I went last weekend to the inaugural Buckingham History Festival. It was held by the University of Buckingham, under the aegis of its vice-chancellor, Sir Anthony Seldon, and Professor John Adamson, director of the Humanities Research Institute, across its campus in the town. How unlike most modern universities this exemplary institution looks.
Rather than the usual assembly of third-rate modernist architecture, devoid of style, beauty or coherence, smashed together like the Lego creation of a fevered toddler, Buckingham mixes restored mills and houses with modern buildings, designed sensitively so that the whole appears to have developed organically. It typifies the university’s approach to study and tuition. Take the best of accumulated knowledge and the best of current scholarship, allow the former to inform the latter without being ossified or hidebound, and set students to thinking for themselves from first principles under the guidance of scholars at the top of their fields.
That sounds like an axiom of university education; if only it were so in practice. Anybody with half an eye on the news will have seen countless examples over the past decade of the way in which tertiary education has been perverted by petty factionalism and a culture of offence-taking. The seemingly endless ways in which subjects are split into isolated, disconnected fetishes reduces them to absurdity.
This trend began with 1970s feminists’ insistence, not entirely unreasonable at the time given male dominance of university departments, that the perspective of women on, for instance, Shakespeare’s sonnets, was different from men’s and worth particular attention. The trouble began when this hardened into militant ideology rather than merely offering an alternative perspective. It was no longer enough to concede that one could read a text or interpret an historical source differently depending on one’s sex, and that that difference of interpretation could inform the conclusions one reached. It became incontrovertible that one would, indeed must; further, that to question the validity of these alternative interpretations was to question the validity of women scholars themselves. It became a weapon in a wider war of cultures, to whose armoury was added the infinite permutations of the LGBTQ+ lobby and its furtherance of separation.
Why does any of this matter? Is it not the function of the academy to promote the widest possible set of interpretations on any given subject? Up to a point, Lord Copper. It does not seem to me, as it does not seem to a great many other conservatives, that this diversity is being encouraged pro bono studio. Its purpose is to separate us, to set us at odds with one another in the clash of cultures through which we are living. It is destructive rather than constructive, a force for ill will and anger, not toleration and forbearance.
Not for a moment would it occur to me – still less any of the academics or writers who appeared at the festival – to suggest conflicting views ought not to exist in academia. It is inevitable and in fact highly desirable for the health of our intellectual life. What does concern me, however, is the extent to which these views are so polarised as to make good relations between their proponents irretrievable.
The ugly rancour is unhealthy not only for those directly involved, for the authors crossing swords and bitter words, but also for all who seek to play an active part in adding to our nation’s hinterland.
Sir Roger Scruton gave the opening lecture on Sunday morning on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Much of which examined the post-Hegelian conflict of culture and civilisation which informed the philosophy behind Wagner’s masterpiece and which continues to inform debate today – vide Brexit.
Sir Roger has spent the majority of his life engaged in the battle of ideas. First as a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, then as a lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, throughout the whole of the 1980s during which he worked with the Czech dissident Julius Tomin to establish the underground university and samizdat press there, and over the past 30 years of writing and teaching around the world. He has never resiled from the measured, considered advocacy of conservatism.
How tempted he must have been to retire to his Wiltshire farm and enjoy the fruits of his success following what can only be described as hatchet job by the New Statesman’s deputy editor, George Eaton. He interviewed Sir Roger for the magazine, then twisted his comments to portray him as, inter alia, an Islamophobe, a racist, an anti-Semite and a homophobe. As a result, Sir Roger was dismissed from his (unpaid) position as a government advisor on beauty in the built environment. Eaton posted a picture to the internet of himself celebrating this with champagne.
Thanks to a concerted campaign by Douglas Murray and The Spectator, Sir Roger’s original comments were shown to be quite different from Eaton’s portrayal and he has been vindicated in the public eye. Still, though, Eaton has not issued an apology, nor been reprimanded publicly by the New Statesman. Nor has Sir Roger received an apology from the government for his undue dismissal. That he continues to stand in the public square, bloodied but by no means beaten, is a testament to his remarkable conviction that people with his views, representative of so many millions in Britain, must not be hounded out of public life. We are lucky to have him.
David Oldroyd-Bolt is a writer, pianist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @david_oldbolt
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