No turning Bach for music scholar who resigns in protest at campus cancel culture

·3-min read
Beethoven - DAGLI ORTI/AP
Beethoven - DAGLI ORTI/AP

A music professor has resigned in protest at “dogmatic” attitudes to decolonisation which could stop students learning Beethoven and Wagner.

Paul Harper-Scott, 43, who taught musical history and theory at Royal Holloway, University of London, has quit academia entirely after more than 15 years at the institution, stunning other experts in the field.

Explaining his reasons for leaving, he said he had become “profoundly disillusioned” at how “increasingly dogmatic” universities are becoming, with cancel culture seemingly “endemic”.

He cited the “increasingly common view in musicology”, that “19th century musical works were the product of an imperial society... the classical musical canon must be decolonised”, as an example.

Prof Harper-Scott, who has been editor of the book series Music in Context and a trustee of the Society for Music Analysis, warned: “An outcome of the first, dogmatic statement could be that music departments stop teaching music by Beethoven, Wagner and co.”

This would be “in the frankly insane belief that doing so will somehow materially improve current living conditions for the economically, socially, sexually, religiously, or racially underprivileged”, he added.

Ludwig van Beethoven - Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Ludwig van Beethoven - Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Instead, he urged music departments to recognise classical music’s “great importance of social history” which can offer “intellectually critical insights” into the time in which it was composed.

In a parting shot at the cancel culture sweeping British campuses, he warned: “In recent years the dogmatic mode of thinking, in which uncritical commitments are enforced by mechanisms involving public humiliation, no-platforming, and attempts to have scholars fired, has become to seem like it has become endemic.

“If universities become a place where that basic commitment to scepticism and a critical mode of thinking is increasingly impossible, they will have ceased to serve a useful function. I am not optimistic.”

Having joined Royal Holloway in 2005, he observed that academia “is a place filled with generally quite well-meaning people, but on the whole not with brave people, not people who are willing to follow the truth wherever it leads”.

Growing backlash among academia

His resignation is among the most stark cases of the growing backlash among scholars at vocal attempts by students and faculties to “decolonise” university degrees and pull down statues, which intensified after Black Lives Matter protests.

In June, academics at Royal Holloway’s music department wrote an open letter claiming managers planned to cut staff by 25 per cent as part of efforts to make the music curriculum more “integrated” and “broader”.

In March, under pressure to “decolonise” music, professors at the University of Oxford branded musical notation “colonialist” as part of proposals to change the current curriculum’s “complicity in white supremacy”.

Faculty documents showed that scholars felt the classical repertoire taught at Oxford, including Mozart and Beethoven, focused too much on “white European music from the slave period”.

The Government has taken action on campus cancel culture in recent months. New academic freedom legislation is going through Parliament to allow scholars and students to sue universities if they are unfairly silenced.

Multiple academics have told of being “harassed, disinvited or sacked because they dare challenge orthodoxy” as part of evidence for the new Bill.

In addition, History Reclaimed, a new campaign group of eminent professors, has been launched to fight back against “distortions” and “blatantly false” readings of history.

Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister, has likened decolonising efforts to the Soviet Union, telling The Telegraph this year that “the so-called decolonisation of the curriculum is, in effect, censoring history” and “has no place in our universities”.

Royal Holloway declined to comment.

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