THE BLOG

A Response to AC Grayling

09/12/2015 11:13 GMT | Updated 08/12/2016 10:12 GMT

One of the memorable scenes of the Hunger Games trilogy - before its lacklustre final two-parter - sees Finnick facing the sharp end of Katniss' arrow, at which point he reminds the protagonist to "remember who the real enemy is". As academics and students criticise one another over free speech and insensitivity, this scene seems particularly apt.

AC Grayling, the distinguished philosopher and master of the New College of Humanities, is the latest academic to criticise those advocating 'safe spaces', calling them "whimpering students", and telling them to "grow up or get out of university". The article was a marginally more nuanced version of Richard Dawkins' October Tweet, which urged students needing a safe space to "leave, go home, hug your teddy & suck your thumb until ready for university."

As a philosophy graduate, challenging AC Grayling feels a bit like someone fresh out of acting school criticising Meryl Streep. But what he and Richard Dawkins don't seem to realise is that the ones who need the 'safe spaces' are invariably not the ones protesting. The deeply vulnerable young people - of which there will be no small number in any community of thousands - are the ones who are suffering in silence. They desperately need to be encouraged to seek support, and labelling them immature does not help the cause.

Grayling appeals to the need for intellectual courage. This is something that he, like allies Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker, are clearly not short of, and a quality that they want to embolden in others - and probably not just for the sake of truth but for wellbeing, too. I was given a copy of Grayling's book The Meaning of Things on my 19th birthday, and it brought consolation during a lonely spell working in the Austrian Alps, and encouraged me to study philosophy at university. Philosophy can lift us out of suffering and anxiety, which is something that Grayling, like newer authors such as Jules Evans, have evangelised to the benefit of many thousands. But turning to philosophy while feeling homesick during a ski season is one thing; doing so when suffering from acute distress or threatening external circumstances is altogether different.

No amount of Plato will fend off personal tragedy, physical assailants, impoverishment, and the myriad of other acute issues that arise on university campuses daily. Whether we accept the fundamentals of Maslow's Hierarchy or not, if we're struggling to survive, physically or materially, then books are not enough. Intellectual courage does not stamp out external threats. It did not save Nietzsche or Seneca from tragedy. Nor did it protect John Keats or Oscar Wilde. And it certainly didn't bring justice for Socrates. If Aristotle can accept that flourishing requires basic external conditions, modern academics, descended from his thought, should be able to do the same.

Thankfully, most of us will pass through our student days without major crisis. But university campuses are close communities of hundreds and thousands of people. Tragedies will occur. Of the students in my first year house, we had one suicide and two students that lost immediate family members in tragic circumstances. Those were just the things I knew about. It's likely that every student that has lived on campus will know of someone that has suffered recent trauma or tragedy. The importance of proper student support structures can't be overestimated.

Those of us with an idealistic view of higher education envisage a setting where students are in close contact with tutors and professors, with whom they build up a relationship as mentor and mentee - the elder member guiding the younger through the intellectual toils and emotional challenges that he himself went through, and that are an inevitable part of intellectual growth. These kinds of student-tutor relationships rarely exist, and perhaps they haven't really existed since the days of Plato's Academy, but it is apparent now more than ever that the present systems in higher education prevent them.

The decline of small-group and one-to-one contact time should be see as an infinitely bigger hindrance to intellectual growth than any handful of student activists. Grayling seems to have some awareness of this, with his private college priding itself on one-to-one tutorials. For the rest of us, rising student numbers and increasing research burdens on staff have reduced most undergraduate student-staff contact time to mass lectures.

As Sir Anthony Seldon has written, although personal tutors may still exist, there is generally little incentive or expectation for them to meet. With pastoral care sidelined, it should not be a surprise if we see a breakdown in staff-student relations. Those with acute problems are typically faced with the option either of joining long waiting lists for underfunded support services, or leaving university to the sound of Richard Dawkins telling them to 'go home, suck their thumb and hug their teddy until ready'. It's no wonder that some students are feeling angry.

AC Grayling speaks of fighting back against protesting student. But as someone who supports students' right to protest, and advocates for better student support, I don't see AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins as the enemy. And I think they will feel the same way towards students if they recognise that the vast majority of activism comes from compassion for vulnerable peers, not from an aversion to free speech. If student protests seem hypersensitive then that is only a reflection of the seriousness of what is often at stake: the lives of the vulnerable.

Universities have a duty of care to their members, and it's up to staff and students to hold them to account. If an academic is worried about a student, they need to be able to direct that student to support services with the confidence that they will get the care they need. At present, most academics can't do that. And so the burden is falling on students to do what they can for one another. We should applaud them. Just like we should applaud those academics devoted to intellectual growth. And when that's done, let's work together to fix the systems.