“Stepford students”

Some colleges still “make free men from children by means of books and a balance.”  Others, not so much.  Here’s Andrew Stuttaford, in Teaching Conformity

Last November, Brendan O’Neill wrote an article for the London Spectator on what he called the ‘Stepford students’. It still seems timely.

To give you a flavor, it begins like this:

Have you met the Stepford students? They’re everywhere. On campuses across the land. Sitting stony-eyed in lecture halls or surreptitiously policing beer-fuelled banter in the uni bar. They look like students, dress like students, smell like students. But their student brains have been replaced by brains bereft of critical faculties and programmed to conform. To the untrained eye, they seem like your average book-devouring, ideas-discussing, H&M-adorned youth, but anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in their company will know that these students are far more interested in shutting debate down than opening it up…


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….

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. As John Stuart Mill said, if we don’t allow our opinion to be ‘fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed’, then that opinion will be ‘held as a dead dogma, not a living truth’.


 But it is O’Neill’s last paragraph that is most troubling of all:

One day, these Stepford students, with their lust to ban, their war on offensive lingo, and their terrifying talk of pre-crime, will be running the country. And then it won’t only be those of us who occasionally have cause to visit a campus who have to suffer their dead dogmas.

That’s true in Britain, and it is true here too.

Optimists like to assume, against a great deal of evidence to the contrary, that mankind is, what’s the phrase, “yearning to breathe free”. Not so much. The willingness to accept the right of others to disagree—and sometimes disagree fundamentally—is something that has to be taught. Evidently that’s something that universities—the training grounds, supposedly, of the future elite—are not doing, with consequences that will be bad, and will get worse.

 The urge to conform is never satisfied. The purge is never complete.

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One Response to “Stepford students”

  1. Paul Marks says:

    Actually students have always been collectivist and closed minded – the “rebels” of the 1960s were actually just taking the collectivist doctrines of their teachers to their “logical” conclusions. The idea that schools or universities promote open mindedness is a myth – actually they are brainwashing factories (and have been for a very long time indeed).

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