Friday, 4 December 2015

What is a University for?

I was irritated by this article on students and their various campaigns for trigger warnings and the denial of a 'platform' for people whose views they don't like.  The writer, an academic from Oxford, I am sorry to say, writes stuff like this:
As unions are in the factory, so social media can be on the campus: an organising tool against authority, linking together voices that are otherwise marginalised and disconnected. 
Such tools would be useless, however, if students didn’t know what to do with them. Critics assert that modern students are losing their powers of critical thinking, but what we are actually seeing is that power in action: students are using their critical faculties to uncover structures of power in their own academic and social environments. 
I mean, really... 'Structures of power,' like lecturing on the canon of English Literature, or the law surrounding rape, or inviting distinguished and controversial academics to speak. What excellent powers of 'critical thinking' are on display here.

Later he writes:
When these people and their allies fight back and assert their own rights over the spaces they live in, that’s not “vindictive protectiveness” – it’s politics. 
It is indeed. And he approves whole-heartedly. All of which might make you wonder what he thinks a University is, and what he thinks it is for.  But he does give us some clues:
It could be, in fact, that the traditional model of the university just isn’t compatible with this newly empowered, student-led politics of social justice. 
Now, I have nothing against justice, social or otherwise, but this political philosophy begs so many questions.

I am reminded of Maslow's lament, as he observed the unintended results of his and Carl Rogers' work, that learners were losing all respect for their teachers. He saw this as entirely antithetical to his Jewish heritage, and more broadly to the heritage of civilisation, which assumes that the young, ignorant and inexperienced may benefit from exposure to the wisdom, learning and experience of the wise.

And surely that is the premise of a University; along with the notion that by associating with others, also seeking learning, we may be educated.

But the vision of a University we are offered here raises a question: what is a University for? Is it for learning, or is it for social activism? The two are not necessarily opposed, but they certainly may be. 

For the approach of this type of activism seems predicated on the assumption that they know all the answers, whereas I think one of the most profound things one should learn at University is that we don't.

All of which made me reflect on my University days. I remember the self-righteous zeal of youth that made me and a friend go on an expedition with the Hunt Saboteurs, whom we had met at the Freshers' Fair. One of the huntsmen took the time to stop and talk to us, which was both coolheaded and brave given the upset and abuse we were determined to mete out. He asked why we were there, and what we thought were better solutions to the problems of foxes tearing chickens and lambs apart. He explained the difficulties of any solutions we proposed. 

I also reflect on the other Saboteurs. They were not the kinds of undergraduate I often met. They were very posh, living in a very nice house in Boar's Hill. It struck me, as I reflected on the day, that their protest was really adolescent counter-dependency: a way of hitting back at their own upbringing. They were not interested, for example, in the conversation with the huntsman that my friend and I had. They just wanted to shout and spray their Anti Mate (the Sabs weapon of choice, back in the day...).

I do not know if the huntsman was right in his arguments or not; but he did make me realise that I knew next to nothing about what I was so self-righteously agitating about. It was one of the more important, and most memorable, lessons of my university career. 

1 comment:

Ttony said...

"assert their own rights over the spaces they live in"

What about the rights of those who own the property they live in to whom they pay rent?

"You are invited to spend three years here under the terms of this contract."

A bit of a utilitarian approach, but one grounded in law and morality.

Luckily for all concerned, I don't live in Academe, and can pick and choose how I interact with it, but Boy! am I picking and choosing at the moment.