Red Smoke, No Fire

Update: Jim Farmelant pointed me toward this article, by Anthony Barnett, which is the finest denunciation of the project I have so far read. I offer it as an alternative view so that my readers can better inform themselves. I still find my argument compelling, but I am disturbed by the way in which the College seems to have misrepresented itself in the press.

Acrid red smoke fills the room, and you are told to evacuate the building. Around 100 people cram the doorways, some anxious, others laughing, most confused. The smoke bomb comes after loud and rambunctious protests, some calling out “You have no right to speak” as the person at the center of this controversy takes the podium.

And what is the tendentious subject which has generated so much ire, leading a mob to disrupt the free exchange of ideas in one of London’s most famous bookstores? Was it a discussion on terrorism, immigration or some other touchy subject? Perhaps the speaker was a known racist, a member of the British National Party, or a radical Muslim cleric?

No, the subject of this debate was university education, and the target of the bomb is AC Grayling, a respected public intellectual who has dared – dared - to, well… I can hardly bring myself to say it.

He dared to open a university.

I’ll wait for you to catch your breath.

It’s a shocking thought, I know: renowned professor decides to teach! If I had been in London, I’d certainly have been at the protest, shouting down speakers and chucking bombs around. I mean, seriously? He wants to set up a school to educate people? Disgusting. In fact, as literary critic and Professor of English Literature Terry Eagleton says, it’s odious.

And what is so foul about Grayling’s university? Will it teach terrible, immoral doctrines and corrupt the youth of the nation? Does it seek to brainwash young people politically or religiously?

No, the odor is of a different sort: this university deserves our detestation because people have to pay for it. And pay they will, through their protesting noses, to the tune of £18,000 a year for tuition alone!


My American readers are probably baffled at this point. My adopted country is quite used to people having to pay for university, and enjoys one of the most vibrant and high quality higher education sectors in the world. An obsession with state provision of education is one of the UK’s particular  foibles, such that anyone who seeks to offer a public good out of their own initiative is demonized for not doing so through the mechanisms of government.

You read that right – a public good. That’s what education is. But it is a non sequitur to assume that all public goods must be provided only by the state, and never by members of the public themselves. This is the fallacy that plagues Eagleton’s invective. He seems to assume that, fundamentally, human beings are  the property of the government. If they decide to work for themselves and their community without going through government, they are traitors to the public ideal. By this logic, doctors who choose to set up a practice are “slinking off” from their real responsibilities as serfs of the state, and professors who choose to work in a private university are being “poached”, stolen from the governmental pastures where they should be working gratefully for little pay, while suffering increasing bureaucratic interference.

Why is it that if a fashion designer has great talent and sets up a fashion house to sell their clothes, we laud their initiative and happily go out to buy their wares, but if a great educator has similar talent and sets up a university, we toss out the smoke bombs and call them “odious”? Why shouldn’t great teachers and researchers like Grayling, Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson (all of whom will be teaching at Grayling’s “New College of the Humanities”) benefit from their hard work and expertise like anybody else who dedicates years of their life to a craft?

What makes the frenzied criticism completely absurd is that it is cloaked in the deceptive garb of social justice. Those making the most noise about the new university are doing so in the name of the poorest students, lamenting the fact that they won’t be able to “buy their way in” due to the high fees. The fact that 20% of the students will pay not a penny is not enough for the critics, who would prefer… Well, what would they prefer? It seems they would prefer New College not to exist at all – if it is indeed “odious” surely it should be shut down, right?

So, running the numbers (math wasn’t my degree, but I think I can handle this one), instead of 200 or so lucky poorer students getting a fantastic education, none would. That’s right, isn’t it? A class of zero incoming students, 20% on scholarships, makes no students getting a life-changing opportunity to study with some of the world’s greatest minds. This is called “equality”.  Good, isn’t it?

What is so concerning about the ruckus this mild-mannered professor has caused with his school is its unthinking illiberalism. A free society should respect the choice of its members to offer their skills to the public, for a charge if they so desire. No one is forced to pay the fees, and the public purse is not drained by the existence of independent educational options – indeed, since some will choose to go to New College instead of a state funded university it may benefit the governmental coffers. It is ironic that Eagleton should mention JS Mill at the end of his article, as Mill would never have voiced criticism so contemptuous of individual liberty.

It is of course crucial to continue to lobby for educational options that are affordable to all, regardless of ability to pay. We all lose out if the poorest cannot go on to higher education because of lack of money, and there are doubtless great thinkers and future leaders in every income bracket of society. The trend toward ever-higher tuition fees is a troubling one, which is one of the reasons I campaigned against “top-up fees” when I was an undergraduate, and lobbied the Houses of Parliament on the day of the vote itself. What we student activists predicted then – that the fee cap would continue to rise – has indeed come to pass, with serious consequences for the ideal of equitable educational provision in the UK. The lack of funding for the humanities in higher education – a lack which has caused even the degree I myself took to be shut down – is of particular concern.

But this concern over the failures of the state should not translate to demonization of anyone who tries to use their own initiative to offer an alternative. Prof. Grayling has every right to set up his university, and to charge for it, and to defend it in a public forum without being shouted-down and smoked-out. Those who use their voices in such thuggish ways demonstrate their lack of respect for democracy and free speech, and ironically demonstrate the need for a school like New College, where they might have learned how to better conduct themselves.

At least one good thing has come from this controversy: it’s conclusive proof that where there’s smoke there isn’t always fire.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.