Submitted by Harry Howard on 23 February 2018 - 8:29pm
A discussion forum formerly known as the ‘Unsafe Space’ has opened at the controversial Simon Langton Boys’ Grammar School, in Kent.
It is part of a new £1mn building, the Tong Centre for Creative Research, where students have space, facilities and resources to focus on coursework, research and creative projects.
Money for the scheme – which will cater for students studying in both science and humanities subjects – came from a wealthy former student, who does not wish to be identified.
The space was renamed the ‘Think Tank’ after receiving criticism in the press in November last year.
The furore was sparked by current student Sarah Cundy, when she posted on Twitter that: “my school is bringing an ‘unsafe space’ where people can be as racist / sexist / xenophobic as they like.”
Claims were also made that the school harboured a: “right wing agenda”, which it wished to impose on students, and that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf would be studied.
A year previously, the school was forced to cancel a talk by former student and controversial journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, over fears that outside protests at the star’s appearance would endanger younger students.
However, speaking exclusively to this newspaper soon after the centre’s opening, headmaster Ken Moffat insisted that the purpose of the space was misrepresented from the start.
“It had nothing to do with Mein Kampf, we don’t even have a copy of the text in the school.
“Everybody connected with the school community was on board, it’s just people who don’t know us who were immediately suspicious.
“The Think Tank is somewhere where we want people to think, and to do so without imbibing whatever the orthodoxy is at the moment,” he said.
Professor James Soderholm, the director of humanities at the school, said: “It’s very much an ideas place.
“The old-fashioned word for an intellectually provocative unsafe space is simply ‘university’ as far as I’m concerned.”
“The Tong Centre is designed to be a place where there’s complete freedom of speech, it’s very respectful; there’s no name calling, it’s not going to be anything like that,” he continued.
Year 13 students who now have use of the new facilities were very positive about the school’s approach to free speech.
Tom Lello, 17, who intends to study Philosophy at University, is one of a number of students who have taken a proactive role in organising future visits from outside speakers.
Public figures who’ve already agreed to talk at the school include the intellectual and activist Tariq Ali, conservative journalist Peter Hitchens, and writer and academic Frank Furedi.
Lello thinks that the environment of open debate is important, especially when social media encourages people to filter out ideas they disagree with.
“They live inside echo chambers, where certain ideas are very revolutionary and very much a change to the sorts of experiences that most people have,” he said.
Rose Pettengell, 18, wants to study Anatomy at Liverpool, and is keen to stress that the Think Tank won’t cater to just one side of the political spectrum.
“If you have one week, someone from one political position, and then another week from the opposite, equally charismatic, then you’ll get a balanced perspective.
“I think it’s brilliant,” she said.
Subjects proposed for discussion in the coming weeks include questions such as: “are there human rights we can all agree upon?”, and: “should some books be banned?”
Topics that have previously been covered by Professor Soderholm’s classes include a controversial memo written by former Google employee James Damore.
It argued that disparities in pay and employment rates in certain professions, such as engineering, were down to innate gender differences between men and women.
Sara Harris, 17, who wants to study Politics and International Business at University, is pleased however that students are asked difficult questions.
“It just makes you so ready,” she said.
“That exposure to different ideas makes you become so enriched and ready for that university lifestyle and career.”