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.

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If you liked this post, consider joining the Occupy Skepticism Facebook group, a forum founded recently by David Hoelscher to unite atheists on the left, concerned with fostering a class-conscious secularism. Here is a selection of posts, some by members, representing our areas of interest:

Godlessness in practice: help workshop KCL atheists’ code of conduct

King’s College London has an atheist society. Technically, an Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society. As is at times the case with student groups as leaders graduate and momentum dissipates, a new committee recently revived it following a dormant period.

While I’ve never attended KCL, I worked peripherally with the group some time ago before activities slow down, and I’m a member of their Facebook page (link above). One of the new guard’s main concerns is making the society more socially conscious and less exclusionary, welcoming a wider range of demographics – the kind of change it’s been said any number of times is needed in secularism. To this end, they’ve introduced a code of conduct, both for Facebook threads and live events.

Joe Stammeijer, the group’s president, has this to say:

It’s not just a comments policy, it’s a behaviour policy. It’s a start on how we want representatives of the society to behave in whatever [KCL]AHS space they find themselves in.

I find this, needless to say, strongly encouraging. The idea that to build an actual movement, we need more than just shared nonbelief – that we need anti-harassment rules and disabled access just as we need fire plans, that just-being-an-atheist shouldn’t be our community’s only requirement, that we can’t and shouldn’t include everyone? This isn’t an idea for which we should still need to argue, and it’s gratifying to see it implemented close to home.

This being said: the code of conduct is at present far from perfect. Its writers know this. Deemed to be necessary and drafted quickly, it borrows heavily from KCL student union’s central ‘safe spaces policy’, and we’ve all of us seen what happens when SUs’ rules are heavy-handed. In atheist groups especially, where certain amounts of controversy are bound to be bred, that documents like this not be over-restrictive is as vital as their presence and effectiveness.

For this reason, society members have decided on a two-week process of review, in which they’ll take suggestions for improving and finalising their rulebook. I’ve offered them this blog as a place to workshop it, and they’ve agreed – in other words, they want your views.

I’m making this an open thread. Below, I’m posting the code of conduct as it stands, with blow-by-blow thoughts on it. In the comments below, please add your own.

Note: this is a discussion about which guidelines should be introduced, not whether any should be. If your view is that secular groups shouldn’t have rules – that codes of conduct, anti-harassment policies and so on aren’t things we should be introducing – or if debating that view interests you, please hold that discussion somewhere else. Constructive thoughts on how this document could be improved are welcome; whether this group needs or benefits from one at all is not up for debate on this page, and comments discussing that will be removed. Take it elsewhere. (I’m happy, for example, to examine that on sites where this is posted.)

Here is the KCL group’s current policy; here it is again, in full, with added comments. (Share yours underneath.)

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KCLAHSS Code of Conduct

By its very nature, an atheist, humanist and secular society will be a centre of controversial debate. We may criticise religions, the arguments for and against them and also the acts of the religious. We may impartially critique those who identify as adhering to a faith, in regards to their religious belief and practice, religions as independent entities or, any ideas for or against religion more broadly. Held within this is the idea that we may criticise a God, gods or prominent figures of any given faith as we consider this to be an idea contained within the religious infrastructure. However, it is important that amidst this challenging debate we hold to strong humanist principles and that we do not slip into prejudice. In order to facilitate this, the following policy has been drawn up with a heavy basis in the KCLSU Safe Space policy, and as always the KCLSU safe space policy applies to any KCLAHSS space. In addition to this, the process for complaints and action to be taken in the event of breach of this policy has also been detailed below. The entirety of this document relates to any KCLAHSS space – online or offline.

  • Regarding the whole document, and especially the multi-clause sections below, the basis of this in student union policy shows through in bureaucratic legalese. This is something of which to be careful: plain English matters, as Orwell writes, but matters particularly in rulemaking, where meaning needs to be as clear as possible. The anti-harassment policies of these secular organisations might make effective style models – it’s important documents like this don’t end up sounding amtlich(My impulse is that the language of ‘safe space’ obfuscates rather than elucidates, and those whose behaviour codes like this serve to address will by and large be inexperienced with it.)
  • To avoid verbosity, one concise phrase to sum up the butt of our critique: ‘religious bodies, beliefs and practices’.

1. Policy

1. As King’s College London Atheist, Humanist and Secular society we assert that no person or persons within the society (or those who come into contact with the society) should suffer (from any member, or, person within a KCLAHSS space) harassment or intimidation due to discrimination related to gender identity, sexual orientation, trans status, marital status, disability, culture, ideology, race, religious belief, age, socio-economic status, maternity/paternity status or any other group with which they identify.

  • Firstly, it’s worth saying harassment and intimidation aren’t things people should suffer at all, even if not on any of these bases.
  • Secondly, we’ve seen at LSE what happens when anti-harassment language is used to censor and silence satire. Clearly not everyone distinguishes reasoned critique and abuse in the same way, so there needs to be some clear illustration of the differences as the atheist group sees them. For instance:
    Criticism etc.: telling others their views are flawed or mistaken; satirising major religious bodies, beliefs or practices; blasphemous imagery; ethical condemnation; blocking on social media or declining to interact in person.
    Harassment etc.: bringing up (including tagging) Facebook page members specifically to insult them; making and distributing derogatory images; threats (violent or otherwise); unwelcome or uninvited physical contact (sexual or otherwise); physically following individuals around; publicising others’ private details (e.g. address, telephone number) without permission. (All of these, I’m afraid to say, are things I’ve encountered in the secular community.)
  • Thirdly: considering many social concerns raised here – gender identity, disability, race, etc. – are ones which don’t affect a large proportion of the atheist group’s current members (hence, in part, this code of conduct’s introduction), how will awareness of relevant issues be improved? Are some areas here ones in which most members lack extensive knowledge, and may not always notice problems? Would it be a good idea, for example, to provide links at the top of online spaces to blogs/video series/organisations dealing with intersections of atheism with these things, which might be used in reference when such topics are discussed or to raise consciousness in general? (This isn’t necessarily an issue for a code of conduct, though it might be. Is it worth, for example, having dedicated, qualified admins to monitor discussions around sexuality/race/disability etc. and act as go-to moderators in disputes?)

2. Criticism of any aspect of any culture, ideology or religious belief should be entirely free from criticism of the individual presenting or promoting the aforementioned culture, ideology or religious belief. Ideas should stand on their own merit, and their critique should not be merged with the critique of their author(s).

  • ‘Culture’: often a thorny, unhelpfully ambiguous word. Perhaps best avoided here. What qualified as a culture anyway? Is there a better, more precise term?
  • ‘Ideas should stand on their own merit’ – a good thought, but can be misleading in practice. Context matters at times; the person saying something, events prompting it and occasion on which it’s said might all affect the subtext, and subtext matters.
  • What I sense this is trying to say is that critique of religious bodies, beliefs or practices should never translate into endorsement of violence, oppression, dehumanisation etc. of individuals based on religious identity. If so, say that instead?

3. The society does not recognise criticism of any culture, ideology or religious belief as carried out per section 1.2 to be equal to intimidation, harassment or discrimination as mentioned in section 1.1.

  • This is where the student unionese gets in the way – similarly to the last point, it seems to be making the important distinction between satire and criticism directed at religion and repression or persecution of religious groups, but this gets lost.

4. Any person or persons are free to present (in any KCLAHSS space) any culture, ideology or religious belief regardless of the opinion or official standpoint of the society, unless by presenting said culture, ideology or religious belief the author(s) are in breach of sections 1.1 or 1.2.

  • Again, the style here makes the real point, which is important, rather obscure.
  • I’d also like to hear some specific examples of viewpoints unwelcome in the society’s spaces. Fundamentalists? The political far-right? Homophobes? Transphobes? How does this apply to speakers, rather than online users/individual members? Are these people no-platformed? (Given the reference to removal of those who promote such attitudes, I assume so.)

5. Offense is not equivalent to intimidation, harassment or discrimination. The society fully expects that by presenting some of its core beliefs (for example, the non-existence of any god or gods and therefore the false nature of any religion) some individuals will take offense. The protection of free speech is a core tenet of the society, and as such the society must prioritise the preservation of free speech over the prevention of offense, unless said speech is in breach of sections 1.1 or 1.2. All cases must be taken on an individual basis as assessed by the committee, and when necessary, KCLSU.

  • It’s a good idea, I’d suggest, to acknowledge the distinction between the ‘offensiveness’ of actions deemed to be harmful (e.g. racist or transphobic abuse, jokes about rape, derogatory language regarding mental health) and the ‘offensiveness’ of violating arbitrary faith-based religious taboos, e.g. drawing prophets, naming pineapples Muhammad, screening Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
  • What would harassment of or discrimination against religious groups look like, as opposed to doing things which might offend believers? What would some forms of it be?

6. The committee reserve the right to adjust this policy at any point if they deem it appropriate. The committee will try to inform all members of any changes, but are not responsible for any issues arising as a result of any member not being aware of the most up to date version of this policy. The most recent policy version can be requested from the committee at any time.

  • How can it be ensured this code of conduct – a better, less officious term than ‘policy’ – remains reasonable, and stays both relevant and open to change? How can members make sure it’s updated when necessary, considering committee members (especially at present) are by and large not from the marginalised social groups who might seek amendments/additions here? Conversely, how can the committee be held to account and prevented down the line from making unreasonable amendments? (Would it for instance be useful to consider suggested amendments at periodically, e.g. at the end of each term? Should only committee members be able to propose these?)

2. Process following a breach of the Policy

1. Discrimination can occur whenever it is not consciously challenged, and while it is the responsibility of any KCLAHSS member to actively avoid and prevent intimidation, harassment and discrimination, the society appreciates that recognising individual acts in a society where discriminatory language is commonplace can be challenging. For this reason, the society engages in an active “call out” policy – if any member sees language or behaviour they believe to be intimidating, harassing or discriminatory, the individual using said language or behaviour can be “called out” and told that their language or behaviour is not acceptable. The called out individual must then apologise, clarify any misunderstood intent and the discussion or event can continue.

  • ‘Recognising individual acts in a society where discriminatory language is commonplace can be challenging’ – in other words, it should be recognised that exclusionary statements or actions aren’t usually maliciously intended. Important, that.
  • While this may be controversial, I’d personally avoid the term ‘call out’ – it has rather combative connotations as opposed to, say, ‘flag up’. (I know this is spin, but in the light of the previous point, I feel there’s a case for setting a more cooperative tone.)
  • I’m not sure that compelling people to apologise seems fair; it seems like it might well prompt less-than-genuine apologies anyway. Perhaps a better suggestion would be that people whose actions have been questioned should acknowledge the objection?
  • Also, and I don’t think is a trivial point: should this response be automatically required as soon as a complaint is made? Isn’t it, in fact, the job of moderators or committee members to mediate/rule on complaints at moments like these, so the policy isn’t abused?

2. Any individual not willing to publicly call someone out for any reason may request that a committee member do so anonymously on their behalf.

3. If the called out individual disagrees with any particular event of being called out then this is irrelevant as far as their immediate actions are concerned. For ease of preserving a safe space and because all individual events cannot be predicted and described in this document, any act of being called out must be followed by action as per section 2.1, and any disagreement can be followed up with committee who will discuss the event with the individual. The committee will decide whether the original call out was appropriate, and any further complaints may be taken up via the official KCLSU complaints procedure.

  • This is at times difficult to read.
  • Similarly to the previous point: how are disruptive individuals to be dealt with who abuse the system by facetiously/hyperactively making complaints – for example, users online who register objection to this code of conduct by ‘calling out’ every other comment? Would it be fair or reasonable to expect everyone else to apologise, as per 2.1?
  • It seems to me that some way of discouraging that sort of exploitation of the system (i.e. obviously frivolous use of the sanctions in place) would be a good idea, although the phrasing of a rule to do that would need to be precise and carefully thought out.
  • More pragmatically, though: decisions about whether a particular complaint/’call-out’ was unfair/facetious/frivolous/unwarranted probably aren’t ones that can or should always be made after the fact by formalised process. It seems a good idea that there moderators/committee members/volunteers be trusted at times to uphold or dismiss complaints. (This is, after all, why they have to be elected.) If they fail to do this responsibly, formal procedures can always be taken to deal with that - this seems preferable to me to taking all complaints equally seriously, then evaluating their validity by official process later on, but I might be wrong.

4. The process for managing complaints has been taken directly from the KCLSU safe space policy. Any member of the KCLAHSS committee may act upon a complaint by:
a. Giving the complainant a platform to express their complaint.
b. Reiterate to speakers and those in attendance of the Safe Space policy and issue them with a warning that they can be asked to leave an event/space.
c. Ask any speakers or students complained against to leave.
d. Work with any security put in place to remove speakers/ attendees.
e. Make KCLSU aware of any complaint or incident that has violated the policy

  • Again, I think committee members/admins probably should be able to dismiss complaints when they judge them to be made in obvious bad faith by trolls, provocateurs etc. In case important, legitimate complaints were dismissed in error – which I wouldn’t expect to be all that common, officers hopefully being sensible and having good judgement – putting in place grievance or complaint procedures against committee members or admins at regular opportunity may be a good solution. (Allowing any of these to be aired and discussed at meetings, say, once per term.)

5. The escalation procedure for managing any breach of policy is as follows:
a. Call out
b. If repeatedly called out or if an individual fails to respond appropriately, or if the committee deems the transgression severe, the committee will contact the individual privately to detail to the individual where they have broken official policy and warn against future offence. This is considered the first and final written warning.
c. If the individual fails to show commitment to changing their behaviour, or if they continue in severe transgression or if the committee deems it the most appropriate step, the individual will be removed from the space, with the aid of KCLSU security if necessary.

  • Should the ‘private, individual contact’ step always be necessary? On Facebook pages, for instance, might not the occasional user be so absolutely, obviously out of line – threatening violence, or using extreme slurs – that immediate expulsion would be warranted? This would, of course, need to be kept in check. My suggestion would be that a specific list of behaviours be drawn up and stuck to which could prompt removal without warning.
  • How does this apply, moreover, at physical events, where private contact can’t always be established?

The committee are ultimately responsible for the upholding of this policy, and any member who feels the committee have failed in their duty is asked to inform them, or KCLSU as soon as possible.

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Your thoughts, readers?