June 13, 2011

During my time at university in the late 1980s, the most obvious forms of radicalization were Marxism, anarchism, feminism, and animal lib. Despite in many ways being the most radical of the lot, fascism never made much headway. What made all this fashionable radicalism more baffling was that most of the students affected by it were from plush, middle-class backgrounds.

According to classical Marxist theory, I, as the son of an automobile-production engineer thrown out of work by Thatcher’s economic restructuring, should have been the most radical of students. Yet there I was in the varsity library reading all the dust-covered tomes that the leftist academics who taught our courses had left off the reading lists for the last 30 years. There I was, propping up the student union bar telling the usual gaggle of plummy-voiced Marxists that the state wasn’t going to wither away with money becoming redundant while we all went around happily doing odd jobs for each other. Perhaps preserving a modicum of economic reality against the bourgeois Bolshies’ meditative myopia was my little way of fighting the class war.

Becoming “radicalized”—whether your bearded prophet happens to be Marx or Muhammad—is essentially code for having too much time on your hands and a sense of smug entitlement. This is the essence of university life. With three years of sleeping late, anything seems possible.

Rather than subjecting students to intellectual rigor, typical academic life suspends the need to think about things in any meaningful way. When your main cerebral challenges are to plagiarize essays off the Internet, guilt-trip your “bourgeois” parents into subsidizing your leisurely lifestyle, and think up a witty slogan for your next picket sign, most of the wheels with which the human brain is furnished go unturned. It is any wonder that delusional pipe dreams take root?

Under these conditions, scientific observation reveals that middle-class white kids will run around sporting Che Guevara T-shirts, keffiyehs, or Trotskyist trench coats for a couple of years, often adorned with silly badges. They may even dare to experiment with radical communistic lifestyles such as agreeing to share the margarine and/or dish soap with flatmates. However, once studenthood’s cocoon is removed, they will invariably revert back to their parents’ mindset. With people of an Islamic cultural background the consequences may be more dramatic, as Abdulmutallab and his exploding underpants show.

So what is to be done? Professor Anthony Glees suggests getting the universities to teach their students by “working with them, knowing them, guiding them and ensuring that they keep to the basic values which have made this country a decent mature democracy.”

This kind of imprecise rhetoric and reliance on airy assumptions is a sure sign that nothing will ever be done. What would work, however, would be to change university education from the three-year radicalization holiday it has become to something more like vocational night school. Those who wish to better their prospects or who simply have an unquenchable thirst for esoteric knowledge could do courses in the evenings or on weekends after they have finished their real job. The best cure for student radicalism is a normal working life. Terrorism has no chance against that.

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