Dawkins, Grayling and the New College of the Humanities: secularists should know the dangers of private education

‘It’s high time that the atheist left asserted itself against the atheist right
– an Occupy Skepticism, if you will.’ (Jeff Sparrow)

Three years ago, A.C. Grayling – till shortly thereafter, the British Humanist Association’s president elect – announced plans for a private university. New College of the Humanities, whose doors have opened since, was thought up in 2010 when David Cameron’s government cut eight tenths of higher education funding, including all state support for arts degrees, raising tuition fees from £3465 a year to £9000. These had only existed, at the time, for a few years, and fiery arguments broke out over free market education policies. Grayling founded NCH in their backwash, annual fees set at £18,000.

Results weren’t pretty. Only one or two private campuses existed at the time – to open one where degrees would cost the same as a small house was viewed with justified anger. Grayling’s public talks were picketed, a condemnatory public letter signed by dozens of his previous colleagues, and angry letters forced him to give up his BHA role before even assuming it. His presence in the secular scene dried up, societies no longer willing to promote him, and is only just recovering.

I raise this now because I never managed to weigh in on it back then, and more importantly because it illustrates the tensions of class politics in secular circles. NCH’s makeup was and remains distinctly humanist, its staff including Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker, as well as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s partner Niall Ferguson, but its most indignant critics (if not the loudest) were from the same scene – BHA members, New Humanist writers, left wing atheists like me online and committee members who refused to book the New College’s founder.

In a 2012 interview with Caspar Melville, Grayling tried to portray the project as benign, a last-ditch effort to save humanities teaching from ministers desperate to kill it off. In reality, his actions validated the Cameroons’ education cuts: the way to fight the privatisation of campuses in line with a U.S. style system is not to set up a private, U.S. style campus. ‘A mature civilised society ought to be funding universities properly through tax,’ he told Melville. ‘Students should go to university for nothing.’ If this principle mattered so much to him, why let it go at the first sign of trouble? Why not champion the students who then turned on him, and the cause of existing universities?

It’s tempting to think Grayling, Dawkins and the project’s other faces saw accessibility as optional, keen to preserve humanities teaching at any cost, no matter how exclusive it had to be. The former acknowledged NCH would cater to the privileged, drawing in students mainly from private schools. ‘That’s bad news,’ he commented, ‘but it would be worse news if a high-quality education system were to be compromised by the struggle to do what should already have been done’ – as if the academy’s survival for its own sake was the goal, its reduction in the process to a bastion of privilege a mere unfortunate side effect.

‘I would be delighted to support free education’, Dawkins said when challenged at a BHA event with PZ Myers, detailing his desire to protect Oxbridge-style teaching. ‘however, we live in a world where that isn’t happening.’ Keeping the ivory towers standing was the main thing, and if it meant raising the drawbridge, tough. ‘Like it or not,’ he added, ‘some people are richer than others . . . if you want to picket Anthony Grayling’s new university, you might as well picket anybody who owns a car that’s above average price.

The BHA has chosen to edit this moment out of its official event footage. Such squirming is understandable: the comparison is risible. Education isn’t simply a product, as a shiny sports car is. It helps determine the whole course of one’s life. That not many people can buy Jaguars is ultimately trivial – cheap cars get drivers just as easily from A to B – but access to education affects who can become an employee, public thinker, politician, judge. The shape of our society rests on who goes to college and who can’t. Only old boys like Grayling and Dawkins could equate Oxbridge so readily with something as shallow as a luxury car.

But Ant and Dick aren’t just old boys. They’re secularists. And secularists should know the dangers of a free market in education.

NCH coheres to the Cameron-Gove philosophy of schools and campuses – decentralised, deregulated and detached in general terms from government. The same philosophy led their administration to introduce ‘free schools’, tax-funded but with no duty to hire qualified teachers or stick to the national curriculum, which almost anyone can start. In practice, this means religious groups, who’ve filed almost all applications since 2010. Several have been discovered carrying out extreme proselytism or abuse.

The problem is multifaceted and longstanding. In his deconversion memoir, blogger Hassan Radwan recalls years spent teaching at Islamia School, a private religious school in London which relied on Saudi donors and was subsequently subject to prolonged ‘Islamicisation’ – including the banning of pictures and music and use of school property for Mujahideen fundraisers. As comparatively recently as 2010, Dawkins himself has visited somewhat similar Islamic schools where scriptural creation myths are taught as science. Some of these are state schools, others not, but Radwan describes Islamia’s extremism as being tamed when it gained public sector funding. (This is, I think, the one thought-provoking argument for state-maintained religious schools, though I’d rather no private sector existed at all.)

Jonny Scaramanga, author of Leaving Fundamentalism, was sent to one of England’s forty-or-so ‘Accelerated Christian Education’ schools, where parents pay for children to be kept in walled-off cubicles, forbidden from interacting and taught outright racism, misogyny and creationism via biblical syllabus. Many, many more schools like this exist in the U.S., where the programme originates. Katie Halper details at AlterNet the broader effects of right wing education cuts and ‘school choice’ policy in the U.S., including boys and girls at private Christian schools (where government vouchers allow children from poor families to be sent) being forbidden to make eye contact.

America’s university culture, which both Britain’s current policies and NCH’s opening evoke, is dominated by the private sphere, with state universities a small side dish. Founding one there is, for fundamentalists, at least as easy as it was for Grayling, hence the U.S. is home to Liberty and Brigham Young Universities, founded respectively by Jerry Falwell and the Mormon church. Only two private campuses in Britain predate NCH, and one of them is the Oxford campus of the Islamic Azad University of Iran.

Is this the higher education system Dawkins and Grayling want? Their project opens the door to it. When the free market of ideas operates as a real free market, abuse ensues. Teaching is one sphere where ideas should be regulated, because not all are fit for the classroom. The solution, and secularists must recognise it as the left already does, is free and secular public education, both at school at campus level. If they were as high-minded as they claimed to be, they should have fought for that.


  1. says

    Dana Hunter over at En Tequila Es Verdad has been doing some reviews of “christian home-schooling” textbooks, and it’s pretty frightening. One of the downsides of privatized education is that it’s also possible to create curricula of pure propaganda.

  2. chrisdevries says

    I would argue that the NCH doesn’t “open the door” to this new, private university, culture. They merely took advantage of a door opened by the nature of their society and the policies of its elected government. But you are ultimately correct. Government may not be perfect, but its oversight and funding can make a huge difference in the quality of education on offer and who has access to it.

    Personally, I like the European model – taxes fund university, and if you want to go and have the grades to get into the programme of your choosing, it’s generally free.

    I would also argue that children have a right to receive an education that gives them an equal opportunity for success as an adult. ACE schools and their ilk, not to mention religious homeschooling (barely supervised by the state) need to go. Adults have a right to learn whatever they want, reject whatever they want and believe whatever they want, but they do not have a right to make those choices for their children, who are autonomous people with their own interests that may diverge from the interests their parents perceive as best. The best way to break the cycle of irrationality is to give all children the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate their parents’ beliefs (biases like racism, sexism, homophobia, and also dogmas like fundamentalist religion, nationalism, etc.). Ideally, you would also prevent religious institutions from indoctrinating those without the mental ability to judge the truth of what they are hearing, but the backlash would be insane, it would never happen. The best way is to trust that most properly educated children who are taught to think for themselves will end up striving to minimise cognitive dissonance produced when their own brains tell them that a previously internalised belief doesn’t jive with what they know about the world. Heck, this deconversion stuff happens all the time in the age of the internet anyway, without requiring a solid childhood education. We are winning; as long as the insularity of fundamentalist communities continues to erode, they will find it increasingly difficult to keep membership stable.

  3. opposablethumbs says

    Well said. I was at that meeting (this was long before Dear Muslima, of course) – and that was the night my previously high opinion of Dawkins (as anything other than a science writer, at least) went through the floor. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing – and that bloody audience should have been ashamed of themselves for their smug attitude to the demonstrators. Dawkins’ response to the two who braved audience disapproval to ask a question was a disgrace.

    secularists should know the dangers of a free market in education.

    Yes they bloody well should.

  4. opposablethumbs says

    In all honesty I don’t remember quite clearly enough to be absolutely certain; however going by the sound level of the applause in relation to what I remember of the (very small) number of demonstrators who succeeded in staying in the hall (most were obliged to leave before the talk started) and what I remember of the audience (the majority of whom objected to the demonstration happening at all – but a minority of whom were supportive) I would say that most of that applause came from audience members (including the 4 of us :-) ).

    However, that was not the question to which Dawkins had the horrible response I was thinking of; this was a much earlier question, raised by two demonstrators (at the beginning, iirc) – he just refused to answer, telling them very irately to leave it until the end. Never did answer it.

    Sorry I don’t remember more clearly than that!

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