Is the university burning?

Last month I went to a debate organized at the Sorbonne, “Is the  university burning?” (L’Université brûle-t-elle ?) Appropriately, it ended in chaos; but  midway through, there was a bit of performance art.

Actors in masks, some with stockings over their heads, made a pretend argument for burning the university. For the foreigners in the audience, a disjointed translation of their performance was projected on a screen like so:

We want Godard, Proust, the Princess of Cleves, not commercial trash culture

Let us burn the university! No! The University is not for profit! It is there to create more freedom, more riches (that are not material), “Latin is useless and that’s why it’s beautiful!” against the death of “dead languages”, let us burn the university! In the name of all erasmus students, I would like to say I had no time to write a speech, because I work to pay my way and so we say “let us burn the university”!

[They shouted their discourse from the stage.]

Experiment time! First we will build a fire, the first spark. Take your sheet of paper, fold it over, then again, and cut it, and lick it and keep your strip of paper (etc),

[The actors circled back into the aisles of the large lecture hall with sheets of paper, with which they mimed an effort to create fire.]

It doesn’t work!!!!!

[—they said as they pretended to discover that rubbing two pieces of paper together doesn’t make a spark.]

It would be crazy; it would be like killing oneself; like putting one’s head in the freezer, like throwing oneself under a car, like…

[As if they were delighted to discover that they didn’t need to burn the university after all… but the translation trailed off and the actors came through the aisles hugging the audience. Even including the ethnographer, yours truly.]

Continue reading “Is the university burning?”

Student activism in Serbia

Jessica Greenberg‘s 2007 dissertation, “Citizen Youth: Student Organizations and the Making of Democracy in Postsocialist Serbia,” chronicles the students’ response, among other things, to the still ongoing European Bologna Process. Apparently, in contrast to Western Europe, where at least some professors view it as an instrument of neoliberalization and creeping audit culture, the students saw it as a welcome source of needed reforms. (Serbian professors and administrators, however, remain more equivocal on the topic.)

Greenberg starts with a general history of Serbian universities, saying that they were “decentralized,” with each faculty an autonomous legal entity. (Universities in Serbia date from this century, several having been started in the 1960s and 70s.) Apparently they were an instrument by which the state could consolidate its power — although the threat of subversion from within the universities remained a real concern to state power, and the university thus became “a highly politicized site of critique and protest.” Greenberg adds that “student protest was often exacerbated because expectations created by ideals of higher education were constantly foiled by social and material practices within the everyday workings of the university” (7). (Of course, this is true in America as well, and in France – although I wonder whether it also works in reverse. Is it possible that our social practices are constantly being foiled and disrupted by our dysfunctional educational ideals?)

Serbia is an interesting case of student activism, anyway, since it seems that students had a major role in the defeat of Milosevic in 2000. But after this victory, the student movement lost its unity, refocusing itself on reform of universities. In the context of traditional pedagogy and limited institutional resources, “many student leaders saw the forms of standardization, credit systems, quality assurance and transparency of testing and educational requirements as the solution” (14). Moreover, it was evidently viewed as “a way to make Serbia more properly European” (15). Indeed, Greenberg’s work centers on how Serbian students work through the difficulties of citizenship and democratic organization in their universities. Unfortunately, from the introduction, I get the impression that she doesn’t investigate the university as such, as an institution, as a complex social structure – it seems to be very much cultural anthropology. But for the time being, I just want to emphasize this fascinating case of a neoliberal, regional reform – the Bologna process – being reused and reappropriated in local politics.