Would I invite Donald Trump to speak at our school? Jenni Brittain in the Telegraph

Posted on 14th December 2016

In an article for The Telegraph, Bedales Head of Boarding Jenni Brittain reflects on a year of political turmoil. As she works to prepare students for life beyond the school gates, she asks whether they are best protected from or challenged by a rising tide of illiberal ideas, and concludes that such thinking must be acknowledged first if it is to be defeated.

At Bedales, the shock election of Donald Trump as President of the United States was the denouement of weeks of discussion, debate and dismay at Bedales. A man who thought nothing of denigrating anyone who challenged him on the basis of their sex or ethnicity, or of declaring dangerous or criminal entire nationalities, had prevailed. 

As a teacher, and a member of staff with a high level responsibility for the pastoral care of students, Jenni reports feeling partly inclined to shield those in her care from such illiberal thinking, but also a conviction that liberalism provides the ammunition to deal with it – by upholding free speech and the rights of minorities and, crucially, by trying to understand the positions of those with whom we disagree.

In some universities, debate has raged over the provision or otherwise of ‘safe spaces’ for students. For proponents, value lies in having an area on campus where students who have endured trauma or feel marginalised can speak about their experiences comfortably. Critics argue that there is a trend towards a requirement that universities in their entireties become ‘safe’, and that at some point the exclusion of controversial voices must risk compromising free speech.

Jenni explains: “As I work to prepare our students for the school ‘exit’ door and university, I want them to understand university as a place where freedom of expression is a privileged principle, and that this means that they will encounter ideas that they do not like. Ultimately, the greatest protection from them must surely lie in bringing all ideas into the light and dispensing with those that do not survive critical scrutiny.

Would she put her money where her mouth is, however, if the opportunity arose to have Mr Trump address students at Bedales? Jenni concludes: “Despite my deep personal misgivings, I would welcome Donald Trump to our school to address our students. I am confident that they would challenge him fiercely on any number of issues, bringing to bear learned rigour and deep principle. But they would listen first, and extend him due courtesy. Theirs is a politically alert and socially committed generation, and they must embrace what they do not like if they are to change it.”

The full article can be read here. Find out more about Jenni Brittain here.