Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Radical Antithesis

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Radical Antithesis

Article excerpt

Universities are training grounds for engaged citizens, not terrorists, says Louise Richardson.

Are universities hotbeds of radicalisation and training grounds for terrorists, or are they the antidote to radicalisation? They can be - and have been - both.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the social revolutionary terrorist movements throughout Europe evolved around university campuses. The largest of them, the Italian Red Brigades, became powerful for a time because it fused the student and worker protest movements. Indeed, much of its leadership was to be found in the faculties of certain Italian universities. More recently, Abimael Guzman, the charismatic leader of the Peruvian Maoist movement Shining Path, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Ayacucho.

Today, governments worry about young people being radicalised on university campuses. There have been several much-publicised stories recently of young jihadi terrorists having studied and, in at least one case, been radicalised on UK university campuses.

But one of the most common characteristics of radicals of every ideological hue in every part of the globe is a highly oversimplified view of the world - a view that sees it as divided between good and evil - and education can rob one of these certitudes. Anyone who studies, say, the outbreak of the First World War or colonialism will soon discover that no side had a monopoly on virtue or vice and that malign policies were often conceived and implemented by well-meaning people.

It is very hard to hold on to a Manichaean view of the world when confronted with the evidence of human frailties, the complexities of government decisions and even the fog of war. Of course, not many terrorists have studied the humanities, but we do not know whether this is cause or effect. In recent years, applied degrees such as engineering and urban planning have been the courses of choice for educated jihadis, as they have been for many first-generation university-goers. By keeping the culture of the humanities, with its emphasis on tolerance, empathy and reason, its respect for nuance and appreciation of complexity, at the centre of our universities, they can serve as an antidote to the inflexible and oversimplified worldview that is the hallmark of the radical. …

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