Widespread shock and denial over Brexit reveals just how entrenched higher education groupthink has become. How do we bring back ideological diversity?
Speaking during the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party conference recently, Universities Minister Jo Johnson highlighted the link between levels of education and European Union referendum voting when he said:
There was a correlation between levels of university attendance and a propensity to vote Brexit. There was a correlation between levels of education generally and a likelihood for voting for Brexit.
Which means there’s a huge opportunity for universities to play the part they want to play in widening participation and ensuring that more people, particularly from disadvantaged background, get a chance to go to university and share in the benefits that higher education can bring.
One of those benefits, presumably, is the pleasure of understanding why Britain should remain in the EU.
Johnson, who backed Remain, is not alone in blaming Brexit on a lack of education. Remainers have made much of the fact that 71 percent of graduates voted to remain in the EU, while only 34 percent of those who left education at 16 did so.
Educators Have Embraced the Message of EU Integration
However, another reason why graduates would vote to remain is overlooked: in higher education particularly, but in all levels of education, there is a systemic bias toward the perceived values of EU integration, and toward the wider ideals of globalism. The longer a young person remains within that system, the more likely they are to be ideologically shaped by pro-EU sentiments.
As LSE Professor Emeritus Alan Sked put it in a blog post early this year,
“the letters pages of Britain’s quality newspapers have been full of pleas from distinguished vice-chancellors and professors, all mobilised in serried ranks, to plead the case for Britain remaining in the European Union. Their ostensible excuse is the need to preserve research funding from the EU… Their true motive, of course, is simply political bias… they have disgraced themselves and demeaned their high academic positions.”
Then there’s the EU-funded Jean Monnet programme, an initiative to further university teaching and research into European integration. In a 2014 essay, Joseph Weiler, a Jean Monnet-chaired professor in New York, wrote explicitly that “part of our mission as Jean Monnet Professor[s] is to disseminate the values of European integration.”
University Groupthink Led to Brexit Bewilderment
But ideological bias in education starts long before university, and it is subtle and embedded. Look at the TES post-referendum, and you’ll find plenty of distressed consternation and agonizing over how to cope with Brexit. It’s as if a whole way of life was overturned, and we’re about to descend into a new dark age. A YouGov poll found before the vote that 70 percent of teachers were in favor of staying in the EU.
More revealing, though, are the stories shared by a Brexit-supporting teacher named Kevin Rooney pre-referendum. He speaks of:
“the visceral reaction of barely disguised contempt whenever I announce, to my education colleagues, that I am voting Brexit. The unspoken assumption is that we educated types are “inners” and the uneducated—mostly working-class types—are “outers”. If you are opposed to the European Union then you must be at least a bit racist and xenophobic; though this contempt for Leave supporters is rarely made explicit in public debate.”
This speaks to the teaching community’s shameless ignorance of the referendum’s complexities—and to their illiteracy on the varied range of opinions on both sides. It also indicates an utter disregard for impartiality or plurality of opinion, reducing the entire debate to a lazy-minded collection of false choices: smart or stupid, fair-minded or racist, in or out.
If this is the attitude taken by school teachers toward their colleagues, can you imagine the message they are imparting to children: day in, day out, perhaps explicitly, but perhaps below the surface and between the lines? Were pupils encouraged to find out the facts, history, and intentions of the EU? Were they instructed to engage with the issues intellectually and come to their own evidence-backed conclusions? To challenge, assume nothing, and inquire?
Or were they fed dodgy prejudices and broad-brush, counter-factual generalizations? Was the issue reduced to gut feeling and moral conjecture? Were the very real problems endemic to the EU addressed at all?
How to Promote Diversity of Opinion
The referendum has polarized these education issues with stark drama. But of course the problem runs wider than one single event. We face the inevitable problems resulting from an alarming lack of political diversity in schools and universities. There are endless high-minded drives for diversity in education, the arts, and workplaces. But these efforts only aim for a diversity of superficial identity: race, sexual orientation, gender. Diversity of opinion, on the other hand, is less valued. Any deviance from the liberal progressive line (as the meaning of “liberal progressive” is gradually reversed) is seen as ignorant at best, a sign of obstinate bigotry at worst.
Where America leads, Britain often follows. So let’s take a look at the following graph, taken from the Heterodox Academy website. The Academy’s mission is “to increase viewpoint diversity” in higher education in the U.S. Their graph shows data taken from the Higher Education Research Institute, tracking political views among professors in US colleges since 1989.
The uniform consensus among UK schools and universities on the Brexit issue strongly suggests that the same problem has taken hold of the Britain’s education industry.The trend here is unmistakable: as right wing, conservative views decrease, so left wing, liberal points of view become increasingly dominant.
Our Problem Isn’t Too Few Graduates
Diversity of political, philosophical, and ideological opinion should be a cornerstone of education. Without this diversity, schools cease teaching and begin indoctrinating. Perhaps that sounds hyperbolic, but given the hysterical reaction to the referendum among many Remainers, it already appears to be happening.
Weeping in the streets is not a balanced reaction to losing a vote—it’s a sign of personal trauma. Who instilled such a deeply emotion-based faith in the profound virtue of the EU? When did these distraught acolytes reach the stage that having their views challenged resulted not in disappointment, but in tears and despair? The scenes witnessed raise some troubling questions.
Non-graduates didn’t vote to leave the EU because they were ignorant of its benefits. They voted Leave because they could look at more than just its benefits. They were able to process the issues with significantly less bias than graduates, and were capable of making their decision impartially and without the risk of being hectored and falsely shamed by their peers.
The problem we have is not that too few people go to university. It’s that the growing lack of political diversity on campus is hindering graduates’ abilities to look beyond their own points of view.