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No offence but… (Head’s blog, January 2019)

Posted on 14 January 2019

As a Head and an English teacher at St Albans High School I am so lucky. I get to hear views on texts, ideas, and life just as they form in some of the most exciting young minds in the country. Occasionally though pupils’ ideas will misfire. And equally occasionally I will say, ‘No that’s not right’ and those exciting pupils always look taken aback. ‘Incorrect’ is rarely a thing nowadays you see, in a world where pupils aren’t actually, you know, wrong about stuff, just they could be ‘even better if…’ they follow marking structured around ‘2 stars and a wish…’ The ‘wish’ you understand is a gentle circling in on the possibility of improving that teeny-tiny error thing…

Quite often I’m very glad to say; (because St Albans classrooms are invariably full of feisty, lively, confident minds), one or other of my pupils will hold their views and argue back (great!) and, if I’m still not buying it, may well reach for that knock-down blow of an argument: ‘well, it’s just my opinion – I’m entitled to my opinion’. And then I have to do something heinous; – I carefully remove the comfort blanket of that mantra and remind them that they are not entitled to an opinion. They are only entitled to an informed opinion. Or at least, they are only entitled for their opinion to be taken seriously if it is an informed opinion.

And how do opinions get informed? Through dedication and education. At school for sure, and it’s vital not to cushion our classrooms too much, but perhaps even more powerfully at university. I certainly recall some tough encounters at university with dons holding pretty controversial views and they were not (thank goodness) comfortable discussions, but I learned to measure, analyse and refine my opinions in them.

And that is why I have been so exercised by the story of the Emeritus Law and Legal Philosophy Professor Finnis at Oxford University this week. Students have launched a petition to have him removed from teaching because of his ‘discriminatory views’ about among other things homosexuality. These views are in part conditioned by his very orthodox and reactionary Catholicism (which as I understand it takes issue with any sexual activity unconnected to procreation within marriage as well as homosexual activity, but that is an aside).

Clearly his views are outdated, homophobic and problematic, but here’s the thing: what on earth are our universities up to if not providing the opportunity for our students to hear offensive views? I mean this. I was told as a student that ‘a university education is being given the right to fail’. Absolutely. I would argue it’s also about being given the right to be offended’. Or should be. Thought of most kinds and, presumably, in particular the highest levels of legal philosophical thought, is tough. It can be challenging, rigorous, upsetting. It had better be. Life is challenging, rigorous and upsetting. I would be appalled if I felt that students were denied access to arguments from some of the finest legal brains because they were discomforting or had discriminatory potential.

Finnis’ fellow legal philosopher Les Green rightly says ‘To fire someone from an academic post solely on the basis that he defends false or repugnant views is a clear violation of academic freedom.’ Indeed I can’t help wondering if Professor Finnis has considered whether he’s currently being discriminated against on the grounds of his religious belief?

Professor Finnis is elderly, described as, “a kind teacher, a generous colleague, and a gracious man” and one imagines that in due course his successor is likely to be far more in tune with contemporary mores, but what if s/he were a orthodox Muslim or Jew, holding highly reactionary views about women, or a militant atheist who has no truck with any arguments based on religious faith? As Kenan Malik writing in The Observer put it: ‘fire people for their beliefs and we might all be out of a job’. Political activism, however moral its motivation, is entirely separate from intellectual thought. Or should be.

I was therefore cheered to hear of the student periodical launching in Edinburgh University in which every article submitted is to be accompanied by an article propounding an opposite view. That’s more like it. If we believe in freedom of speech – and it is surely only we who have had the luxury of living with it for so long who can afford to squander or abuse it – let’s encourage every opportunity for robust and very difficult debate.

So, I very much hope that High School students, when they grace their university halls, defend equality, fight discrimination and behave to others as they would want others to behave towards them, but I also fervently hope that in their seminars and tutorials they will risk disturbance, distress and offence in the scholarly quest for higher understanding, precision of thought and informed opinion.

Jenny Brown 

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