This week, spiked Education Editor Joanna Williams released her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge. During a July 2015 trip to London, FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff had the opportunity to interview Williams about what was then her forthcoming book and what she sees as the modern threats to academic freedom.
Williams has taught at universities in the U.K. for the last eight years and has been “interested in the issue of free speech for a long time.” She became aware of the restrictions placed on free speech at U.K. universities from talking to students and other academics on campus. What interested Williams the most was what she saw as a new form of academic censorship—censorship by other academics.
In Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, Williams examines the growing climate of restrictions on what academics can say, and the censorship academics face from their own colleagues.
Just as FIRE has seen on American college campuses, restrictions on academic freedom at U.K. universities are becoming more common. Part of the problem, in Williams’ eyes, is that universities are trying to preempt outrage and anger from students—their customers—by censoring controversial, or potentially upsetting, ideas.
“I think the outrage culture clearly is there, and clearly does exist on social media, but I think what you have in higher education is a bid to preempt the outrage,” said Williams. “So rather than, even, controversial things happening, outrage being sparked, like we’ve seen in the Tim Hunt case, more often you get attacks on academic freedom designed to preempt the outrage from happening in the first place.”
Some of the current threats to academic freedom, according to Williams, come from changes in how today’s academics perceive and arrive at “truth.” During the Enlightenment, people would put forward ideas that would then be challenged by other people, and the best idea—the closest to truth—would win out. Now, Williams argues, in academia there isn’t such a thing as one truth. Truth is relative. There are multiple truths. And no one idea is better than another. And this, according to Williams, reduces respect, and the perceived need, for academic freedom.
For more from Williams, watch the video above and order a copy of her new book.
To receive automatic notifications on new FIRE videos, subscribe to our YouTube channel.