Freedom to Educate

This post is circuitous because it reflects the journey that my thinking has taken.

I happen to be in Cambridge at the moment, with a school tour. Whilst here, I was reminded of the sordid little tale of the Wyverns’ garden party from a few weeks ago and their ill-fated attempt to include bouts of jelly wrestling. They had previously abandoned this practice due to claims of sexism but they thought they had found a wheeze this time that would get them over the line; men would wrestle too. It didn’t wash. Rowan Williams who is now the Master at Magdalene College put his foot down and banned it. I am all in favour of Williams’s action. The drinking society members are likely to be the kind of rich, entitled boors who I grew to dislike at university and the college has a right to protect its image when confronted with such seediness perpetrated – at least in part – in its name.

So a good result then.

However, a couple of issues arise from the sound and fury. Why do none of the articles about this little episode question why women would participate in such an event? I cannot imagine saying anything at all at university that would have convinced any of my female friends to jelly wrestle for my entertainment. What’s going on? Well, did I mention that there is a cash prize? I don’t know how much it is. And the guys who organised it are probably loaded. Might women be swayed into participating in order to gain their favour; to seem cool? Perhaps the participants just think it’s fun; perhaps they are the kind of party girl that I have never met in my entire life? Perhaps they start out with one motivation but then retrospectively apply another – I think much of human reasoning is like that. To me, this is an interesting aspect of the story and yet none of the potential participants, or former participants, are asked for their thoughts.

Seedy, sordid, bad for the college image; all of these I understand. But I also happened to stumble upon another set of reasons why such an event should not go ahead. According to this commentator in The Cambridge Student:

“I believe that jelly wrestling, as it stands in the context of a male drinking society’s garden party, is damaging to the mental health of women with body image issues and eating disorders (EDs). It’s not surprising that EDs are a big problem in Cambridge as one of the main risk factors is perfectionism, which is a very common trait in students here. When I tried last year to raise awareness of EDs by producing an informative video, I was quickly flooded with messages from girls just like me – who felt that being academic was no longer enough, they had to be physically perfect too (and by any means necessary). I’m sure male drinking societies don’t mean to add to the pressure felt by these girls, but the fact is that they do. It’s common for male drinking societies to openly judge women on their appearance – if you don’t believe me try going to a swap dressed in something loose that covers you up and see how long it takes for you to be called frigid or be completely side-lined by the group.”

This is clearly thoughtful, pertinent and borne of personal experience. I have no difficulty picturing how these oafish lads – whom I am already predisposed to dislike – would judge women in loose clothing. But I am a little squeamish about the idea that jelly wrestling is damaging to the mental health of women with body image issues and eating disorders and that this is a reason to ban it. I believe that we need to think long and hard before we start to accept such arguments. We have crossed a Rubicon of sorts where one person’s vulnerability to a mental health issue can be used as an argument for restricting the freedoms of others. To an extent, this has always been the case. Nobody has unfettered liberty; showing disturbing videos to a child, for instance, would be considered irresponsible by most reasonable people. However, remember that in this situation, nobody is compelled to attend the Wyvern’s garden party. It is more that we just don’t like the thought of it. And how far are we willing to extend this principle? What about sexy music videos? What about bikinis on the beach?

What has this to do with education? Well, we have seen the rise of this type of argument, particularly in higher education and particularly in the United States. Course materials may now feature trigger warnings (although I recently read that the term “trigger” could be triggering and so should be avoided). The idea is that students who have suffered abuse, for example, might be disturbed by reading a text in which abuse is discussed. This would be damaging to their mental health.

A recent anonymous blog by a Midwest professor discussed how this movement has changed the higher education landscape. The post went viral. I cannot imagine the professor writing this post under his real name, a point that he also makes in the piece. So this simultaneously reveals the value of the web for facilitating anonymous comment whilst providing his critics with a lazy line of attack. Given the source, it is hard to know exactly how much weight to place on an assertion such as, “I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain.” There may have been more to it than this and we cannot ask for the other side of the argument. However, I believe that this is both worrying and plausible given some of the incidents that have made it into the press (e.g. the Laura Kipniss saga).

What has this to do with P-12 education? Well, at the moment, not much. It seems to be restricted to the liberal arts in American universities and with a bias towards issues involving gender and race. However, there are a number of factors that could mean that school teachers will soon have to pay attention to these issues.

One of the driving forces seems to have been students seeing themselves as consumers and therefore able to make demands of their institutions on this basis. We are seeing an increasing consumerism in education across the English-speaking world. Schools that will live or die by the choices that students and parents make will find it increasingly difficult to tell them things that they don’t want to hear.

I remember when I was training as a science teacher, I asked my mentor about how to approach teaching The Big Bang, given that some students might have religious objections. She said, “I always tell them that it’s just a theory.” This is a neat pivot around the word ‘theory’ that plays on its ambiguous nature. In normal discussion, ‘theory’ is synonymous with ‘idea’ or ‘hypothesis’; a theory could begin, “I reckon…” And yet in science, a theory is something supported by empirical data; quite a different kind of thing. I have never used my mentor’s formulation, preferring to say, “This is what the science says but you are free to believe whatever you want.” So there have always been sensitive areas but never ones that could not be mentioned.

However, at the very outset of the UK academies program there were worries about academies teaching creationism at the behest of their sponsor. It concerned me at the time and I wonder how the issues will play in the years to come. Will consumer-empowered parents and students object to The Big Bang, evolution, learning about other religions (they already do), climate science, sex education (they already do) or any positive discussion of homosexuality? Will they object to learning about dead, white, male authors or seek to approve the books on a school’s reading list? Perhaps an art teacher might run into trouble by discussing Vincent Van Gogh’s likely suicide without providing a trigger warning for those students who might be at risk of self-harm.

It has taken us a long time to develop the enlightenment culture that we currently enjoy; a culture in which we are generally free to express our views and to debate. The fruits of this culture have been unprecedented technological and cultural advances. Education is the regenerator of the enlightenment. It passes knowledge on to the next generation but it also passes attitudes and dispositions. By being prepared to tackle difficult subjects, criticise views, highlight historic differences and errors, we show our young people that the world is messy and complex and that blind faith in the dear leader is probably unwarranted. We give our students permission to think for themselves and to think differently. But we cannot do any of this without being able to professionally and appropriately range over a great many difficult and challenging issues. We should not be trying to wrap our young people in mental cotton wool. Instead, we should exhort them to, “Open your eyes! Look!”

The enlightenment is young, fragile and under attack on several fronts. We shall miss it when it’s gone.


3 thoughts on “Freedom to Educate

  1. I think fundamentally we need to start knocking down the idea that parents and children are consumers in any way shape or form. It is after all taxpayers money that is being spent and I think we need to engage the wider public (who when they realise what teaching is like or about tend to be horrified) about the issues that are being faced. I already discussed the issue of the actual cost of provision:

    In the end, this is not just a debate for parents and children, it is one for wider society to discuss and think about. To weigh the power so far in favour of the whims of parents and children (and it will no doubt be the unreasonable parents and children who are heard) will only serve to continue sending the English education system into free fall.

    I think it is time to lay out what the terms are of receiving the welfare benefit that is education – after all we do so for other benefits – why not this one too? Leaving heads and teachers to the mercy of parents and children is fundamentally counter to the running of a good education system. I also think that not enough parents realise the truth of the consumer argument in education, which is nothing short of grooming them to start incurring the costs as the state is reduced. First education vouchers, then the vouchers are cut or means tested so parents must make up the shortfall. It does not take a genius to see how easily that would be done.

    It is time that the 80% of parents who would not have a hope of paying for their child to go to school started to wake up to the realities of pursuing ever more individualistic and selfish goals in the education system. I can’t see this going well…

  2. Teachwell: I agree to a point. Students and their taxpaying parents can be stopped from thinking of themselves as simply consumers when they stop being asked to foot the bill. Reintroduce the principle of postsecondary education as available for all, as citizens if must be, but certainly as a public good from which the public will benefit: tuition-free. That would be a start.

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