Author Interview: Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams is author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, reviewed here this month. She is Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Kent and Education Editor at Spiked, the online current affairs magazine. She speaks and writes regularly in the media on higher education, schools, gender, feminism, children, and families. 


Questions: Naomi Hodgson


Why did you decide to write Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity?

I wrote Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity as a contribution to ongoing debates about academic freedom and free speech on campus. In the book I explore the origins of the concept of academic freedom, why it became important, and how understandings of academic freedom have changed over time. In the past, academic freedom has very much been linked to the pursuit of knowledge and a need for scholars to be able to challenge established truth claims with competing, superior – but still ultimately contestable – truths.

In my previous book, Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought, I explored dominant narratives around the purpose of a university today. To some, higher education is concerned with individual skills for employability, social mobility, and future earnings potential. To others it’s about creating an inclusive society and promoting particular values such as global citizenship. It can seem as if the sense of higher education being concerned with the cultivation of the intellect or the pursuit of knowledge has fallen out of fashion. Arguing for this has seen me labelled as a ‘golden ageist’ or an ‘elitist’! In particular, the pursuit of knowledge as a search for truth is considered to be, at best, naïve nowadays. Academics tend to be far more modest about their work, sceptical and suspicious of truth claims.

My reason for writing Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity was to explore where the abandonment of truth leaves the concept of academic freedom. If academics have themselves given away the intellectual justification of academic freedom, how can they simultaneously defend it? In fact, some academics are vocal in expressing disquiet about academic freedom nowadays. They argue it is an elitist concept designed to protect the interests of already privileged white men. This concerns me a great deal. Academic freedom was hard won and we give it away at our peril.


What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

The main aim of the book is to explore the threats to academic freedom today that come not just from outside but also from within universities. I argue that when a need for academic freedom in relation to the pursuit of knowledge is abandoned, it becomes a hollowed out concept, of nostalgic and rhetorical interest alone.

In particular, I consider the impact of some of the key intellectual trends of the past half century, such as critical theory and feminism, upon work in the humanities and social sciences. I argue that at the same time as truth has become relativized and perspectival – many truths – language has taken on a far more important status. The idea that words can wound and inflict actual psychic harm on people has become widely accepted. The logical conclusion is that we need to think carefully before speaking and censor the outrageous in order to bring about a greater tolerance. Unfortunately, at any period in history, what is considered outrageous in one era becomes accepted in the next. Evolution was considered outrageous, as was homosexuality. Restricting offensive speech prevents orthodoxies being challenged. It also, ultimately, means restricting ‘offensive’ people, those who think differently, and higher education risks becoming a site of political and intellectual homogeneity, reproducing a culture of conformity.

The logic of what students are taught in the seminar room is played out through ‘Trigger Warnings’ and campus bans on everything from pop songs to tabloid newspapers. The university becomes a place not of academic freedom but where people are at less liberty than elsewhere in society.


And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

I have had a long standing commitment to both freedom of speech and education and I really don’t think you can have one without the other. In my life I have gained a great deal from engaging with ideas I disagree with. I think nowadays it is far too easy for people to create a ‘bubble’ for themselves, through social media, and living, working, and socialising with a narrow set of people. Universities shouldn’t be a ‘safe space’ but a place where students learn through confronting all kinds of ideas that might make them feel uncomfortable in the short term.


What sort of reaction do/did you hope the book will get?

I hope it might make people consider the importance of free speech to the pursuit of knowledge and that it might help make the case for more intellectual and political diversity in the academy.


What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

I hope the book will be read by academics from a range of disciplinary backgrounds but also by students and members of the public who are interested in what is happening within universities. I hope it moves beyond pointing the finger at the latest antics of censorious students and helps unpick some of the theoretical underpinnings to current debates about academic freedom.


What’s your current project? What’s next?

I’m currently working on a book about feminism. This extends one of the themes I picked up on in Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity. I am interested in how feminism is becoming an ideology that is placed beyond criticism and how it can work, perhaps unintentionally, to promote an idea of women as vulnerable, as victims at home and in the workplace, that is often at odds with reality. The notion of women as vulnerable can be used to suggest we need special protection from speech and images, such as adverts featuring skinny models or song lyrics about rape. I think women are pretty robust and can cope with free speech as much as any man!


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

To me, philosophy of education concerns why, how and – importantly – what, people together, as a society, decide is sufficiently important to pass on to the next generation. This is the most important discussion to have about education but unfortunately it is often lost in more technical discussions about what works in the classroom.


Read Alexis Gibbs’ review of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.