Cultural soldiers mass in the academic ranks

Their emphasis on cultivating understanding makes universities natural homes for those at war with their societies, says Shahidha Bari

February 22, 2018
Mick Marston illustration (22 February 2018)
Source: Mick Marston

“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.”

Most of us have, by now, grown accustomed to the apocalyptic tone of global news and political commentary in our contemporary culture, but those were the words of James Baldwin, the American novelist and social critic, addressing a group of educators in October 1963. Almost 55 years ago, in “A Talk to Teachers”, Baldwin reflected on how best to teach through troubles, speaking specifically in the context of civil rights and racially motivated violence in the US. It is a talk full of Baldwin’s characteristically penetrating candour.

“One of the paradoxes of an education,” he observes, is that “you must find yourself at war with your society.” It is an arresting statement. Taken at its mildest, it perhaps refers only to the consequences of what we might otherwise call “critical thinking”: that peculiarly undefined “transferable skill” that those of us in the humanities, often abstractly and airily, profess to teach, and that has something to do with being flexible and agile in your analysis: being capable of understanding an idea or situation from multiple angles.

On the other hand, Baldwin might also means his words more literally. The best education illuminates, showing up the shabby condition of things and allowing us to see the difference between the world as it is and as it could be. So perhaps Baldwin is right to suggest that an education can serve to position us in a profound opposition to our societies.

It is a premise that feels different to that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 treatise on education, Émile. There, the philosopher theorises a system for the training of children for the good of the state. And there is something wonderfully innocent, naive even, about the simplicity of his edict: “Make the citizen good by training, and everything else will follow.” Imagine if it were so easy. To my mind, no part of that formulation is straightforward in reality. There is no promise that an education will turn a person into a good citizen. And even if some in our ranks suspect that teaching is, to some degree, always quietly concerned with citizenship, it doesn’t automatically follow that we are confident in our abilities to engage successfully in the task of preparing good citizens. Nor is there any guarantee that the people we educate go forward into a world that will treat them equally, fairly and justly. Good citizens alone do not make for a good world; if we are at war with our societies perhaps it is because of that injustice.

Baldwin’s sentiment about the education that leaves us fiercely at odds with the world strikes me as pertinent for a number of reasons. This year, so far, has already proved to be an adversarial one for academics in England, engaged, as they have been, in a ferocious tug of war over the ill-fated appointment of Toby Young to the board of the sector’s new regulator, the Office for Students, and now engaging in industrial action over plans to cut pensions. University campuses, with their student agitators, dissenting staff and dreams of a decolonised curriculum, remain spaces of resistance.

Perhaps there is a danger that, from the outside, we might be seen to carelessly inspire dissent for the sake of dissent: to cultivate a pig-headed, automatic resistance to status quos or dominant ideologies. Yet we know from within the university that there is a dignity and power in critical thinking that is truly thought. If we are at war with our societies, it is because our schools and universities are spaces that cultivate knowledge, understanding and analysis, setting up a position from which students are encouraged to see things differently for the first time: sometimes for the only time.

In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, describes what he calls a “disciplinary society”, listing schools alongside prisons, hospitals and asylums as institutions in the service of the same social function of classifying, controlling and regulating people. Foucault’s analysis of the history of obedience identifies schools as crucial sites for the exercise of discipline and power, designed for the training of docile bodies ultimately for the purposes of a labour-driven state. That is Foucault at his most unbendingly cynical. Regarding universities, he contemptuously distinguishes between the rare, true intellectual, who “uses his knowledge, his competence and his relation to truth in the field of political struggles in the model of Voltaire” and intellectuals in the professional sense, who are the ploddingly “competent servants of the state”. It’s a discouraging view of the institution in which he spent his entire professional life.

And yet a photograph from 1978 captures Foucault speaking animatedly among the students and staff of the Technical University of Berlin, gathered in a lecture hall to protest against the imprisonment of militant members of a “Red Army Faction”. It illustrates the paradox of his critique of universities and his determination to act within them nonetheless to effect social and political change. For all their faults, universities mattered to Foucault. 

In that photograph, Foucault looks both intent and at ease. And for all their increased managerialism, modern universities, too, remain natural homes for those who think of themselves as being at war with society. In dangerous times, moreover, they should be homes that are safe and affordable: free from harassment and surveillance, and open to as many people as they can admit.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

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