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‘Private’ versus ‘free’ education in Sri Lanka: What can we learn from Lessons from Save Middles...

Jul 11, 2010 6:18:52 PM- transcurrents.com

By Vangeesa Sumenasekara

One of the central weaknesses of the recent debate or discussion in Sri Lanka around the strange term "private" universities apropos its possible consequences to the men and women living within the national boundaries of Sri Lanka , is its lack of focus on this global picture.

This is why its rhetoric and rhetoricians have often limited its thematic to a number game involving the students entering universities and to an all too problematic proposition concerning the compatibility of higher education and an enhancement of the gross national production. This limitation was doubly stronger for me, facing the same existential challenge from a different point of the planet while closely observing the winds from the east, especially from the latter’s pearl. It is at this point that I realized a brief contribution explicating the particular situation of which I am in the very midst, might be of use to uncover a dark spot or two that has remained, up until now, right beneath our noses.

Let me start by stating the obvious. That we are the witness to a hitherto unheard of extension of the automatisms of capital, fulfilling one of Marx’s inspired predictions, and that many spheres and phenomena which had traditionally remained outside the market dynamics are steadily encompassed by the quicksand of its abstract homogenizations, is perhaps the most obvious. As a result, everything that has a value should be measured by this abstract measure, or, what amounts to the same, that which is not measurable by this abstract count has no value and therefore does not deserve to exist.

Consequences of this state of the situation, in my opinion, are equally obvious. Science and arts - with philosophy occupying the uneasy position in-between - the three sequential developments at the heart of what can justifiably be demonstrated as the human part of the human civilization, are facing an existential challenge. Since academia is one of the names that has been a stand in for this unique existence in its different avatars, for it is already Plato who, in The Republic, stated that education of the guardians of the republic should begin by studying literature and music, encounter mathematics at an advanced stage and should culminate with philosophy, there is little surprise that at the centre of this challenge is the question of the future of education in its institutional form.

As some of you, I venture to hope, may have already heard, the particular situation to which I referred above pertains to the fate of the Philosophy Department of the Middlesex University from the United Kingdom . For those of you who are not familiar with austere details of this depressing narrative, let me draw a quick sketch.

Middlesexual Potentialities

The Philosophy Department of this less than mediocre university is by any criteria its most prestigious element that warrants a certification worthy of a university. First, from the standpoint of the official figures, it is the highest researched ranked department in the whole of the university and is ranked 13 out of all the institutions teaching philosophy in the United Kingdom . It also has the largest postgraduate programme in philosophy. If these, official, figures are not sufficient, one should consider the following. Middlesex is, or has been up to this point, one of the best places in the English speaking world to study what is known, quite unimaginatively, as continental philosophy:

that is, the works of thinkers coming from the European mainland as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon localities. If you go further down this line, and narrow your interest to particular traditions and thinkers, the results you get when you compare the particular research interests of individual staff members, will dazzle you.

* If you are interested, for example, in the works of Alain Badiou, then no doubt you would like to study under the man of whom Badiou has said "my most well-versed and ardent interpreter and critic": Peter Hallward.

* If you are a follower of Deleuze then you would surely like to work with one of the most prominent disciples of Deleuze, whose doctoral dissertation, supervised by Deleuze, and subsequently published with an introduction by the latter; a man who has collaborated with Deleuze’s long term collaborator Felix Guattari: Eric Alliez. This is further strengthened by the fact that one of the brightest emergent Deleuze scholars, Christian Kerslake is also in the same department.

* If you are familiar with one of the most interesting new series of introductory booklets on key thinkers called "How to Read...", a series edited by Simon Critchley – in that series the booklet "How to Read Lacan" was written by Slavoj Zizek – you would remember the astonishing little introductory piece "How to Read Marx" compiled by Peter Osborne, one of giants of contemporary Hegel scholarship and classical German philosophy.

* Stella Sandford’s work on Levinas is unsurpassed, at least in the English speaking world and her forthcoming work on Shulamith Firestone, as shown by her numerous presentations during the last few years, is likely to re-orient contemporary feminism. (Perhaps it is useful to add that she authored the little book "How to Read Beauvoir" in the same series mentioned above.)

* One of the most important contemporary journals of philosophy, Radical Philosophy is published by the group of philosophers working around the Department of Philosophy at Middlesex.

One might wonder, what is the point of this somewhat exhaustive catalogue of (mostly) academic credentials of few individuals? Perhaps you would reconsider this question if I were to tell you an astonishing story: about two months ago, the Dean of the faculty of Arts of Middlesex University, informs its Philosophy Department that it has made no "measurable contribution" to the university and as a result, and no doubt with a heavy heart, this good gentleman and his colleagues, who are also known as the university management, have had no choice but to shut down this department!

Within few days a massive campaign ensued against this atrocious decision, led by the students and supported by thousands of individuals who value ideas and their consequences. More than a thousand people signed a petition in Defence of Philosophy within hours of its posting; as of June 13, more than 17,400 people have now signed it. A group letter to the Times Higher Education supplement was signed by some of the most well-known figures in the field, including many people whose work is intensively studied by students and staff at Middlesex: Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, Judith Butler, Toni Negri, Jacques Rancière, Gayatri Spivak, Slavoj Zizek and many others.

In early May, Middlesex Philosophy students took matters into their own hands. The Dean and the Vice-Chancellor Academic had proposed a meeting with students on the morning of Tuesday 4 May; when the management cancelled this meeting at short notice, more than 60 students converged on the Dean’s office in the ‘Mansion’ building at the Trent Park branch of the university, to demand an explanation. The Dean refused to meet with them, or to contact them by phone. The students decided to wait all day, and then all night, and all through the next day;

the initial sit-in thus turned into an occupation of the Trent Park Boardroom and its adjoining corridor. Police came to the campus to consider management accusations of trespassing; they left after an hour or so, apparently after deciding that the management had no case.

The students’ demand was a simple one: they asked the management to enter into negotiations leading to the reversal of the decision to close the philosophy programmes. Management refused to respond.

On the afternoon of May 5, the students organized a rally in support of this demand. When the rally ended many more students joined the occupation, and expanded it to take control of the entire Mansion building, the main building of the Trent Park campus. Occupation of the Mansion continued for 12 days and expanded into a great cultural event that showed to the whole world the wonder of a university where the students and the staff joining hands to create an alternate space of critique and discussion.

On May 14 university managers obtained a high court injunction which gave them the legal power to drive their students out of the building and the following day the students finally decided to bring the occupation itself to a close, so as to join a rally outside the Mansion with Tariq Ali and move on to the next phase of the campaign.

On May 20, students and staff from philosophy and several other endangered humanities programmes at Middlesex went on the offensive again, and staged a one-night sit-in of the Library at Trent Park. On the following morning, the university management responded by suspending three members of staff and four students. This resulted in a second wave of national and international outrage and culminated in students along with many other education activists camping outside the university, this time, though, outside the main branch of the university at Hendon, after a major protest rally. They set up a dozen tents and a marquee.

As a result of this relentless pressure applied on the management and the visible power of collective action, the campaign to save philosophy at Middlesex achieved a minor but significant victory. Kingston University in South-West London announced that it will re-establish the Department at Kingston by employing four members of staff from Middlesex and help sustain the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, the prestigious research centre run by the Middlesex Philosophy Department. It will also pave the way to re-launch the MA and PhD programmes from this September and all postgraduate students can choose if they want to move along with the staff – a partial victory for a collective effort.

Several lessons

There are several lessons to be learnt from this experience. This is not to say that it will provide us with a formula that will work in all conditions, the absolute panacea. Nor it is capable of setting an example to every aspect of the debate concerning the marketization of education. It will not inform us much, for example, about the burning issue of the fate of professional skills, such as, medical or engineering practices.

No doubt, there are many implications to the student studying such professions by its inclusion within the globalized structure of the market, and in many respects this has been the centre of the ongoing discussion in Sri Lanka . The necessary consequence of this, what can be called, skill-oriented approach to education is that the discussion concerning the fundamentals of education is overshadowed. This is not to say that developing these skills is not a matter of importance – on the contrary. After all, it was necessary for the students in Plato’s Republic to develop their physical strength and combative skills. Nevertheless, at the heart of the idea of education there is an enforcement towards something that transcends the regimes of need and necessity, and it is with respect to this idea that the experience at Middlesex can shed us a streak of light, in this middle of the night.

A little while ago, I mentioned that what can be demonstratively regarded as human within the field of education can only come from the domains of arts or science – I placed philosophy in-between as the universal qualifier of historical destiny of the former domains. This does not mean that what has universal value, and therefore truth, is reducible to arts and science, but only that, insofar as education is concerned, arts and science are its heart and soul. By extending this powerful idea one can arrive at the following formula: there is an irreducible incongruity between value as truth and value as market exchange.

For the very idea of exchange implies an equality of balance between two entities, itself depending on meta processes of needs and demands. A universal truth is something that transcends existing differences within a situation. Or, better still, something that is not identifiable through established differences: it is neither man nor woman, Sinhala nor Tamil and so on. Consequently there is no equal for it within the situation: it is, to use a somewhat technical phrase, a universal singularity, and, it is irreducible to the regime of biological needs and social necessity. The fact that something possesses an exchange value, on the other hand, precisely means that it is equal, in value, to another ‘something’.

Thus, the incongruity. An important consequence of this thesis is that it brings out the sheer nullity of that argument, endlessly espoused by those neoliberal proponents, according to which the Hobbesian war of all teachers against each other will necessarily guarantee better education. For if there is a competition to teach the same content, so the argument goes, between two teachers, the student will naturally want to learn from the better teacher. What they fail to see, or rather refuse to recognise, is that this apparent success of ‘better teachers’ can only be applied when what they are teaching is recognised as valuable enough to teach. But, alas, the radar of market evaluation cannot detect the inherent creativity of art and science, for it is precisely the quest of philosophy. The message is clear: if you want something to be recognised, then kneel down in front of profits! Inversely, what is truly valuable, in its precise philosophical sense, will be redeemed of any value and face extinction.

Second lesson (at the time when the whole country is eagerly waiting for lessons to be learnt from the war): what is intrinsically valuable has its value as a result of the power of faith it has generated to those who have encountered it. This is an important point within the Sri Lankan context. The Philosophy Department at Middlesex became the envy of other departments facing similar challenges within the university as well as educational activists in the UK because it managed to bring such a large number of its students as militant defendants of a cause. This is, moreover, what really surprised the good businessmen and women who take managerial decisions in the university: they had anticipated an international outcry from philosophers, but who cares about Badiou, Rancière, or Negri – once again the incongruity between true value and market value.

The student resistance, on the other hand, was an entirely different issue. Starting with the local newspapers, the word spread around, to nationally circulated newspapers, and to BBC lunchtime news bulletin. It was the physical presence of the students – occupying large administrative buildings, camping outside the Vice Chancellor’s office – that substantiated and electrified the letters written by the likes of Spivak or Zizek. The question that we need to ask from ourselves: how many distinct branches of the Sri Lankan academia, can claim to possess such intrinsic value sufficient to challenge and impassion those who encounter it to revolt in its name? If the answer to this question is mostly negative, as I believe it is, then what becomes of the empty slogan: ‘save free education’?

This is not to say I am of the opinion that one should simply abandon the idea of free education to the neoliberal opponents. After all, no truly civilized society would sell education to its young, no more than we would sell breast milk to babies, or bandages for the bleeding. The point I am trying to emphasize is that it is never really enough to take up arms, shouting the slogan of ‘free education for all’ if the very meaning of the idea of education is uprooted and dislocated, confused with it’s very opposite: vocational training.

It is in this regard that the old map, centred as it is on the opposition between the State sponsored education and market driven education, should at least be questioned in terms of current dynamics. Contemporary situation in higher education, in the context of global capital, is no longer an issue of bad individuals, bad policy or even bad governance. This is perhaps the ultimate lesson that the experience at Middlesex can teach us: if you are serious about ‘saving free education’ always remember that maps only reveal what map-makers, or their superiors, want to show.

(For more information about the Save Middlesex Philosophy Campaign, please visit http://savemdxphil.com)

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