Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Exchange of Ideas' on Campus Essential

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Exchange of Ideas' on Campus Essential

Article excerpt

Former education secretary Kenneth Baker on climate of censorship. Matthew Reisz writes

At the age of 81, Lord Baker of Dorking could be excused for taking things easy. But nothing seems further from his mind.

Although he was secretary of state for education and science way back in the 1980s, he has retained a deep interest in the subject, still chairs the Baker Dearing Educational Trust and, only three years ago, assembled a team to publish 14-18: A New Vision for Secondary Education.

Much of his efforts are devoted to creating a network of about 40 schools known as university technical colleges, for students aged between 14 and 19. Since each school is sponsored by a university, this gives him "regular contact with vice-chancellors, probably more than when I was a minister".

But his latest endeavour is a beautifully illustrated volume called On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word (Unicorn).

He has been interested in the topic since he read John Milton's Areopagitica, which he describes as "the greatest defence of free speech and liberty of expression in the English language", at school. He has now spent several years assembling some striking examples of books going up in flames, whether through government decree, religious persecution or domestic accident.

University libraries, he points out, have often been in the firing line.

Serbian forces in 1992 deliberately targeted the records of the University of Sarajevo "because it contained too many records of Muslim ownership and Muslim establishments" in Bosnia. Universities in the Belgian city of Leuven were even more unlucky. Books were looted from one by Napoleon in 1795 and again from the Catholic University of Louvain by the Kaiser in 1914, although this was just a prelude to the artillery barrage that destroyed a million volumes in 1940.

So how does he feel about what some see as a censorious climate within today's universities?

Since "universities are essentially about exchanging ideas", he says, he disapproves of excluding any groups, "whether they are fascist or communist or sexist or whatever...When I went to open a new science lab at one university, the Socialist Workers Party turned up from the local town and I was kicked to the ground and broke my glasses. But even so, I didn't want the Socialist Workers Party banned from universities."

Lord Baker introduced "per-capita funding for universities" and "the first student loan scheme" as deliberate steps on "the pathway to fees", although "I don't think I could have got fees through even the Thatcher government in 1988". …

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