Dave Rubin: We’re continuing our partnership with Learn Liberty this week. As you guys know, we’re building out our home studio right now. My good pal, Larry King, was nice enough to lend me his studio. My old studio used to be built in this very room, but Larry lent it to us today. My guest this week is an author, the education editor at Spiked and senior lecturer of higher education and academic practice at the University of Kent. Joanna Williams, welcome to the Rubin Report.
Joanna Williams: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Rubin: I’m very excited to talk to you because we’re going to talk about education. That might be the most important thing out there. Is that fair to say?
Williams: I think it is, and I think what’s really interesting is how much more important it seems to have become over just a very few years. It seems like everybody feels a need to go to university nowadays, and parents are always so worried about how well their children are doing at school. I think that’s quite new. I don’t think it used to be the case. Go back twenty years. I don’t think it was quite the case that everybody felt they had to go to university and people were so pressurized about how well their kids were doing at school.
Rubin: Yeah. Before we get to the pressure situation and all the stuff that you talk about related to it being more about grades than learning and credits and all that stuff, how about you, basically, just define education for me. What do you think is actually a good, well-rounded education?
Williams: Well, I think education should be about knowledge. You should know more when you leave school than you do when you start that school.
Rubin: That makes sense. I’m with you.
Williams: You say it makes sense, but it’s actually a very controversial thing to say. I’ve been challenged upon this so much because as soon as you say, “Kids should know more when they leave school than they do when they start school,” people will say to you, “Well, what knowledge? Who should decide what it is that children should know? Shouldn’t children just be free to explore and to use their imaginations and develop, as individuals?” This idea that you actually teach them something and you actually pick what you think is the best thing that children should and this goes for university students, as well.
Williams: Then, suddenly, you become some kind of elitist authoritarian, who’s imposing white culture or an elitist culture on students.
Rubin: Right. I didn’t realize that education was now an elitist culture, but I think in a lot of respects it is. You can do both of those things at the same time, right? I mean you can select what information to teach a child and expand their knowledge, while at the same time not stifling their creativity and ability to be themselves, right? You don’t see those things as mutually exclusive?
Williams: No, in fact I would actually say that the more knowledge you give them then the more you enable to be free to use their imaginations and to become creative-thinking, critical individuals because they’ve got some basis to form that creativity, to spark that criticality, but the problem nowadays, I think, that so many people, so many educators, bizarrely enough, think that you can miss out that first stage. That you can miss out teaching people any actual knowledge and just jump straight into the “Let’s be critical, let’s be imaginative, let’s be creative” bit without doing the groundwork first. I think the more you actually teach people stuff, proper stuff, then the more you enable them to be free-thinking, creative, critical individuals.
Rubin: Yeah, so I know that this portion isn’t totally your expertise, but, as I was doing my research for this, I kept thinking I have a two-year-old niece who is just going into whatever that … not elementary school.
Rubin: Kinder … not even kindergarten. It’s preschool. Whatever it is. Just to socialize and take naps and stuff like that. It sounds pretty great, actually. How much do you know or pay attention to the process of younger learning. I know your focus is really on universities and stuff like that, but how much of…. It doesn’t have to be two years old, but from two to say eighteen, how much of that is important to you and important to what leads to the stuff that you really care about at the university level?
Williams: I think it’s all important. I think it’s all really important, but the bizarre thing is while, is that so many people who are involved in education, say they talk the rhetoric of creativity, imagination, child centered, is the language of the day. Everybody’s got to be very, very child centered. Yet, when it comes to two-year-olds, like you’re talking about, we can’t leave them alone, so between two and ten or whatever it is, it’s like people need to micromanage every step of their day, everything they do. I mean if I was running a nursery for two-year-olds, I think I’d have nice toys, big open area, this is for kindergarten kids, and leave them to get on with it. Leave them to play, to form friendships, relationships, fall out, fight, take risks.
Rubin: That’s a type of education. It’s not necessarily the quest of knowledge, per se, at five years old. Socializing, but socializing is education, right?
Williams: It is, but I think the best socializing is done, obviously, you have the relationship with the parents, the relationship with the teachers, but, ultimately, kids need to be left alone, as well. My daughter’s ten. In her school this week, it’s anti-bullying week.
Rubin: Oh, lord.
Williams: I can guarantee you one thing. The poor teacher next week is going to have so many more kids coming to see him to say that they’re being bullied because essentially what these kids are being taught is that the normal, everyday interactions that you have when you’re ten, where you’re falling out with people, making up with people, that that is now bullying.
Williams: Instead of just leaving the kids to get on with it, to sort it out for themselves, they’re being told, “Oh, no. This is bullying.”
Rubin: Right. Now, you have to tell on them.
Williams: This is traumatic.
Rubin: Yeah. You have to tell on them.…
Williams: You don’t sort it out for yourself, go and tell the teacher.
Rubin: Yeah. Now, I know a certain amount of people are going to hear that because I’ve seen this when I’ve said something like that. I’m not pro-bullying, but I do understand that when I was a kid there were some kids that I made fun of sometimes. There were some kids that made fun of me sometimes. I was playing stick ball once in about fourth grade and two guys that were much bigger than me, from I think two grades over, literally, picked me up and put me upside down in a garbage can. I am not making that up. I was bullied and I did some bullying, but that’s all what makes you a person.
Williams: It does, but I think what’s changed is that the definition of bullying has gone from being something where we were quite clear about it. If somebody hits you, that was bullying, and if you were being hit badly enough, you could go and tell the teacher and you would expect an adult to intervene and to tell whoever was hitting you to stop. Suddenly now, bullying has gone from being hitting, to name calling. Now, it’s not even name calling, it’s leaving someone out. Even if someone doesn’t do anything bad to you, they just don’t do anything to you; that is now seen as being bullying, as well.
Rubin: God, that reminds me of in third or fourth grade when…. If it was somebody’s birthday, you’d have to bring cupcakes for everybody because you couldn’t …
Williams: We didn’t have that in the U.K. at the time, but now it’s getting like that.
Rubin: Now you have it. Oh, we had that in the States for a long time. I remember very specifically there was one kid who I really, really hated. I was like, “I don’t want to give him a cupcake on my birthday.” You have to bring cupcakes for everybody because they’re left out. What do you think that does to children for their formative years. All you’re doing is giving them a fake reality. I don’t want to exclude kids, and I get kids can be tough and rough and mean. All that stuff, but what do you think it does for their formative ability to feel some pain, which is part of life.
Williams: Yeah. We use this term “Snowflake generation.” I don’t particularly like that term, but you can see how these kids are being then formed in school that nothing bad should ever, ever happen to you and if something bad does happen to you, it’s the end of the world and there is no way you can be expected to sort it out for yourself. You need to go and get somebody else to come in to sort this out for you. The reason why I don’t particularly like the term “Snowflake generation” is because it’s lets older people off the hook. These kids don’t go to school when they’re five begging for anti-bullying weeks.
Rubin: It’s being given to them by some older snowflakes.
Williams: Absolutely. This is their teachers and their head teachers who are saying, “We’re now going to have anti-bullying week,” which I promise you won’t just be a week. It will go on the whole year.
Williams: This is what teachers are doing to them, so the teachers are telling them, essentially, you are so fragile you cannot cope if somebody gives you a slightly odd look and you cannot sort that out for yourself and go and say to the person, “Why are looking at me in that way?” You need to get some help. They’re being conditioned to be scared of everything and everyone and never to be able to sort anything out for themselves. These are then the kids who are then arriving on the college campus at university for five years on from this completely unable to cope forming relationships with each other.
Rubin: Yeah. Before they get there, what do you think the learning process should be like? Now, we’ve talked about the young kids. We’ve talked about the preschoolers. We got through elementary school. What’s sort of a healthy high school education to you? Where you’re not necessarily going into the deep philosophical stuff. You’re not college level, but you’re not a kid anymore. Those interesting years of high school.
Williams: I think, for me, one of the big problems at the moment with education is that the role of the teacher has become so confused with the role of the parents. I think the job of the parent is to love the kids, obviously, but to do things like teaching them about healthy eating, to bring them up in their values, to teach them about sex and relationships, for example. That should be the job of a parent, and it should be the job of the school to teach kids knowledge, to teach them about works of literature, about math, geography, history, proper subjects. The problem is these roles have become completely blurred, so the school is stepping in and teaching sex and relationship education, teaching about consent, teaching about bullying, about friendships. The parents are being expected to teach the maths and teach the reading. It’s utterly bizarre.
I think what a good school education should be like is both doing more, in terms of more teaching, teaching more proper subject knowledge to kids, but then hands off, as well. Don’t teach them about sex and relationships. This is a really controversial thing to say in the UK, but I don’t think it should be the job of teachers to be telling kids about sex and relationships. It shouldn’t be the job of the teachers to be running anti-bullying weeks. It shouldn’t be the job of the school to tell kids what values to hold, so the teachers are kind of overstepping the mark, I think, but also not doing enough in terms of proper teaching of subject knowledge.
Rubin: Right. Do you think there’s no role for say a seventh-grade health class where they’re not necessarily teaching about sex, per se, but they are teaching about STDs or they’re teaching about drug use or something like that? You would say that’s more of an academic thing, so you are okay with that? Or you think that even that….
Williams: No. No.
Williams: I wouldn’t have anything of that at all. I mean, I think, obviously, there’s a case for teaching kids the biology, and that should be done in a science lesson, but as soon as you move beyond the biology, you’re putting a values framework into this. Even if you take healthy eating, for example, I do not think it should be the role of the school to teach kids what to eat. I remember my own son, when he was about seven and we’d had a very, very busy week. It was very stressful. I got to Friday and I’m like, “Oh, we’ll get a pizza for dinner.” He’s, “No. I can’t. I can’t.”
Rubin: There’s gluten in there.
Williams: What’s wrong with you? Oh, no, we didn’t have gluten in the UK at that time. This is a bit more recent.
Rubin: Well, you had it, but you weren’t talking about it.
Williams: We weren’t talking about it. He’d been asked by the school to keep a food diary. This is a seven-year-old boy who spent so much time running around. He was so skinny and had been asked to write down everything that he’d had to eat and to color code it. Green for good, red for bad.
Rubin: That actually sounds scary to me.
Williams: I just think it’s completely overstepping the mark. I’m like, “Come on. I’m your mother. If I want you to eat a pizza, you will eat a pizza. I don’t care how many calories it’s got in it.”
Rubin: What kind of bizarro land is that where the mother has to trick the kid into eating a pizza?
Williams: I know.
Rubin: That’s really….
Williams: No, no. I think the healthy eating’s one thing, but I think when it comes into sex and relationships, it becomes even more horrible because it is a complete moral agenda that children are being taught and this then feeds into universities where you have something in the UK demands for consent classes. I mean bizarrely compulsory consent classes where these classes are mandatory. They must go to learn how to say no.
Rubin: Right. What do you do about the kid, not who has a stable family and parents and parents who are going to teach them the right things, but for a kid that really is not going to get that knowledge from them? They’re not going to learn how to eat properly or how to not do drugs or know things about their body? All of that stuff, which is fully legit, and I understand you’re drawing a line between sort of personal life and the schooling system, but how can we then help those kids that obviously need it. You’re growing up. It’s in a confusing time. How do you…. Is there some role for the public in that?
Williams: I mean firstly I wouldn’t overstate it. I mean people always throw, “What about these really extreme examples? These kids that are growing up in a garbage can or something like that who don’t have any human interaction?” I think you got to be really, really careful. I mean I think the vast majority of parents love their children and want the best for their children and do the best that they can. It might not be textbook and it might not what all the experts say you should do, but there is no recipe, at the end of the day, for how to raise the perfect kid. I think we fool ourselves if we think there is some recipe for raising the perfect kid. I think talking to them, loving them, that is enough, actually. I think the vast majority of parents do that, but there always will be one or two who, perhaps, don’t have the advantages and don’t get that love from their parents, and that’s really sad. I think teachers are human and tend to love their jobs and also tend to be fond of the kids that they teach. I think teachers over decades have always had an eye out, certainly my own teaching experience, you would have half an eye out for the kid who was sitting there looking very quiet, withdrawn.
If you thought someone had come to school without breakfast that day and you would help them out. You would do that on a very individual level, but the problem is when you start seeing your role as a teacher to do this everyone in the class, that you’ve got to teach thirty kids about healthy eating, that takes up so much of your time and energy that poor kid who’s sitting there looking very withdrawn, who has come to school without breakfast, you actually don’t even have the time to notice them and to give them the individual attention. You’re so busy looking after all the well kids.
Rubin: Yeah, that’s such an interesting example of the collective versus the individual because by choosing the collective, in effect, you have to neglect the people that need it the most. If that’s really well intentioned, I suppose, want to teach these kids about how to eat right and then who do you end up hurting the most is the kid that you could have focused on.
Williams: I think that’s true. I think that’s true, but I also think there’s just such a tendency nowadays to assume the worst of people and to assume that parents are not up to the job of raising their own kids. That makes me feel very sad because I think it’s untrue. I think, like I said, people might not do it all according to some mythical rulebook, but I think most parents are up to the job of raising their kids. We’re always so quick to focus on the one or two extremes and, luckily, they are extremes. I think most parents genuinely want the best for their kids and genuinely love their kids. They may not be raising their kids in the best circumstances or circumstances that they’ve chosen, but they do want the best for their children, and I think we’re just always so quick to look on the bad side.
Rubin: Yeah. Speaking of wanting the best for their children, so you mention your daughter now ten years old, anti-bullying week. In light of what you do for a living and the things that you care about, I mean what do you say to her? Either before this, during it, or after it?
Williams: Do you — these are real dilemmas that I face as a parent because before anti-bullying week, I promise you I’m not making this up, but the week before anti-bullying week was … I don’t think you’ll have this charity here in the US, but we have this charity NSPCC, which is the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The week before anti-bullying week, this charity came into the school to do a week-long series of workshops about sexual abuse with ten-year-olds, and they have this initiative called Pants, and it’s about telling children that nobody should be allowed to touch you inside your underwear. Again, you could say, “Isn’t this Pants useful for the one or two children who are being sexually abused?” You take her to school, 40 children in it, 395 do not need to have lessons in sexual abuse, and it creates worry and concern and fear in those children where they’ve got nothing to fear about. It makes them suspicious of their parents. It makes them suspicious of adults who are wanting to help them, and it creates this fear in the heads of young kids. I get these letters home, “This week is sexual abuse prevention week. This week is anti-bullying week. Healthy eating week.”
Rubin: Do they have just a regular week?
Rubin: Is there ever just a “sit back and enjoy life” week? They don’t have that? Or “we’re not going to bother you this week”?
Williams: Over the years there’s been some really bizarre things, so this was going back a few years now, but their school was into fair trade, and this is when she was like six. How can they get six-year-olds to think about fair trade, so they made posters of bananas and pictures, cutting out and all this kind of thing.
Rubin: Six-year-olds really understand the international economics.…
Williams: This is the thing, because they don’t. Obviously, they don’t understand it. There’s no pretense of even teaching them about international economics and world trade. It’s just preaching, and it’s just values. When they draw the poster they’re not expected to think critically about these things, they’re expected just to buy into the values and demonstrate having met these values, so they all want pictures of bananas and a farmer saying, “I like fair trade.” This kind of thing with no degree of criticality there, at all.
Rubin: Then if you dare criticize it, then.…
Williams: You haven’t demonstrated that you’ve met the value, so you failed.
Rubin: When did this happen? When did this stuff really happen? As I said before, when I was a kid, I bullied and I was bullied. I remember that we were allowed to get into fights and all of that stuff. You tried to settle it between the parents and not make everything a national headline. When did this happen? Was it the exact same timing for the United States as it was for Britain?
Williams: I think probably quite similar in terms of timing. I mean I think there’s lots of different things going on here. I think you can see, for example, one very, very interesting study shows the geographical distance that children were allowed to go from their home on their own, away from home, and you can see since the 1970s year on year that distance that children are allowed to go has become smaller and smaller. Essentially nowadays, it’s pretty much their back garden.
Rubin: You’re talking about, literally, their ability to get on the bike and ride around the neighborhood …
Rubin: Slowly has been scaled back.
Williams: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, which is sad. Very, very sad. You can look at high-profile cases, I think in both the States and in the UK, of children who maybe have been abducted and then how this then spreads a fear through parents and this idea we’re all kind of monitoring each other all the time. I let my daughter walk to school on her own with another boy from her class. My fear, and this is very, very revealing, my fear was not for one second about anything that would happen to my daughter: she’s a very sensible girl. She’d be absolutely fine. My fear was what will other parents think of me. It’s that idea that we’re all checking or monitoring each other all the time. That’s really unhealthy.
Rubin: What do some of the parents think of you? As long as we’re going that route, I mean you’re public about this. This is what you do.
Williams: Oh, yeah, she walks to school every day and everybody drives past, and she’s here walking to school every day. People will say funny things to me like, “Oh, you’re so lucky. You can do that because your girl’s so sensible.” We know she’s just a regular kid. She’s just the same as your child. The reason why she’s sensible is because I’ve allowed her …
Rubin: Right. It’s not a coincidence that you got this sensible kid.
Williams: Yeah. Yeah, it’s because I’ve let her take these risks that she now is this sensible child. People come up, and they will say, “Oh, I saw her walking to school on her own today.” It’s almost as if they just want me to know that they know that she’s walking on her own.
Rubin: It’s like Big Brother stuff at a very micro level because they start.… It’s almost a way.… it’s not that they’re surveying the kids, in a way they’re surveying the parents, and now you’re all kind of watching each other. It really… It sounds extremely perverted or something. A perverse ideology.
Williams: Again, a lot of this comes from the schools. Kids will bring home homework projects that they…. There’s no possibility of children being able to complete these projects on their own. The homework projects are actually designed to involve the parents. It’s as if the school is then checking up on what are the parents doing? Are the parents being good parents? Have the parents heard the child read? You have homeschool liaison officers who are employed, specifically, to work with the parents rather than working with the children. Bringing the parents into school and we have parenting classes in the UK now. All parents are encouraged to go to these parenting classes. It’s almost as if … If you turned around and said, “Well, actually. Do you know what? I think I’m doing a good enough job. I don’t think I need any of this extra help or advice.” That in and of itself then marks you out as somebody who’s not good enough.
Rubin: Right. By doing a good job, thus not wanting to spend extra time in a class that you have no need for, you then are thought of as the outsider. “Something’s wrong with those…. They don’t want to be in the parenting class? Guess they’re not good parents.” This is crazy stuff. How do you peel back some of this stuff?
Williams: I think you’ve got to. I think you just have to stand up and take that risk and you just have to say, “No. She’s ten. My daughter.… She’s walking to school, and that’s it. End of story.” The time it becomes very, very difficult for me, personally, the time it becomes very difficult is with things like these anti-bullying weeks and say sex education classes because I, obviously, have strong opinions about these things, but I’m also aware that I don’t want to single my daughter out and I don’t want her to have to carry the can for my political views. Most of the time I just let these things go and then I’ll ask her about it afterwards and see if there’s anything that she wants to talk to me about, but I won’t single her out. There’s one or two things where I do. For example, I was talking about the healthy-eating thing. They do this thing in the UK where they weigh and measure all children when they’re in their first year at school and when they’re in their final year at school so they can send a letter home to the parents to say, “Your child is obese. Your child is overweight and you need to do something about this and here’s some exercise classes.”
Rubin: You couldn’t have figured that out on your own? No way. You couldn’t have bought a scale and maybe fed your kid differently. That would be impossible.
Williams: Absolutely. I mean that’s the assumption. That you need somebody to give you an official letter to say, “Your child is overweight.” It’s horrendous. I withdrew her from that. She’s not going to do that, but most of the time you have to let it go, and then you just have to hope that your children pick up enough of your own values that eventually they begin to think quite critically of these things themselves.
Rubin: It’s really interesting. Clearly, you’ve drawn the through line between the younger child and how it affects the parents, so now let’s move right into the middle of that space and let’s go to college, which is where you spend most of your time writing your books and researching. Basically, you feel that colleges have become these places to just chase grades, chase credits, chase these imaginary things, but they don’t really make you a better person or a more functional in society or a better member of a productive society. Is that fair to say?
Williams: I think it is, but I think you’re almost being too positive.
Rubin: Take it away.
Rubin: I was taught in school very young to be positive about things. See what they did to me? You can correct that.
Williams: I mean there’s an element of truth in what you’re saying that people go now with a far more instrumental attitude about … In terms of getting credit and getting grades. I mean the question that every single academic hates more than any other question is “Will this be on the exam? Is this relevant for our end-of-term paper? Are we going to be assessed on this?” You can see if a student has say ten lectures in a series, they will look and they will see which ones are going to be relevant to the exam or relevant to the essay and they only turn up for those ones and the attendance will really dip.
I think universities do so much, in terms of encouraging this attitude amongst students, whereas universities go back ten, twenty years ago, would have, certainly in the UK, mid semester, there would be a reading week. The expectation would be that there were no classes that week and students were expected to go to the library to read around the subject. Now, at lots of universities that’s been changed. It’s not called “Reading Week” anymore. It’s called “Employability Week,” and they get people coming in from local businesses and from national corporations and telling students what they need to do to apply for a job in a particular area.
Do you know what? The students mainly just avoid these things because I think the students have got common sense and are either not terribly interested in just thinking about that or, I think, “Well, I’ve got a few years, yet. I don’t know what I definitely want to do.” The universities are sending out the message to students from day one, “You’re here to get a job. This is all that it’s about, essentially. It’s about job training.”
The really sad thing is, I think, lots of students arrive at university with some interest in the subject that they’re going to study and some genuine desire to want to know about that subject. I think something happens when they’re at university. Either explicitly or implicit, where they pick up on this message. It’s all about the grades. It’s all about just ticking the boxes of what you have to do. It’s all about getting these employability skills. Or this piece of paper that you can take when you go and get a job.
Rubin: Yeah. How absurd does it seem to you that when you … you take this kids, they come from this over-regulated system, you’ve protected them from certain ideas, you then put them in a system where their grade is the ultimate goal. I would say almost everyone that I know that I think is a good functioning person in society, has either changed their career or is now … majored in one thing and is doing something else. I was a political science major. I just said to Larry King earlier, “I may be the only one that’s using this thing actually the way it was supposed to be used.” The idea that at eighteen, after whatever education you’ve had, even if it was perfect in your world, that at eighteen to twenty-four or something that you should be able to figure out what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. What a sad state of humanity that is, actually.
Williams: It’s a sad state of humanity. It’s, also, a sad state of education because, essentially, it means the university is a job-training center. That removes any quality, any value from higher education. Where I think.… This is where I’m saying I think you’re being a bit too optimistic because I think, yeah, there are some students who are just chasing the grades, but for a lot of academics it’s actually.… They don’t like, and I sympathize with them with this completely, they don’t like the idea that they are teaching employability skills. This is neoliberal, is the buzzword. They don’t want to think that they’re operating within this marketized system and they’re just training people up to go and get a job and cash in what’s known as graduate premium. You can go and get your extra wages because you’ve got this degree certificate, but the problem is … and, in opposition to that, doesn’t stand let’s teach subject knowledge. Let’s take all this wonderful — the best, as Ben Thornton said, and let’s share this with students. In opposition to the employability, certificates, grades stands this values agenda.
Again, so this is very, very similar to what’s going on in the schools. It happens in higher education, too. It’s things like global citizenship, responsibility for protecting the environment. Again, you get the sex education, the consent classes, and all of these ideas about how to be a good person, essentially, but not work out for yourself what you think is being a good person, but it’s somebody else’s idea.
Rubin: In and of itself, those topics, you’re not against those topics being taught, but it’s the way that it’s all being together. You have no problem with learning about how to be a good citizen or something, but you should learn for yourself.
Williams: I have.
Rubin: Well, you should learn it for yourself.
Williams: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t think you go to university to have someone teach you how to be a good citizen. They can teach you knowledge, again, for you to think critically about, for you to come to your own conclusions about, but the problem is when university is trying to teach you directly how to be a good person, how to be a global citizen. They are imposing a particular set of values upon you, and as soon as somebody starts to teach values, what they’re looking for in the students, again, is, have the students demonstrated these values? Critical thinking goes out the window because as soon as somebody starts to express doubt.…
If you take the issue of climate change, of course I think climate change should be a topic that’s taught in the universities, but it should be a topic where students are allowed to think critically about it. They can take the data, take all the scientific evidence, but then that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s one right way to interpret that data or one right way to act upon that data. As soon as you start moving away from teaching the science of climate change, to teaching, are you a responsible, environmentally aware citizen, suddenly you’re moving away from a scientific, rigorous critique to ticking boxes. Has someone recycled their coffee cup carton? Has someone remembered to turn the lights off?
Rubin: I mean we’re in LA. if you walk out of here with a plast.… I’ll give you a little warning since you’re not from LA, if you walk out of here with a plastic bag, you can actually be shot. Legally. They can just snipers are on the roofs watching out to get you.
Rubin: Watch out for that. The through line through everything we’re discussing is that there really is a political agenda here is what it seems to me.
Rubin: You’re talking about this very early on conformity through these kids and then you throw them into these colleges. Now, we’ve gone this far and we haven’t even talked about safe spaces and trigger words and all that stuff. You get them there, their critical thinking skills have already been degraded in a certain way. Now, you inoculate them from a whole set of other ideas and then you throw them out into the real world and then they will be obedient citizens, basically. Is that a fair through line that I drew there?
Rubin: Hopefully, some of them will fight back.
Williams: Yeah. Yeah. Hopefully. Hopefully. I think bright students do and do begin to think critically and do begin to challenge. Although, obviously, it’s far harder to do that if you haven’t got a basis of subject knowledge on which to form your critical opinions. The only I hesitate a little bit is I always used to say this thing, “When students enter the real world they will have a shock.” I’m not convinced anymore that they will because suddenly in the UK the way so many laws are enacted to clamp down on hate speech, for example, and hate speech now can be … encompasses misogyny. If you say a sexist remark or even if you don’t say a sexist remark, but if you say something that I interpret as a sexist remark and I label you as a misogynist, I could go to the police and say, “You have committed a hate crime against me.”
Rubin: Are you familiar with Professor Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto? I had him on last week, and he’s dealing with this in Canada because of a new law that was passed about gender pronouns, and you can, literally, report people. Exactly what you’re saying. This is endemic all over the West right now.
Williams: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t think, unfortunately, that there’s this big shock waiting. I think what happens is that the students are taking the attitudes and the values that they’ve picked up on in higher education and they are then changing the world in that image. Also, I think the thing that I need to remind myself of over time, as well, is higher education doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Higher education is part of the world, as well. Just as we have more censorship, more censorious climate, and these clamp downs on hate speech, et cetera, in the real world outside of the university campus, so too does it feed into what’s going on in universities, as well.
Rubin: I really find that fascinating because I say that phrase. I remember when my parents would say it to me, “The real world one day…. You get out of college, it’s the real world. You can’t do that anymore, it’s the real world.” I’ve used that phrase about these kids. That they’re going to get out of these safe spaces and they’re going to be in the real world and they’re going to really be screwed, but what you’re saying is they’re really.… It is much more dark and depressing because what you’re saying is that this stuff has already taken root in the real world so that the shock for them would be if the real world was different, but you’re saying it’s not.
Williams: I think.… I’m sorry, I might be jumping ahead a little bit here, but I think they do still get a shock. I think you see this completely this past week in the reaction to Trump’s victory in the US. In the UK we saw in the reaction on campus due to the vote for Brexit, and they will go so far to try and change the world in their own image. In the UK, for example, we’ve had quite a lot of regulations that have come into effect in the workplace, so if anybody says anything sexist in the workplace they can be publicly shamed for making such comments. These students will go so far to try to change the world as to how they want it, but then every so often, yeah, these shocks happen and every so often.… Like I say, Trump and Brexit being prime examples, students and not just students, I think even more to the point academics, administrators, who all work in universities then have this complete and utter shock when they’re confronted with the fact that not everybody thinks the same way as they do.
Williams: I think, as we’ve seen this past week, they just cannot handle that at all.
Rubin: Right. Let’s talk about some of the students that are protesting right now because everyone knows that watches this show I am absolutely for free speech. I am absolutely for free expression. I am absolutely for protest. All of those things for sure. Where I would draw the line in this case is that you can’t do anything illegal in your protest. If you’re blocking roadways and stopping ambulances from getting there or even if you’re just stopping someone from getting to work or going home or whatever else, you can’t break the law. You can do it in public places. You can do it in a field, at your house, you can organize online petitions, et cetera, et cetera.
What seems scary to me about what they’re doing, putting the legal part aside, because they are blocking roadways and things like that, is that they’re protesting right now.… They’re not protesting an issue, so they’re not protesting a specific law that was passed that they might find unjust or unfair, they’re protesting the results of an election that no one is contesting. We can have a whole discussion about electoral college and popular vote, but that’s not what they’re protesting. They’re protesting the results because they don’t like them, but I think you would argue that is a very clear and direct result of everything that they’ve been taught so far.
Williams: Absolutely. I think you give them too much credit when you use the word “protesting.”
Rubin: You’re going to turn me into.… I’m going to be a little darker after this.
Williams: Sorry. I think it gives them.… It gives it too much status to term this a “protest.” I mean I think it’s something far more, and I’m going to sound like a horrible person here, but I think it’s much more akin to a toddler tantrum. I mean I was very involved with politics when I was at university, but we never had cry ins. We never had primal screams. What you’ve got is this outpouring of rage, and the thing that worries me, as well, and the reason why I think it’s not political and it’s not protest is it’s being described in this very therapeutic language of grief and healing. A discussion of the need to share suicide hotline prevention numbers and.…
Rubin: You’re rewarded in way for it. Right?
Rubin: You’re rewarded for your victimhood.
Williams: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Rubin: The more you’re damaged by this.
Williams: Absolutely. I think politics, generally, has become so confused with this virtue signaling. Again, you saw this very, very much in the UK with the whole “leave and remain in the EU” thing and this idea that your vote to remain in the EU or, I think, in the US, your vote for Hilary Clinton is much more than just a vote, it’s much more than just a tick in the box or where you stand on a particular position. It’s about you. You see this in, for example, in Lena.… Uh, what’s her name?
Rubin: Lena Dunham.
Williams: Lena Dunham’s. Her blog.
Rubin: Guess what. Not going Canada.
Williams: Damn. The Canadians are all cheering.
Rubin: Yeah. They’re happy.
Williams: This idea that all of these things that go on in the world are all about them. It’s all about me, so if something happens that I don’t like, I am devastated. I need to heal. I need to grieve. I need to cry.
Rubin: The pain is all about them, but the excuse is always about someone else, right? I even saw Lena Dunham tweet the patriarchy and all that because I saw she tweeted just a couple days ago or right before the election saying about how evil white men and blah, blah, blah, but my dad was an evil white man and they’re all evil. It’s like you can revel in the pain. That gets you very high up in your virtue signaling, so that’s great, but the fault is never yours.
Rubin: It’s always the white man or the system.
Williams: I think that’s absolutely true. Absolutely true. A really important point. I think it’s not protesting. It’s this outpouring nebulous, outpouring of nothingness, as far as I’m concerned, but then look at me. Look at me. I wouldn’t gratify it with a label of a protest, but then I think the second point that you make is absolutely spot on because what they’re essentially doing is complaining about people, complaining about the decision that people made in that election box. They’re not saying.… There’s no sense of analysis. “Where did we go wrong? Why didn’t convince people?” There’s no sense of reflection to think, “Well, why don’t people agree with us?” It’s just “We don’t like these people who voted differently to how we wanted them to vote.”
Rubin: Which is exactly how a democracy is supposed to work.
Rubin: I don’t know if you saw President Obama’s.…
Williams: I did. I did.
Rubin: I thought it was wonder.… I really thought it was one of the best moments of his presidency. He said it doesn’t always work this way. It doesn’t always work out the way you want it to work, but we have to do this peacefully and respect the system. I thought, “Wow.” Maybe I’ve been too harsh on the guy because I thought this was so great what he did.
Williams: Completely. Completely. He’s come out and said some very sensible things about the importance of free speech on campus, as well. What’s quite sad is we really don’t get that in the UK.… Well, sometimes you do. I mean Prime Minister Theresa May, she came out and said the university shouldn’t be a safe space. Students shouldn’t no-platform speakers, but she says that, and I don’t know if this is the same with Obama, but Theresa May will say that one day, but then she’s also been responsible for bringing in legislation. It’s called the “Prevent Strategy.” It’s supposed to stop radicalization of students on campus. She’s also being responsible for an awful lot of the restrictions that we have in universities at the moment about who can say what on campus, who can come to speak on campus. It’s almost like they want to react against students, but at the same time they just want their restrictions on free speech.
Rubin: How much of this is just all tied into, I mentioned politics before, but really political ideologies because everything you’re describing really sounds like the roots of socialism to me. You’re trying to fight it back with the roots of libertarianism. Or classical liberalism or just something about your capacity as a human versus the system that’s just trying to strip everyone of their individualism.
Williams: Again, I’m going to sound horrible. I wouldn’t credit it socialism or anything like that. I think there are different ideological standpoints here.
Rubin: Well, it’s artificial standards. It’s artificial outcomes that are not based on anything that I would describe, basically, as socialism.
Williams: I think it comes back to something that we were talking about a while ago in relation to parenting. The perception that you have of people, and I mean I guess I never really described myself as a libertarian, but I guess where I could be caricatured as a libertarian is because I do think that I trust people. The reason why I like the idea of individual freedom is because I think people are based placed to decide for themselves what they can hear, what they want to listen to, what they want to read, and this is why I would be very much in favor of personal liberty.
I think so few people have that nowadays, and I think a lot of the safe space culture and the course of the censorship from both the left and the right come from this absolute fear of people and lack of trust of people. This assumption that if you hear a radical Islamic cleric, for example, as a young Muslim man, you’re immediately going to be radicalized and want to go off and join ISIS, but really interesting there’s a couple of articles in the Guardian in the UK today commenting on what’s going on in the US and commenting on the alt right and the Breitbart and the thing that we need to be more concerned about the impact of papers like Breitbart and the alt right and the influence that they are having radicalizing young white men.
The young white men, they sit in their bedrooms on their own, and they read these alt right websites, and they’re brainwashed; they have no capacity to think critically about what they’re reading. They’re just brainwashed, and they’re radicalized, and then they become misogynistic and racist and anti-Semitic because of what they’ve read online. At heart this speaks to a complete lack of trust in people and a really degraded concept of people. They think they’re idiots essentially.
Rubin: On one hand there’s a little bit of both there because on one hand, you’re acknowledging that the education system has led people to a point where it’s possible that you might just sit in your room, read some stuff, not have the ability to critically think. On one hand, you’re agreeing that that could be possible. On the other hand, it’s such a discount of what our faculties are, as people that what our native ability to figure out truth and critically think.… That’s a really strange place. I am seeing this all over the US right now. Is Breitbart going to be the wing of the Republican Party and Trumpism and all that. It’s like, well, there are plenty of propaganda things on the other side, too.
Williams: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is.…
Rubin: I don’t have good things to say about either one of them, by the way.
Williams: Yeah. This assumption that you read something and then you immediately act on it. I mean there’s been the whole thing in the UK following the referendum for leaving the EU, “You know, the Leave Campaign, it was all based on lies.” What’s really being said is … and all these people who voted leave, they were too stupid that they could not think critically. They could not differentiate truth from lies. They just believed everything that they were told.
Rubin: It’s the media just telling them that they’re stupid, which is partly why they voted that way in the first place.
Rubin: They’re really doubling down on it.
Rubin: I’m curious. You’ve mentioned this already, but how much do you see? Do you think that Trump parallel to Brexit really is just right there? I mentioned you before. I had Steve Davies on from the London School of Economics as part of our Learn Liberty partnership. It was right before the election, and he, basically, said, “Brexit happened, so I think Trump can happen.” That’s why he really did get me around to that. That this thing was real and that’s why I do not mock all of these people. Do you think that those … really all of it was a confluence of, basically, the same thing?
Williams: No. No.
Williams: I think there’s lots of very interesting parallels that we can draw. I think the main parallel is that it’s essentially sticking the finger up to the establishment in both UK and the US. We’ve had enough of being told what to do. We’ve had enough of being told how to think, and, in the privacy of the voting booth, we will assert our right not to be told what to do, but I think it … it gives Trump too much credit and it degrades the concept of Brexit.
I mean Brexit.… The vote for Brexit, I think, was a vote for independence, a vote for freedom. The most important point about the Brexit vote was it was not for any one particular candidate, so now you see Nigel Farage coming in having his photo taken next to Donald Trump. Kind of chumming up and everything, and he’s trying to claim ownership of Brexit, as if this was all his doing and as if it was a vote for him. It absolutely wasn’t.
Rubin: Right. He was piece of it, but he did not get power because of it.
Williams: Exactly. Exactly. Lots of people, myself included, voted leave, to vote to leave the EU without, for one second, endorsing Nigel Farage. We did not think Nigel Farage represented us. We did not want Nigel Farage to represent us. We hate an awful lot of the things that he stood for and, yet, still felt able to vote leave because the vote leave was a vote for independence, a vote for freedom. For me, it was about saying, “I want to be able to vote out the people who make laws that have an impact upon my life.” I think that’s a really basic, fundamental right of a democracy.
If you live in a democratic society, if laws are made that affect your life, you should have the right to vote out the people who are making those laws. Under the EU we don’t. That said nothing about what laws you do want to have or who you want to be governing you or what system you do want to live for. It was a reaction against. We want that freedom.
Williams: Whereas the vote for Trump is a vote for something. It is a vote that’s going to give power to one individual. It might stem from the same root cause. There might be that same desire to tell the establishment, “We’ve had enough,” but they’re very, very different.
Rubin: That’s interesting because I definitely think both were the F-U to the establishment, for sure, but it’s interesting because you described the exit, the Brexit exit, as it was a vote for independence. I think you said independence and liberty or independence and freedom. I think a lot of the Trump people would say the exact same thing. You’re saying the root cause is the same, but there’s a real difference in saying this guy is going to save me verse our system has to …
Williams: Change so that we can get the right people in, so we can have that discussion. Would we want a Donald Trump figure, or would we want somebody else? That now, I mean unfortunately not now because we haven’t actually had Brexit, even though we voted for it. The vote to leave opens the door, as far as I’m concerned, to have that debate about who do we want to run the country. Who do we want to represent us? What laws do we want to govern our society?
Whereas in America you didn’t have the option. There wasn’t on the ballot box, I want to throw the system out and have a new system.
Rubin: We already did that with you guys 200 years ago.
Williams: You’re lucky.
Rubin: It wasn’t necessary to do it again. Even if these things aren’t completely equal, there’s obviously a lot of parallels here. My next question to you is I’ve spent a lot of the last few years talking about how I see the left going off the deep end here and it’s really been explained perfectly by so many of the things you’re talking about. If we were to look at the left in Britain since Brexit, did they.… Have they taken a look at themselves? Have they looked in the mirror, or have they just doubled down? I suspect our left here is only going to get further left. I think it’s going to get more violent. I think they’re going to put more, what you would argue, are unjust or foolish protest, et cetera, et cetera. Did they do any of that? Was there any … nothing.
Williams: I wish. I wish. It’s really interesting because, obviously, the vote leave for the EU, vote leave won. I mean it didn’t win by a huge margin, but it did win. The Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labor Party, admittedly late in the day, admittedly reluctantly, but he came out in favor of remain and he argued for remain. Everybody knew. It was an open secret in the country that Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t really that enthusiastic about remaining in the EU. That he actually was, by instinct, somebody who wanted to leave the EU.
Rubin: Why would someone that’s on the left like Corbyn want to leave, though, if he wants … if he’s okay with more state power, as a general rule?
Williams: I mean this is where you can get into the history of the left. I mean I very defin … I joined the Revolutionary Communist Party when I was at university. I’m somebody who comes from a left tradition. When I was very passionate about being a revolutionary communist, it was not because I wanted so much more state control. I still believed in all the things about freedom and liberty and free speech that I believe in now, but those things weren’t seen as being opposite to left-wing views. It was not seen as being this huge contradiction. The thing that really upsets me nowadays is it’s almost as if the political right has taken ownership of things like free speech and academic freedom. You have to really make the case to people that arguing for freedom and arguing for academic freedom, free speech on campus are not inherently right-wing properties.
Rubin: No, they are liberal principles. Classical liberal principles, but I guess we’ve just failed. I guess we’ve just failed.
Williams: Yeah. They were .… The same with economic progress or wanting to build new houses, build runways, build infrastructure, progress. That was, at one point, not a million miles away from what the left was arguing. The left is completely transformed. Jeremy Corbyn, I think he’s much more akin to a Bernie Sanders figure in the US, and he’s from that type of generation. Tony Benn was another kind of hero of the left. Dead now. Where these people came from a tradition, where they did have some skepticism about the EU, where they did have some belief in human freedom and sovereignty and democracy. Now, they’re made to seem like relics of a bygone era. They seem to like … Old and … There’s a bit of a culture around Corbyn, for many people, but the ideas that they propagate are seen by all the PR types now whose [inaudible] party as being too dangerous, to out there. Won’t win the vote. That you’ve got to rein it in. You’ve got to argue something different.
Corbyn came out late in the day and argued this remain position. They lost. You think then it would be a good opportunity for him to stand up and say, “Well, I didn’t believe in that anyway. Really, this was my position. This what I wanted to argue,” but no. You’ve got the Liberal Democrats. Very, very ironically named party. And you’ve got the Labor Party in the UK, who seem absolutely determined to argue either for a second referendum or to water down the Brexit.
Rubin: Right. They don’t like the result of an absolutely democrat.… I mean it really is.… There so many parallels here.
Williams: Absolutely. If they wanted to connect with the people, to me, it would seem like the logical thing to do to have that period of reflection, to step back to think, “Why are we so out of kilter?” Again, you see this completely in academia. They did a poll of academics before the referendum and 90 percent, 9-0 percent of academics were going to vote remain. Obviously, then they lost. You see two things. You see how, on the one hand, how this real chasm that’s opening up between what academics think, what members of the Labor Party think and what the general public thinks. Also, this real homogeneity within academia and within the Labor Party. They all think the same, and they all think something different to what everyone else is thinking.
Rubin: I’m going to try to spin this positively again. I have a feeling you might be able to fix me here, but isn’t.… In some ways, this is the greatest strength of our democracies. For Britain and for the United States, that all the establishment, the media, the elites, the people with money, the power, all that could want something and the people in our two countries said, “We want something else.” Ultimately, maybe Brexit will be a bad move. Maybe the Trump presidency will be a bad move, but that almost everyone in the rest of the world would be incredibly jealous of the power that we wield over the people who control us.
Williams: You’re absolutely right. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning because it’s so exciting, that possibility, that opportunity that you can change the world, but the problem is people have got this amazing power, and it’s so wonderful, and I think it really should be celebrated. Come New Year’s Eve I’ll be having a glass of champagne and saying, “Hurray,” for these things because I think 2016 should go down in history as the year that people stood up to these elites and showed them, “No. We’ve had enough. We want democracy. We want to have a say in how our lives are governed. We don’t like the way you’re taking us.”
I think that’s absolutely glorious and absolutely something that should be celebrated. I described students as having a temper tantrum. I think this is what then you’re getting from the elite in the media and academics and the political establishment is this temper tantrum then. You think if there was any degree of rationality, there would be this step back, this period of reflection. “Where did we go wrong? Why have [we] grown so distant? Why has this gap opened up?” They can’t do that. They can’t get beyond the toddler tantrum. It’s just hurl abuse. “You’re all sexist.” “You’re all racist.” “You’re all homophobic.” “You’re all horrible.”
Rubin: It’s not working anymore. It’s not working. That’s why wouldn’t it be crazy to think if ten years ago if someone would have said to you, “The way that your side, your political philosophy is going to get a win is by Britain leaving the EU.” Would you have thought they were crazy? Probably ten years ago?
Williams: I don’t know. I think the.… I don’t think we were even having those discussions ten years ago.
Rubin: Right. The idea of it would have been insane.
Rubin: If someone would have said that, then you would have said, “Well, that’s a crazy idea.” For me, it’s like if someone would have said to me ten years ago, “The way that the social justice warriors and this machine and the elites and all that would get their first loss in a long time, their first major loss, would be if Trump was president.” I would go, first of all, “Trump being president would be nuts.” I would go, “You’re bonkers.” Yet, even though I didn’t support Trump, here we are. I see a great opportunity here.
Williams: Absolutely. I think the thing that’s really interesting is how on both sides of the Atlantic, the pollsters have got it wrong. Have got it so, so wrong. I think there’s two things going on there. I think you create this climate, and I was speaking to people in San Diego yesterday at one of these anti-Trump protests. This guy said to me, he voted Trump, “My dad’s told me not to tell anyone this.” His dad stood next to him. That these people they can get nasty if you tell them. I spoke to a woman, as well, who said, “I was independent,” and it was only later I thought if she’s saying “independent” because she doesn’t want to come out and say she voted for Trump.
When you get this response from academia, media, political elite, you create this climate where people don’t want to say who they’re going to vote for. They feel they can’t say out loud. Putting that cross in the voting booth becomes this complete act of rebellion, so I think that makes it harder for the pollsters to predict how things are going to go because people just won’t say. Why should they? They don’t have to. People just won’t say. The left needs to look at itself. Why have they created this climate? This censorious, moralist climate where people won’t say who they’re going to vote for.
I think the other thing that’s going on is the pollsters are so much a part of this bubble and so much just have their own ideas reflected back at them that they are incredulous that people can think differently. When they take these polls and it comes back, “Oh, people are going to vote remain, and people are going to vote for Hilary,” they believe them because that’s what they think themselves.
Rubin: Feels good.
Williams: Yeah, so they don’t go beyond that. They don’t question what people really think. You’ve got this growing gap then.
Rubin: Well, on that note I think this is actually all been framed. There’s sort of a depressing state of what’s happening here, but a hopeful future because some of this stuff is being unfurled and people like you are out there talking about it.
Williams: Well, I think it does. It creates a really good opportunity for people to say, “Let’s go. The future’s ours,” essentially. We need to take people seriously. I think that’s really important. Take people seriously. Win people over with arguments, not just through crying and banning things, but actually have proper arguments with people. Rational political debate, and assume that people are capable of engaging in that rational political debate. You can’t just hurl insults and cry at people and expect them to change their minds that way. It means that if you do take people seriously, you do engage in debate with people.… It’s really exciting.
Rubin: Yeah, they might say some things you disagree with and you got to be okay with that, too. Well, I always say if I don’t look down once it’s a good interview. I did not look at those once. Thank you so much. I want to thank my guest, Joanna Williams, and our partner, Learn Liberty, for sending her our way. You can follow Joanna on Twitter. It’s @JoWilliams293. Thanks. Thanks to Larry King … by the way. We’ll do it again next week.