Sparring is one of the healthiest pursuits

March 4, 2005

When sparks fly in seminars tolerance often reigns by the final bell, says Maria Misra

It is a cliché that today's students are apolitical. Confronted with an intensely competitive job market and tight finances, many opt to use their student years as a dry run for employment, not as an arena for political expression. But in the past two or three years I get the sense that there has been a renaissance in student politics - not on the street, but in seminars. While the depoliticisation of students is a problem in a discipline such as history - which is centrally concerned with power and requires some understanding of what it means to be politically engaged - their repoliticisation presents problems of its own.

When I started teaching about a decade ago, my field, European imperialism, was something of a sleepy backwater. Students would dutifully plod through the pros and cons of John Hobson's and Rudolf Hilferding's hypotheses on whether imperialism was fuelled by monopolistic corporations or profiteering stock-holders. Even the hair-raising machinations of Otto von Bismarck and King Leopold barely raised an eyebrow. But recently my classes have often become scenes of passionate debate on the European imperial mission. This is driven by contemporary events. On the Right are the pleas of Prince Charles, and various politicians, that pride in the glories of the British Empire be instilled through the curriculum. On the Left, that same Empire is dissected to display the dangers and abuses of an arrogant imperium. The Abu Ghraib scandal has spawned a plethora of popular histories on colonial violence, from Kenya to Cawnpore.

As an academic and occasional media commentator, my approach to the subject has become rather schizophrenic. The media really want one to adopt a strong position pro or anti-empire, but as a teacher I increasingly find myself umpiring exchanges between students with fiercely conflicting views.

In a recent class on the economic development of India under the Raj, one student was angered at criticism of the British and launched a heartfelt and pungent defence of the pax Britannia. This produced derisive titters from the rest of the class. Another class dealing with the role of colonial governments in enforcing the subordination of women in Islamic populations became a fraught exchange between the women in the class - one of whom wore the hijab. Both of these examples left me feeling uncomfortable.

One solution to the problem of politically charged subjects would be to avoid them - Durham University, for example, has proposed that lecturers gain approval from an "ethics" committee if they want to give tutorials on subjects that could offend students. Columbia University has even withdrawn potentially controversial classes, abandoning its Palestinian and Israeli politics and societies course. My experience suggests, however, that dodging debate, especially on topics some find obnoxious, is likely to entrench prejudice.

Humiliation, ridicule and ad hominem aggression are unacceptable, but it is only when views one disapproves of are expressed by people one knows and can empathise with that tolerance and understanding emerge. In my classes, students of all political complexions have to engage with opinions they find alien, not mediated by TV or the press but from the mouths of their peers. Students find themselves conceding some of their opponents' points, and something resembling common ground often emerges. At the risk of sounding Panglossian - something I, like most academics, am rarely guilty of - it seems to me that expanding university access is a thoroughly good thing. Universities not only engineer workforces for a global knowledge economy, but can also manufacture tolerance.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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