If your go-to image of a student is someone who’s free-spirited and open-minded, who loves having a pop at orthodoxies, then you urgently need to update your mind’s picture bank. Students are now pretty much the opposite of that. It’s hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have. From freewheelin’ to ban-happy, from askers of awkward questions to suppressors of offensive speech, in the space of a generation. My showdown with the debate-banning Stepfords at Oxford and the pre-crime promoters at Cambridge echoed other recent run-ins I’ve had with the intolerant students of the 21st century. I’ve been jeered at by students at the University of Cork for criticising gay marriage; cornered and branded a ‘denier’ by students at University College London for suggesting industrial development in Africa should take precedence over combating climate change; lambasted by students at Cambridge (again) for saying it’s bad to boycott Israeli goods. In each case, it wasn’t the fact the students disagreed with me that I found alarming — disagreement is great! — it was that they were so plainly shocked that I could have uttered such things, that I had failed to conform to what they assume to be right, that I had sought to contaminate their campuses and their fragile grey matter with offensive ideas.
This is what those censorious Cambridgers meant when they kept saying they have the ‘right to be comfortable’. They weren’t talking about the freedom to lay down on a chaise longue — they meant the right never to be challenged by disturbing ideas or mind-battered by offensiveness. At precisely the time they should be leaping brain-first into the rough and tumble of grown-up, testy discussion, students are cushioning themselves from anything that has the whiff of controversy. We’re witnessing the victory of political correctness by stealth. As the annoying ‘PC gone mad!’ brigade banged on and on about extreme instances of PC — schools banning ‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep’, etc. — nobody seems to have noticed that the key tenets of PC, from the desire to destroy offensive lingo to the urge to re-educate apparently corrupted minds, have been swallowed whole by a new generation. This is a disaster, for it means our universities are becoming breeding grounds of dogmatism.