Florian von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others, is an excoriating analysis of the work of East Germany’s Stasi during the Communist era in East Europe. On the personal whim of a government bureaucrat, the result of jealousy over a female actress, a playwright’s flat is bugged, an operation overseen by Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler. If you have never seen this film, it is well worth a watch, both for its script and performances, but also the deep analysis of a state machinery so paranoid about its citizens that it conducts surveillance on anyone who has been brought to its attention for the smallest of issues, or even as the result of made up charges.
It is the vision of an overpowerful state which leads many to continue to fight for free speech, to try to ensure that we all enjoy the freedom to put forward points of view within the ‘marketplace of ideas’. This offers the opportunity for others to engage with arguments and judge for themselves what might be both relevant and useful for them, or indeed ideas that they disagree with. These dialogues need to take place in an environment of mutual respect, and there are some ideas which rapidly become culturally unacceptable, and it is in these cases that the moral difficulties of what should be allowed to be aired and what should not become contentious. But on the whole, most topics, within the mainstream of society and politics, are not contentious in this way and should offer no barrier to dialogue.
But this is where the Department for Education becomes rather Janus-faced. On the one hand, the government are so concerned that universities are closing down alternative views that it has decided to intervene. Back in June, Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge academic was appointed the government’s free speech tsar. They cite no-platforming within universities as a reason for putting in place a system to ensure that this does not continue, that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is diverse, so that all can be heard. I suppose that this is at least in part to ensure that confirmation biases (the DfE and their astroturfers love a good bias) are not allowed to form, that indoctrination of those in universities cannot take hold. Even though this has been a storm concocted by special advisors, the right wing press and Conservative politicians, at a push it might be argued that ensuring free speech is a good idea to work to, except that……
…..at the same time as the DfE is extolling the virtues of free speech, that organisations really do need to ensure a wide range of views are shared and explored, even those which appear unpopular or extreme, the DfE appears to be employing a little team of Hauptmann Wieslers to put possible undesirables under surveillance. Ruth Swailes and Aaron Bradbury, highly regarded Early Years specialists who work widely within the sector, supporting professionals and offering ideas and fostering dialogue within their area, recently found that they had been blacklisted by the DfE after an anonymous tip-off to the DfE that they were proposing ideas and opinions not wholly in line with those at the DfE (article about this here) (remember the DfE are the defenders of free speech in the education sector according to the appointment of a free speech tsar). It appears that after a single individual told the DfE that Ruth and Aaron had made a negative comment about some government guidance, they did a ‘Wiesler’ and sent someone off to hunt down their social media record and write a report on their level of subversive action.
There are three things I find immensely troubling about this. Firstly, given all the challenges the DfE face, with a crumbling ITE system they’ve badly stuffed up (with much worse still to come in Autumn 2024), a recruitment and retention crisis, and schools on the edge of physical collapse, to name but some, they feel that the best use of resources is to have individuals ‘playing Stasi’ and putting surveillance on members of the public for their potential thought crimes. Secondly, this is highly anti-democratic; in previous decades a story such as this would have been headline news as a government acts in an authoritarian manner to suppress ideas it doesn’t like. If this doesn’t send alarm bells ringing it demonstrates how desensitised we have become to state authoritarianism playing a major role in our lives with little more than a tut. Finally, it shows the acute hypocrisy at the centre of government, a government and an education department which is loudly proclaiming that is stands for free speech one minute, whilst the next its quietly doing a Wiesler!! And for those who say, well departments are allowed to only champion those ideas which align with their policies, two reactions. Firstly, you can’t call for free speech whilst simultaneously suppressing it, and secondly, if the ideas swimming around in the DfE are so obviously correct, then they will be more than happy to foster fora where dialogue about alternatives can be explored, if only to demonstrate that they are not as useful as the ideas in the DfE. Alternatively, it could just be that they don’t like challenge and believe the proles should pipe down and accept what is given to them!!
This is a blog which hopes to explore and navigate a different way of doing education