Universities – a place apart?

23 Jan

Universities, and university students, have been the targets of violent attacks recently. Nigeria and Syria have seen multiple casualty attacks in recent weeks, while Pakistan and Iraq have also seen attacks within the past few years.
My first thought was that these acts were particularly vicious because universities are often oases of calm in societies affected by violent conflict. But, on reflection, I see how such thinking privileges universities at the expense of other populations.
Certainly universities are often ‘a place apart’, both in societies affected by violence and those in more peaceful societies. This can often be seen in the physicality of universities: campuses on the edge of town, located in a relatively remote town like St Andrews or Coimbra, or the gated communities in the case of the Oxbridge colleges. They are also ‘a place apart’ in the sense that they are meant to provide a respite from the hurly-burly of the real world so that students and academics can reflect, debate, and engage in pure research. As places of learning, they are meant to provide space for experimental thinking, the trialing of ideas, and a safe environment for the exploration of unconventional approaches. For most undergraduates, they are a place of transition – from the micro-managed pedagogy of schools to the big bad world of work. They are semi-protected spaces.
Of course, this view of the university verges on the romantic. Universities have long been polluted by the market and technocracy (and before that by the peculiarities of clerical control, sexism and classism). Governments have been encouraging factory-farming approaches to higher education, and increasingly see the role of universities as instruments to train entrepreneurs and power something called ‘the knowledge economy’. Despite these assaults on Higher Education, they are still places apart. Just take a look around any student cafeteria and one thing that is striking is the amount of conversation about ideas, coursework, and projects. Sure, there’s lot’s of talk about all those other things that students should be talking about (improbable tales of drinking, sex and … yawn … gap years), but there’s also a lot of intellectual engagement.
Universities have also played a key role as spaces of calm and refuge in deeply divided societies. Whether in Beirut or Belfast, university areas have often attracted people who ‘don’t fit in’ or who want some sort of alternative to the dominant divisions. In some circumstances, universities have also provided space for calm discussion of fraught issues, and space for undergraduates to meet, for the first time, members of ‘the other side’. Of course, universities have also played roles in reinforcing divisions or apartheid, and also have helped develop all sorts of dreadful weapons. Yet, in general, universities do provide opportunities that may not exist elsewhere in deeply divided societies. It is because of the pacific potential of universities that attacks on universities are often regarded as peculiarly heinous.
Yet, are we correct to add an additional layer of opprobrium on attacks on universities, their students and staff? I think not. This is not to deny the wickedness of such attacks. Instead, it is to say that all other workplaces should have similar protection. They too have the potential to promote social wellbeing. In certain circumstances, they provide space for people of different faiths and politics to work alongside each other. They can provide a venue for the demystification of ‘the other side’ and the everyday diplomacy that allows individuals and communities to ‘rub along to get along’. So yes, it is appalling to see attacks on universities, but no more appalling than on other sites.


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