At the end of April, Professor Sir Roger Scruton, author of over forty books, prominent philosopher in aesthetics, but also the subject of a complaint lodged by Bristol SU last year over controversial remarks he has made previously, came to Bristol as part of the Richmond Lectures series. Epigram spoke to him ahead of his lecture on ‘The Idea of a University’, and discussed the issue of no-platforming, the problems with the university curriculum, as well as his thoughts on Theresa May.
Thank you for speaking with Epigram ahead of your Richmond lecture. Would you be able to tell us briefly the main themes your lecture will cover?
The theme will be roughly what the place of the university is in the society that we now live in. I also want to talk about the problem of where the humanities fit in. We know where science fits in – that is obvious objective knowledge, but with humanities – what is the difference between what is real or fake? I can invent you one now if you like.
Ice cream studies.
There is an awful lot of completely unreadable rubbish produced by people who are so busy doing their research that they haven’t got the time for students.
I guess it would fit nicely alongside those mickey mouse studies?
Yes. For example, I can make myself a professor, I can start a journal in ice cream studies, and I’m the editor and everybody’s flooding me with with articles in the hope of getting tenure – that is the problem. I think there exists a conflict between teaching and research. It wasn’t always the case, you did research in order to understand the subject and teaching it was another way of adding to it. However, when everything now is evaluated by numbers and how many published papers one has produced this term or year, research begins to take over, and it is really often quite meaningless research, created in order to keep their jobs.
So do you believe that the quality of research is being affected?
I think it is, but I’m not part of a university myself so I guess I cannot really judge, but in my opinion, there is an awful lot of completely unreadable rubbish produced by people who are so busy doing their research that they haven’t got the time for students.
I was reading an interview you gave recently where you stated that if you come out as a conservative in a university context, you will find yourself very much on the margins. How do you think this can be improved in your opinion? What is the likelihood of this changing in the current political climate?
I think we need to cultivate being more open-minded, students especially. Professors need to be a bit more courageous, because actually there are a lot more conservative professors than the number who would confess to be. They are frightened.
Universities have always prided themselves on being critical voices in society and they should be, but the problem is they are not self-critical or critical of the left. It’s fine to be critical of the right if you genuinely want to be, but it needs to be applied to the left as well, as quite rubbish and quite frankly criminal thoughts have been entertained on the left. Particularly when you think back to the whole history of communism and the extent of intellectual support there was for it.
I do think it’s part of a proper education to expose yourself to disagreement, because how can you otherwise be certain of what you think?
Do you think universities like Bristol then, need to make more of an effort to reach out to those who disagree with the general liberal ideology?
I think that there would be no harm in it, but you can’t force people to reach out with what they disagree with. However, I do think it’s part of a proper education to expose yourself to disagreement, because how can you otherwise be certain of what you think?
You have previously written a book on ‘How to be a Conservative’. In light of the upcoming general election, is Theresa May a model conservative? Does she share the sociological and philosophical vision you would like her to have?
I think she’s more statist than I would be. I think she believes that the state has a more important role in supporting underprivileged people and creating a level playing field. She’s got a streak of socialism about her, which I think comes from her Christianity.
As I’m sure you are aware, there was a complaint lodged by the Student Union here a few months ago about you coming to speak at the University. Do you think the prominence of no-platforming will become increasingly detrimental to critical thought?
I think it harms universities no-platforming, definitely. There is a desire of people your age to have a cause which enables them to posture as the heroic defenders of the oppressed, but you might not know who the oppressed are because it changes all the time. Who are the oppressed today? It is no longer people of colour, it is no longer homosexuals. You can stir a whole movement of indignation, but it’s not sincere indignation. Indignation can be fabricated for the mere pleasure of it, and I think that what goes on.
It has been announced that Colston Hall will undergo a name change on the basis of cutting links with slave trade. It was a campaign backed by a considerable number of students here, and so I wondered what you thought of that – do you think it is reflective of an increased sensitivity of people being offended without entirely knowing what they are offended about?
This is a very important issue. I think there is a great distinction in life between giving offense and taking offense and young people today have a very great desire to take offense, before any offense has been given. People who are past and dead, you can take offense at them, without them having any defence against it.
I do think it is shocking the extent of hatred and spite on media, especially anonymously. It gives you a sense of the fallen condition of mankind, but your role in a newspaper is to rise above all this.
As a previous editor of the Salisbury Review, I wondered if you had any editorial tips? I’m aware that your paper was quite…
Controversial? I wouldn’t recommend to take the path we had took, that would be the end of your career! But it is very good to be known for standing for something, and for that getting a crucial piece of news that you alone have access to.
No regrets over that time then?
I regret everything and nothing. Looking back on it, I remember the misery of those days being constantly attacked in media, but once you’ve lived through it you don’t care. Nowadays it’s a completely different thing, I think there are a lot of sensitive flowers. However, I do think it is shocking the extent of hatred and spite on media, especially anonymously. It gives you a sense of the fallen condition of mankind, but your role in a newspaper is to rise above all this.
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