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Monday 9 June 2014, David Bowden

Don’t ban Nietzsche, read him!

Students calling for a ban on books and philosophers being studied and debated at a university is a depressing illustration of the state of academic freedom today

Last week it was brought to wider attention that students at a London university took the extraordinary step of putting a ‘no platform’ policy on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The University College London Students’ Union (UCLU) decided to ban the ‘Nietzsche Society’ – a group for students interested in the work of Nietzsche, Julius Evola, Alain de Benoist and Martin Heidegger – on the basis that it was ‘promoting a far-right, fascist ideology’ which posed a threat to the ‘safety of the UCL student body and UCLU members.’

That students themselves are calling for a ban on books and philosophers being studied and debated at a university is a depressing illustration of the state of academic freedom today. Regardless of the motivations of the society, it is a truly depressing state of affairs when university students cannot tolerate controversial ideas or thinkers being discussed on campus, in or out of the classroom. That it has taken place at UCL, an institution traditionally associated with liberal thought and free debate, is an unfortunate historical irony.

The Institute of Ideas founded The Academy back in 2011 partly out of a concern that this ideal of the university as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, was being undermined. It is an annual three-day retreat where we seek to challenge ourselves through a genuinely critical, open-minded exploration of the great books and key ideas in Western intellectual thought with no apologies that some of those being studied were suitably palatable. We take our attendees seriously enough that we do not offer trigger warnings in advance and that if they find any views repellent or anti-progressive that they can challenge them.

In fact, one of the highlights of last year’s Academy was a lecture on Nietzsche, given by Ken Gemes (professor of philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London). In the lectures Professor Gemes argued for Nietzsche as an integral figure for Western humanism and one who asked difficult, probing questions about the basis of morality in a world where ‘God is dead.’ Contrary to popular misconception, Gemes argued, Nietzsche was no nihilist: instead fearing that nihilism would be the lamentable outcome if humanity could not find a way to construct new meanings and values.

Watch a video of Professor Gemes’ lecture.

See here for details of The Academy 2014.

 

 

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