Whether you call it “wokery”, “radical progressivism”, or whatever, it has long been a suspicion that it’s more pronounced in elite academic institutions. Now this can be substantiated empirically.
A recently published paper from the think tank Civitas, where I work, has found that while 62 per cent of universities used trigger warnings, this was true of 81 per cent of high-tariff (average UCAS points offer) universities, compared to 46 per cent of low-tariff universities. Or consider that while 59 per cent offer training or guidance on “anti-racism”, this reaches as high as 74 per cent for high-tariff universities, compared to 41 per cent of low-tariff.
Drawing on these and other data, I was able to compute an index of radical progressivism to rank universities, and number one was Cambridge, followed shortly by Oxford. As a general rule, it was found that the more likely you are to have heard of a university, the more woke it was, with a strong correlation evidenced between university ranking scores and radical progressivism found.
So why might this be? This is something of a puzzle in that we are seeing the best universities, supposedly committed to evidence and reason, endorsing interventions like trigger warnings that have been shown to be useless and even to foster the very anxiety that they are intended to allay.
One possible answer is gleaned from the work of sociologist Norbert Ellias (1897-1990) who argued that as societies became more stable, elites came to distinguish themselves not on their capacity for violence, but their manners. As elite learning has become more common through the extension of higher education, could we be seeing the university elites looking to distinguish themselves not through manners but morals? In any case, there seems to be something of a double standard with Cambridge, for example, rushing to remove artifacts from public view, however tangentially related to the slave trade, but accepting £73m in funding from China over five years. This is a country accused of the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities and forced labour. Surely moral questions of the present must take precedence of those of the past.
The top universities will also attract the most intelligent, if not necessarily the most astute. According to psychologist Linda K. Silverman, from an early age, the most intelligent tend also to be acutely moral. As she puts it: “A central feature of the gifted experience is their moral sensitivity”. Couple this with Douglas Murray’s contention that most of the major battles for minority groups are already won, and you see the potential for moral innovation in the elite universities. In a milieu defined by the 1968 generation where protest and political conflict are seen as the most noble form of politics, what are those who came next to do and how are they to be heroes when the battles are over? The answer would be to invent new ones.
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In the absence of genuine political struggles from which students and overgrown students, or “lecturers” as they are more generally known, might draw a sense of self-worth from, it seems a sense of ennui or boredom has set in. They have come to see the universities themselves and their accomplishments as merely masks for the societal domination of some groups by others. Consider social justice academics Sensoy and DiAngelo’s, “All texts are embedded with ideology; the ideology embedded in most mainstream texts functions to reproduce historical relations of unequal power”. We are seeing a student body with unprecedented levels of diversity and sexual freedom turning on the very things their parents once hoped and struggled for access to. That we are witnessing the politics of resentment is further underscored by an evidenced, moderately negative correlation between student satisfaction and university radical progressivism – the more woke a university is, the more unhappy the students are.
This is not to say universities are factories for brainwashing students, although there will be an element of that. Ushering them into “anti-racism” is pushing them towards political activism that sees the goal of politics as institutional capture in order to foster “anti-racist discrimination as the only remedy of racist discrimination”’. For the most part however, lectures and seminars will not touch on the contentious areas of the so-called “culture war” and will remain politically free. Students committed to classically liberal or traditional values can still flourish and meet like-minded people despite whatever clouds of suspicion they might be under. But while the intrusion may not be so great, there will always be the fear for everyone; what if I say the wrong thing?
Dr Richard Norrie is Director of the Statistics and Policy Research Programme at Civitas.
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