Kathleen Stock’s departure shows universities can’t cope with argument

How profoundly depressing to hear that the philosopher Kathleen Stock has effectively been hounded from her chair at Sussex University by the mob. However brilliant her career in the future – and there is no doubting that it will be – it’s hard to see her departure as anything other than a victory for the bullies and anti-intellectuals. (Stock’s only “crime” is that she refuses to deny the material reality of biological sex.) But as the child of an academic, I have experienced something else too, a painful sense of nostalgia for a time when argument wasn’t just tolerated in our universities, but actively embraced.

I keep thinking of those long ago Saturday mornings when my father used to drag me to his office at Sheffield University, a staging post on our regular journey into town to buy some books at W Hartley Seed and aniseed balls at the Castle Market.

In the university corridors, which smelled of Mansion Polish and festering grudges, we often passed various of my father’s colleagues. Smiles and polite hellos would be exchanged, hands would be shaken. No sooner would we have turned the corner, however, than my father would begin his tirade. “That man’s a disgrace!” he would say, or: “His last paper: lazy and inaccurate like you would not believe.”

I’m quite sure not only that the fellow in question, padding along in his bad shoes, was thinking exactly the same about my dad, but that both parties found their sometimes insurmountable disagreements intensely invigorating, a force that was every bit as galvanising as anything they might be about to discover in their laboratories.

Not quite believing the government’s insistent claim there will be no further lockdowns this winter, I continue manically and relentlessly to fill my diary. Plays must be seen and concerts heard; restaurants have to be booked and drinks with friends arranged. I’m out every night and it’s exhausting. Rushing into an exhibition of work by Ben Nicholson at Pallant House in Chichester the day before it closed, I suddenly felt almost dizzy with tiredness. Why don’t you take a break? I thought, gazing at his lovely circles and squares, his wondrously dextrous lines. Stay in for couple of evenings and watch TV.

But I know that I won’t. Thanks to the pandemic, my gratitude for the outward life is so great, it feels close to numinous at times. I’m like some weird cultural nun, a vestal figure who can squeeze pleasure from just about anything, even Pablo Larrain’s frankly batty new film about Princess Diana (Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart, which opens on Friday; do look out for her custard-yellow tricorn hat).

The show at Pallant House included items from the beloved collection of old mugs and jugs Nicholson liked to keep in his studio – and yes, I was duly enraptured. Never before has some slightly chipped bit of Sunderland lustreware looked so beautiful, a tarnished pewter tankard seemed so absurdly alluring.

In Sussex, I stayed in a house by the sea, where my small niece, E, had prepared for my arrival by drawing up a document rather like those some hotels like to hang on the door handles of bedrooms.

What time, it asked, did I want to be woken up? Was I interested in having my bed turned down? Several boxes had to be ticked immediately, but for everything else, including room service, I was invited to call housekeeping. Below this, she’d written her mobile number and, in brackets, the advice, rather starkly offered, that I should “THINK REALISTICALLY”. Words for life, I’d say.

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