How Oxford University Became Such an Argumentative Place

The following anecdote from Oxford University has been recycled many times in debates about campus PC speech codes, most recently by Judith Shulevitz:

At Oxford University’s Christ Church college in November, the college censors (a “censor” being more or less the Oxford equivalent of an undergraduate dean) canceled a debate on abortion after campus feminists threatened to disrupt it because both would-be debaters were men. “I’m relieved the censors have made this decision,” said the treasurer of Christ Church’s student union, who had pressed for the cancellation. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.”

Andrew Sullivan was one of many other people who also picked this story up and decried how close-minded Oxford “kids these days” have become.

Knowing the history of British Universities (I have been a professor at two of them) I can affirm that this sort of thing never would have happened at Oxford 200 years ago!

Because Oxford didn’t admit women then. Or Jews for that matter. Or Blacks. Or poor people. Or, well, you get the idea.

Of course those of us who spend our days on campus should try to be civil to each other, listen to each other and learn from each other, and it’s a public service to point out when we fail to meet those standards. But the idea that universities today are shutting down debate to an unprecedented extent is risible. For centuries after it was founded, Oxford stifled debate on campus by only admitting a narrow, like-thinking subset of society. When the university quite rightly opened its gates to more a diverse range of students, huge disagreements that were always present in society at last became visible on campus too.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.