Last month, I wrote asking what the ‘fearless’ university might feel like. I wanted to highlight two very different, but not unrelated, examples that came to my attention in recent days. Each speaks to a different kind of courage that I am interested in exploring in relation to one another.

Last Friday, a group of students of Warwick University occupied the University Council Chamber to hold continual session in which a number of issues can be critically discussed, including the defence and future of public higher education, the reduction of tuition fees and honouring of decent labour rights,  and the responsibilities and hypocrisies of academic leaders at this crucial time (see all the objectives here). The occupation has been supported by members of the Campaign for the Public University, and it is being undertaken in the midst of a new round of informed criticisms of government proposals to sell off student loans to private companies in the UK – not to mention a new round of intense demonstrations against ‘austerity’, corruption and the dehumanizing privatization of life worldwide.

This is one example of intellectual and political courage. Not above question; demanding of respect and solidarity.

Today, a dear friend of mine published a beautiful reflection on how and why we should avoid fetishizing the intellect, and refuse to engage in the ritual abuse of human beings that often accompanies it. She is particularly concerned about the way academics reproduce structures of power, exclusion and hierarchy, often in the name of ‘standards’ but more accurately in the defence of our own fear of inadequacy. She writes:

‘I for one am ready to take up the challenge of doing anthropology from the heart. It would entail a much further-going exposure of our vulnerability as social, and mortal, creatures. It would mean abandoning the ivory tower, where we mistakenly thought our smartness would keep us safe. But it would give us back warmer, more loving relations with our colleagues, our students and the people from whom we wish to learn. I hope there are many anthropologists who will share this project with me.’

 To stand for an ethic of care, humility, love and open learning from within the academy, and to invite others to dare to stretch beyond it, is another kind of intellectual and political courage – particularly when it is asserted in a context that is inhospitable and hostile to these ideals.

Why do I keep writing about the politics of the university? I wonder this quite a lot these days. I long to spend more time teaching, creating, exploring the politics of knowledge, engaging in other kinds of education, exploring the world in public with others, playing with ideas, writing the book on radical democracy that is aching to be finished. So much institutional politics is so boring and, in the grand scheme of things, seems so irrelevant to human concern. But in terms of institutional power the university is an interesting place precisely because it is positioned at the heart of this scheme, and because the scheme is being played out in its most minute of forms, and because there is so much nearly-invisible and not-yet energy being directed towards the articulation of epochal social problems and new forms of thought, resistance and creative agency. There are major public pedagogies at work here. It therefore seems like an important space to watch sociologically and philosophically, as well as being a place that — for those of us who choose to keep faith in its possibility — we need to make more fit for humanity every day.

Postscript

Some thought-provoking follow-ups:

…on being a little more ‘fucking incandescent’

…and on irreplaceable time

1 Comment

  1. Dennis

    Hi Sarah,

    What you are saying is really meaningful to me and I admire the boldness with which you speak of your fear. I feel that fear as well and few people in my uni-environment can connect to that. The developments in education worry me as they suggest that higher education is a space of possibility that is closing down. In the next years, I will try my luck within universities as well, but in case it doesn’t work and the commodifying, rationalising, and de-humanising tendencies persist (which seems likely), there is need for people to go on a journey to look for other weapons.

    Such a journey could be really exciting as we would be free of the institutional constraints, free from the dehumanising practise of assessment, free from imposed middle- and upperclass jargon, free from the fetishism of the intellect. Maybe we would live more precariously, face more repression and gain less social recognition as we’d lose the academic back-up. However, going on that journey, we could learn, teach and listen as we discover a new, more inclusive, expressive, and playful language, research-practises, and writing formats. Imagine our texts come in little zines with funny illustrations, our seminars are public assemblies on the public squares, our thinking merges with the lived experience of the struggles of people who are directly concerned by the violence of the system of domination this is capitalism.

    In the mean time, I think we should recklessly and militantly use all the resources our universities still do provide and channel them so that we build transmural communities and forms of learning that after the closing down of higher education can become alternative institutions of dispersed power.

    Thank you for your posts, Sarah, I feel inspired and encouraged by this.

    Dennis

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