, your ability to follow up on things, to keep seeking truth until it hurts, to keep asking those questions, to be burning with passion to get to the heart of something, to show immersion in areas of academia. Debate, challenge and creativity are all seen as fun and a means to an end. This is actually what those universities seek. Their own professors do it themselves, and they wish to teach others who share that interest. They have plenty of A*s to pick from, but in fact they wish for a real spark and a lively enthusiasm.

Secondly, remember to respect others. All others, not just your friends or your type. All others. That includes people you would normally dislike; people who are not popular with others; or people who are simply different in some way, either in appearance or attitude or manner. Respect all others. That way you earn the right to freedom of expression. 

Freedom of expression therefore is essential for learning, but to do so by endless questioning is the best way of all. The right to freedom of expression must be earned, by showing respect to all.

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