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The modern idea of a university

Anger as Oxford college bans Christian group from freshers’ fair

A University of Oxford college banned Christian Union representatives from attending its freshers’ fair over concerns at the “potential for harm to freshers”.

Balliol Christian Union (CU) was told the college’s student body, the JCR, wanted the freshers’ fair to be a “secular space”, according to Oxford’s student newspaper Cherwell.

Eventually the CU was told that a single multi-faith stall would be allowed to display leaflets, though no representatives would be allowed to staff it, according to leaked emails seen by the paper. Balliol CU boycotted this option.

[…]

In an email exchange, JCR vice-president Freddy Potts, on behalf of the JCR committee, reportedly told a CU representative: “We recognise the wonderful advantages in having CU representatives at the freshers’ fair, but are concerned that there is potential for harm to freshers who are already struggling to feel welcome in Oxford.”

Harm? Think of it as toughening ’em up for their first tutorial. It used to be said that the fierce, personal engagement with ideas engendered by the tutorial system was what set Oxbridge apart. I had to check, but apparently they do still hold tutorials despite the risks. The University website tells potential students that at tutorials they will need to be ready to present and defend [their] opinions, accept constructive criticism and listen to others. And Freddy Potts ain’t gonna be there to hold your hand.

The solicitous Mr Potts continues:

According to the paper, he added: “Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.”

At one time the idea of a university was a little less protective:

As universities face an estimated £4.2bn in spending cuts and increasing pressure to become more “market driven”, the recently beatified John Henry Newman would have had something to say about the possible impact on higher education. The clergyman, Oxford academic and famed convert to Catholicism gave a series of lectures in 1852 reflecting on the university’s purpose that were published as The Idea of a University in the same year.

The author of this article, Sophia Deboick, was naive to think that pressure to become more market-driven was the main threat to the concept of the university as a place of broad learning, but she writes well on Newman’s contribution to that idea:

For Newman, the ideal university is a community of thinkers, engaging in intellectual pursuits not for any external purpose, but as an end in itself. Envisaging a broad, liberal education, which teaches students “to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyse”, Newman held that narrow minds were born of narrow specialisation and stipulated that students should be given a solid grounding in all areas of study. A restricted, vocational education was out of the question for him. Somewhat surprisingly, he also espoused the view that universities should be entirely free of religious interference, putting forward a secular, pluralist and inclusive ideal.

Two years after the publication of The Idea of a University the Oxford University Act 1854 “opened the university to students outside the Church of England, as there was no longer a requirement to undergo a theological test or take the Oath of Supremacy.” That is what Newman meant by “religious interference”: the power to compel those attending the university to conform, or pretend to conform, to a particular religion and to exclude those of different beliefs.

We have not quite come full circle yet, but give it time.

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25 comments to The modern idea of a university

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Which brand of Communism will be allowed- Maoism, Marxism, or Corbynism?

  • Thailover

    “Neo-colonialism”, Ha-Ha-Ha!!!

  • George Atkisson

    Christianity is anathema to modern approved philosophy. It speaks in absolutes. It states that Truth exists independently of an individual’s viewpoint. Right and Wrong can be known and are immutable. It is legitimate to judge people and their actions, regardless of intent.

    To the University educated mind, everything is relative. There is neither Truth, nor Right, nor Wrong. Only what the State and its Elites proclaim today can be the source of wisdom and judgement.

    The two can not co-exist.

  • Eric

    I’ll bet they didn’t keep the social justice cultists out.

  • bobby b

    “Christianity is anathema to modern approved philosophy.”

    Christianity, or religion in general? Seems like any system that ends discussion with “because god says so” has to create friction in a place supposedly existing to foster discussion.

  • Cal Ford

    >Christianity is anathema to modern approved philosophy. It speaks in absolutes. It states that Truth exists independently of an individual’s viewpoint. Right and Wrong can be known and are immutable. It is legitimate to judge people and their actions, regardless of intent.
    >To the University educated mind, everything is relative. There is neither Truth, nor Right, nor Wrong. Only what the State and its Elites proclaim today can be the source of wisdom and judgement.

    Wouldn’t really agrede with this. To some such people, everything is relative, yes, but plenty of them are happy to talk in terms of absolute truth and to judge people.

  • Wow, Natalie, our old Alma Mater has become a bit less free since you and I were there. I can recall a time when some would find themselves in a corner of the fresher’s fair side room – almost certainly just because there are many societies and every place has to be used by someone. I recall that some (disproportionately the aggressive PC ones, even back in those days IIRC) might try to seize more territory at the door-spaces and stairheads in a “you will hear my message and walk away holding my leaflet – whether you wish to or not!” spirit (and thus sometimes cause annoyance), but in all our years there I don’t think anyone was ever told they could not have a stall at freshers fair or not have people behind it to talk to whoever would talk to them (and, no doubt, to show others they exist). But that was in the cruel and oppressive Thatcherite 80s.

    However that, I should note, was at the main Oxford-University-wide freshers fair. I do not recall any college-specific fairs but some colleges no doubt had them. Readers should be alerted that if Balliol (which once upon a time was the Scottish college, as Jesus was the Welsh one) is doing this, that does not mean all or any other colleges are doing it. So when I say “a bit less free” the word ‘bit’ is not quite my usual bleak-humour understatement. At least my old college and yours are not (yet?) reported as doing this. AFAICR, none of the societies you and I ever helped present at the main freshers fair ever even bothered to present at any college-specific fair.

    Is this just the CU or was the C.S.Lewis society banned as well? Logic would seem to require the latter but one thing l do not accuse Freddy Potts of is logic. 🙂 The story has no explicit mention of any muslim society. Its content would seem to imply that the unmanned multi-faith stall would also be the only place where muslims were allowed leaflets and no muslims would be allowed to stand behind it, but colour me cautiously sceptical on that (maybe there is currently no Balliol-specific muslim society to complicate Mr Potts’ stance). The background to this might be that there’s a christian at Balliol who debated with Mr Potts sometime past and really annoyed him.

    The Rev Nigel Genders, the Church of England’s chief education officer, said: “Freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental principle that underpins our country and its great institutions and universities.”

    I could not agree more with Reverend Genders, who doubtless drives PC types potty, but the names in this story would have me thinking I was reading a spoof site were it not – and I never expected to find myself writing this 🙂 – that it is in the Grauniad.

  • One obvious strategy for a christian at Balliol would be to found (if it does not already exist) a ‘Free Speech’ society (with others who support free speech, including his) and have a stall at freshers fair as well as the excellent prop of the unmanned multi-faith stall. Presenting Christ as a supporter of free speech is easy from the gospels (as easy as presenting Mohammed in such a light would be impossible).

    Instead or as well, it would be very much in accord with Christian practice to give the multi-faith stall a large notice “We’re not allowed in freshers fair this year, but invite you to our party stall” in their stairwell or on its lawn, with free cake and etc. (Again, if they are wise, they will get associates that care about free speech to partner them at the party.) Put Mr Potts in the position where he obviously wants to try and ban them from saying they are banned.

    No doubt some opportunities to see whether “a soft answer turneth away wrath” would arise, and hopefully not too many to “turn the other cheek” – at least, not literally.

  • but she writes well on Newman’s contribution to that idea

    Words you don’t see very often.

  • John K

    Watch out for the name Freddy Potts in future. Let’s see which quango he ends up working for, if he isn’t a Liberal/Labour/Conservative MP, that is.

    One day this twat might be Home Secretary. Just when you thought Amber Rudd couldn’t be beaten for authoritarian awfulness.

  • It is legitimate to judge people and their actions, regardless of intent

    To some such people, everything is relative, yes, but plenty of them are happy to talk in terms of absolute truth and to judge people.

    Judge not, lest ye be judged.

    As to debate, I spent many, many hours debating Christianity with other young Christian people in my youth. The absolutism of “God said so” does not preclude debate by any means.

  • Thailover

    George Atkisson, Leftism isn’t philosophy. Its a crypto-religion with articles of faith. Disprove them all you want (like gender wage gap) 50 x over and watch them ignore you. Both xianity and Leftism are competing tribalisms with different chiefs.

  • Surellin

    I presume that the fifteen explicitly Christian-named colleges at Oxford will be renamed as well? Can’t take the chance that someone might be frightened.

  • Paul Marks

    With the exception of Buckingham all British universities are on the left politically – but Oxford does seem to be going way to the left. The first sign of this was when Margaret Thatcher (an Oxford graduate) was treated with calculated contempt by Oxford some 30 years ago – even denied an honorary doctorate. an honour freely given out by Oxford to jumped up Third World socialist dictator with a vague connection to the university.

    Now many Oxford colleges are led by Labour party politicians or bureaucrats – people who have made no real contribution to scholarship (so much for a university collage being a community of scholars led by a scholar whom they elect). So this latest display of “liberal” left intolerance comes as no surprise to me. What would Harold Prichard or Tolkien or C.S. Lewis make of this? Well Lewis thought he spotted the writing-on-the-wall at Oxford as long ago as the 1950s – and moved to Cambridge, but I have no idea if Cambridge is any more tolerant of non leftist ideas today than Oxford is (in the late 1950s they may have reacting to the discovery that Cambridge men had been Communist spies, and so made an effort to be less closed minded to non leftist ideas).

    “But Paul, Oxford is the university of the establishment – far more senior politicians and bureaucrats go to Oxford than any other university”. Yes that is true – but the establishment is now very much on the left. Witness the “Conservative” government today (literally today) – raving on about the “oppression of ethnic minorities” in Frankfurt School of Marxism fashion. With “Conservatives” like this – is it any wonder that the Britis Labour Party is openly Marxist.

    All a bit sad and depressing – especially as everyone concerned (no doubt) “means well”. “Equality and diversity” certainly sounds nice (till one looks into what these terms actually mean in practice), and one does not want to upset 18 year old students by exposing them to ideas (such as traditional Christianity) which they would never have come upon before in modern Britain – after all the delicate 18 year old flower-children might have a fit of the vapours.

  • Paul Marks

    Interesting comments – especially from Niall, as he was at Oxford and now suggests a plan-of-action.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Potts (the student leader) is clearly influenced by the Frankfurt School of Marxism – hence his use of such terms as “neo colonialism” and “homophobia”, but then Mrs May may use these terms in her next speech (and not to ridicule them).

  • Michael Taylor

    “Just when you thought Amber Rudd couldn’t be beaten for authoritarian awfulness.”

    Well, she does seem absolutely awful, but I don’t think beating her for it is necessary, or nice.

  • JadedLibertarian

    These days I’m teaching in a medical related field in academia, which is to an extent insulated from this sort of bullshit. These disciplines have always been professions, so there is less of this Nouveau Intelligent vulgarity. The people studying these subjects tend to be both highly clever and extremely busy, so I don’t see a lot of this sort of shit stirring within my department.

    That said I still get regular emails from the full-time meddlers in the university admin department about Athena Swan this and racial equality that. It’s amazing how much of my teaching job has nothing to do with teaching, and it only gets worse the more senior you get. The Dean does almost no teaching at all.

    There’s also a reasonable cohort of leftist agitators on my campus, largely concentrated in the students union executive committee. They banned a pro life organisation from the Freshers fair, claiming that the fair was for students organisations only. So the students who invited them set up a life society – only to find themselves facing proceedings for disaffiliation. Eventually they let them attend the fair but demanded a veto over what materials they could show. The plastic life size models showing what a 10 week old fetus looks like (purchased from a medical teaching supplier no less) were singled out as “misleading” and potentially upsetting to students who had had abortions.

    I’m not planning on staying in this job long term. Ironically the hardest thing about it is there’s so little for me to do. There’s lots of thumb twiddling time between teaching assignments and committee meetings, which given my role is highly technical I’m supposed to fill with self study time. There’s only so many textbooks you can read before you go nuts though. I’ve averaged about 33 hours work a week this year, and could have done a lot less. Whether I bust my ass, or just sit on my ass, my pay is exactly the same. Well actually that’s not true, in the last 3 years I’ve had 4 separate raises worth £4500 a year – a combination of union demands and automatic pay scale progression.

    A lot of people would feel like they’re on easy street, but I feel like this job is killing me. I’ve taken a huge amount of sick leave this year for crippling, stress induced migraines. This has contributed to my low working hours. I’m desperate to get into a job where I get out what I put in. If I work like crazy, I should earn more. If I take it easier, I deserve to earn less. I’m ok with that.

    It would help if I could find a job with a point too. My role is basically to help overseas students obtain masters and doctoral degrees that frankly most of them do not need. They’re paying a bloody fortune too.

  • Eric

    “Christianity is anathema to modern approved philosophy.”

    Christianity, or religion in general?

    Well, not Unitarians.

  • “Christianity is anathema to modern approved philosophy.”

    Christianity, or religion in general?

    Well, clearly not “the religion of peace”, only those that are actually peaceful – so probably including Unitarians.

  • John Galt III

    In the US, with thousands of colleges and universities you can go to a true Christian College (not talking about the Notre Dame’s and Georgetown’s that are totally corrupted)and have academic, relgious and personal freedom.

    Is this possible in the UK?

    Just curious.

  • JadedLibertarian

    Basically no John. There are theological schools which are genuinely Christian, but to my knowledge there are no Christian universities providing a general education -let alone a good quality one.

    It wasn’t always this way though. The motto of the university where I did my undergrad degree was “Magnificat anima mea dominium”, presumably coined when it was a more religious body. It was far from Christian by the time I came along.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Niall Kilmartin writes,

    Readers should be alerted that if Balliol (which once upon a time was the Scottish college, as Jesus was the Welsh one) is doing this, that does not mean all or any other colleges are doing it.

    Balliol always was strongly left wing. One time I (at that time weakly left wing) was walking through one of the Balliol quads minding my own business, but wearing my OTC uniform because there hadn’t been time to change out of it, when some girl in middle class punk clothes spat at me. From quite a distance – it was an insult rather than an assault. By the time I had fully taken in what had happened she had disappeared round a corner. I neither turned the other cheek nor gave chase. You’d think someone training to be a hired killer for the capitalist-imperialist war machine would have faster reflexes.

    She’s probably a Lib Dem county councillor by now.

  • John Galt III (October 11, 2017 at 2:01 pm), AFAIK JadedLibertarian is correct. All the older universities once required some degree of conformance to CofE (to Catholicism pre-reformation ) but this ceased long ago and offhand I know of no modern UK universities where there are any specially christian expectations or encouragements.

    When C.S.Lewis went from Oxford to Cambridge in the 1950s, he was struck by certain differences. In Oxford back then, many of the academics were not religious “but they were no more on their toes about it than about their disbelief in leprechauns or flying saucers.” In Cambridge, by contrast, he gained the impression that the probability of any person he encountered being a christian was actually higher, but there were also far more angry and obstreperous young atheists “who brood, more ambiguously than they realise, on persecution.”

    When Natalie and I went to Oxford decades later (Margaret Thatcher was PM), it was no problem supporting any society, christian or otherwise, but the 70s violent student protests to shut down those they disliked – usually tories rather than christians per se, and usually at other Universities – were still recent enough to be remembered, the difference being that back then the law gave them no explicit help and my vague memory is that cowardly or complicit administrators, though certainly known, were less common. The egregious Potts’ ability actually to prevent the CU stall being permitted seems a new low to me. If he and a gang of PC rowdies had been unable to exert an official authority, so instead tried to strong-arm the CUers from getting in to set up their stall, that would have had a 70s feel. (Right at the start of my time there, a few tories were aided by a free-speech-supporting lefty against a gang’s attempt to shut down a speaker and in the event it was the principled lefty whose arm was broken in the scuffle IIRC, but that kind of thing was very much dying down and disappearing by my time AFAICS.)

  • Stephen Munslow

    Freddy Potts was on the winning University Challenge team which refused an interview with the Daily Mail on ideological grounds. He may even have been the team leader.