The rise of the illiberal university?

In 1982 the German-American historian Konrad Jarausch published a fascinating book (Students, Society and Politics in Imperial Germany: the Rise of Academic Illiberalism) in which he charted the rush of Wilhelmine universities and academics into sentimental nationalism and xenophobic intolerance, a rush that later allowed Hitler to secure student support even before he had assumed political power. It was a trend to be found also in other European countries at the time. But in Germany it was remarkable that the stirrings of inward looking nationalism in academic and student circles came just as universities were becoming less elite, and in particular were less the property of the aristocracy. The new academic population gave its support to an uncritical nationalism and shut out contrary voices.

Today’s universities are not on the same trajectory, and yet they too are experiencing tremors of illiberalism.  A recent study published by the Higher Education Policy Institute has revealed that a significant majority of students in the UK (76 per cent) have some sympathy for so-called ‘no platform’ policies, under which certain speakers are banned from speaking on a campus because their views are deemed unpalatable. Curiously the same study revealed that 60 per cent of students think that universities should never limit free speech.

What do we make of that? Nick Hillman, the Director of the Institute, thinks that for some students ‘illiberalism appears to be a way of protecting liberalism.’ But a democratic and open society requires debate, and this requirement is not satisfied by the presentation solely of arguments that the majority approves of or likes. A liberal and tolerant society needs to be tested in robust argument or it will quickly become illiberal. Free speech is not ‘free’ at all if it excludes certain views.

Today’s university population will, much more still than in Wilhelmine Germany, supply the dominant leadership in all layers of society for the next generation, and its values will inform our future. A society that only ever wants to hear what it already believes is hugely vulnerable to something it may think it is warding off. It is time to recover the truly liberal university.

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3 Comments on “The rise of the illiberal university?”

  1. Vince Says:

    It wasn’t just in Ireland that the vast grain transfers from the US caused hellish social changes for those in the countryside whom had a profound measure of certainty for centuries. We tend to see the unification as the greatest issue, but for the people, America was both the problem and the answer. Not that they realised the imports were causing such issues.
    Granted, this issue hit those below them you speak, still it must have profoundly penetrated their psyche. Or maybe not, for now I think of it, when the great industrial reagions were erased during the 80s the middle classes and the farming class didn’t so much as blink. You had poison like that in Liverpool over Hillsborough in ’89.

    Liberalism is the ‘ism’ I have most difficulty in defining. And I suppose illiberalism isn’t any easier. Still you have to ask what are the current fears going through society. And you have to ask are the fears the same or from the same source. Plus, is easing one group’s fears like Irelands’ Labour party did for the civil service, condemning a vastly greater section of society to profound instability. if not even the active erasing of their existence in/from the State.
    At the beginning of Liberalism we had the greatest migration of Europe’s peoples to America, Africa and Australia&NZ. This acted as a safety valve, but it also meant the issue was allowed to fester leaving us with WW1 and later WW2.
    It’s always valuable to attempt the question Que Bono, and how exactly are they gaining.

  2. Antoine Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. I’m a regular debater at Aberdeen Debater ( as I am an AU student) and we had a motion precisely on this topic of no-platforming. For most of the arguments that were traversing around, it was clear that No-platforming were essentially the same as the Government’s Prevention strategy.

    It might interest you that today, particularly as a Debater, I know that such illiberalism is regressive to human flourishing- the Aberdeen Debating society was not allowed to debate religious topics in the 19th century! A topic that would scarcely warrant dogmatic defence today. Therefore I agree, it is through challenge that hopefully, the search of the truth become productive.

    Although I also fear and am fearless to challenge a rise in Sophistic tendencies in contemporary debates, Whereby in the last Brexit Referendum, it was incredibly easy to persuade others of a scaremongering immigration rhetoric, inflate figures beyond the bluff and worst of all, that lies & populism are second-best concessions in many a conscience. Thank you for this post, I really appreciate this perspective.


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