Why we need political debates and activism on our campuses

January 22, 2020 11:44
A file picture captures protesters as they sing ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ outside the Polytechnic University amid a police siege of the campus on Nov. 25 last year. Photo: Reuters

As this article is being written, protests are raging across Indian campuses amid anger over the government's move to amend a citizenship law and authorities' failure to heed the public's concerns. Over here in Hong Kong, we saw over the latter half of 2019 some of the most mobilized and intense activism in the city's history, with university campuses transformed into sites of ideological and values struggles between students of opposing political beliefs.

Elsewhere, climate activism is unfurling across Western universities as adolescents and young adults join hands in spearheading efforts against a potentially cataclysmic future for planet Earth – with a preview of its effects playing out in the treacherous fires proliferating in Australia currently.

Amid such developments, we notice some bizarre critique of the activism from some media outlets and pundits in Asian societies. They argue that universities ought to be “free from politics”, and that the youth should not engage with politics “until they are ready”, on the grounds that universities are supposed to be “sacrosanct sites of learning”.

Look at the headlines of pro-establishment tabloid press in Hong Kong, or pro-Modi newspapers in India, and it’s not be difficult to spot the plethora of writers who make a living off chastising students for being “brainwashed” by radicalism.

The criticisms are not only disingenuous, they are also dangerous as it amounts to being complicit in seeking to de-politicize an inherently political space, as well as undermining the very functions and obligations that universities ought to uphold.

I would say that not only should the campus be political, it must also serve as a site for agonistic, dynamic, and comprehensive political debate and activism, particularly movements that seek to critique and reform the flawed status quo for the better.

To begin with, the campus has always been political. Universities impart particular ideas and facts through curricula that set and frame out particular agenda, reading lists over which faculty exercise power in including or excluding particular texts, and rituals and institutions that emphasize “universal norms” of critical, free thinking, or deliberative participation.

None of these processes are neutral – they embed within them orientations and dispositions that academic administrators and researchers seek to cultivate in our young people. The delineation of what constitutes good research, correct argumentation, and ethical scholarship is itself a product of politics – politics between faculty, between dominant and marginalized discourse, and between broader social trends.

Even in the most liberal and laissez-faire universities, the allocation of resources to particular student groups or societies, legitimated in the name of “maximizing student exposure”, is inherently political in grooming particular identities and thoughts deemed amenable to the academic orthodoxy. Heterodox speech is policed through the chilling effects under social stigmatization, or frames that designate it as “dangerous” to the academic order. Strategic curricula-designing takes an implicitly value-laden curriculum and brands it as “neutral” and “balanced”.

The political underpins the campus, yet tactical disguise enables the politically infused decision-making processes to pass off as “fair” and “apolitical”. There is no getting-out of politics, for every argument, thought, and fact raised within an academic space necessarily entails practical consequences – whether it be in influencing the later decisions and beliefs of graduates, or in legitimating or de-legitimating arguments in public discourse.

To seek the impossible “de-politicization” of universities is akin to sweeping under the carpet the elephant in the room – both futile and counterproductive. Rather than pursuing de-politicization, which leads to only a further narrowing of the already-exclusive range of acceptable ideologies and schools of thoughts within campuses, we should recognize, embrace, and reform for the better the political dimension of universities.

The campus should actively engage with politics, given its reciprocal duties towards the society that nourishes and supports it. From land to economic capital, from universally granted credibility to status and dignification, universities benefit significantly from the stakeholders that inhabit wider societies.

Students may be the direct recipients of generous grants and loans, or indirect beneficiaries of those whose tacit support continually enables the operations of their universities. Given that the public space is inherently political in the conflicts over resource distribution and who possesses the legitimacy to rule, there are strong reasons to think that universities cannot be siphoned off from the rest of society in an artificially concocted, “politics-free” space.

When the society at large is suffering – from the pains inherited from ignorance or the dangers fuelled by factually erroneous thought – it is the duty of the universities and their constituents to step up to speak truth to power. The campus cannot and should not become a safe haven for those who live in blissful ignorance of the events unfurling around them.

The objection may be, that the best way for the university to contribute to politics is through teaching and equipping students comprehensively with the skills to pursue political and public ends upon graduation. After all, the apprentice must first learn from the masters before undertaking the task himself, surely.

Yet this claim ignores a further argument for taking the political seriously on campuses, which is that the best way for faculty to teach and students to learn is via praxis. To speak of democracy and freedom as abstract ideals is easy – anyone could pen lofty prose and produce ornate arguments about the virtues and vices of modern society. Yet there is no way we could understand these ideals without first-hand experience.

There is no better way to teach public citizenry than to encourage individuals to try it out for themselves, and come to terms with their own inadequacies, mistakes, or flawed assumptions. Only through accumulating lived experiences of activism, political lobbying and persuasion, and free-spirited debates, could fledgling students develop a greater appreciation of the complexities and demands of citizenry – freed from the chalice of reductive abstraction.

It goes without saying that the pedagogical process should not be biased or skewed – thus critical reflection and thoughtful moderation are pivotal, and the presentation of “both sides of the argument”, to the extent it is appropriate, should not be neglected. Yet to dismiss all such processes as “brainwashing” and distraction is not only ignorant, it also amounts to actively stifling a crucial component of students’ learning during their most formative years.

Even students pursuing mathematics or the sciences have everything to gain from understanding how their theoretical knowledge could play a role in effecting broader societal change. In India, students resisting the segregationist Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) are fighting for a more inclusive India, against a wave of reactionary, ethnocentric nationalism. In Hong Kong, while I harbor strong reservations about the methods adopted by many, it is clear that a majority of student protesters are motivated by the conviction that Hong Kong deserves and is owed a better tomorrow in terms of political accountability and social justice.

The standard objection is that students are not “ready yet” – that only upon graduation and working in the “real world” could they earn the ability to engage sensibly with politics. Let’s set aside the claim that political engagement is not a privilege, but a right that comes with inhabiting political communities and being subject to the coercive rule of the state. Let’s talk about “getting ready” for political participation – surely, there is no other way for individuals to be truly ready for politics unless they have the opportunities to experience it first-hand, without filters or imposed ideologies that seek to distort their judgments!

Knowledge and appreciation of current affairs are best acquired through open dialogue, prudent discussions, often-arduous activism and participation alongside conventional means (e.g. academic study or self-initiated research) – as opposed to solely learning from rote textbooks or second-hand sources that enforce dogmatic thoughts in the name of “experience”. If our students turn out to be ignorant, ill-equipped, or juvenile in their thoughts and actions, the correct response is not to shut down any and all political discourse, but to directly engage them in highlighting any faulty and mistaken understandings. The answer to ignorance is not endless patronizing and policing, but open-minded conversations through which all parties can acknowledge and address their shortcomings and blind spots.

The university campus is a place where knowledge is delivered and accredited, offering the ability to shape the society's future. It is imperative that we do not depoliticize it.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review