Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Day 48 - Better together?

I am not going to start blogging about the politics of independence. Not today at least.
I do think it's worth reflecting briefly on the place of universities in political debate, and specifically the place of academics.
Is it right for me, as an educator and a public servant to express my opinions which could influence my students?
Is it right for me, as an educator and a public servant to censor myself and refuse to engage my students in this debate?

I honestly don't know. While I can appreciate the importance of public bodies remaining independent, I also can see the importance of academics engaging with the issues and the questions.

But perhaps we should be asking questions about the future of higher education after independence (not just how it is going to be funded, but also whether its independence from legislated curriculum would remain, whether universities would continue to be seen as hubs of knowledge generation rather than factories of commerce, and so on), and about the future of the arts after independence, rather than talking about whether or not we will be using the pound.

But perhaps I am missing the point again. Doesn't it all come down to economics in the end? The economic 'if's and 'but's thrown around by both candidates in the debate tonight remind me of Benjamin's comparison of historical materialism to the chess-playing automaton: when you know the end result that you desire to conjure, you can generate a convincing economic argument that appears to lead logically to that point.

Universities occupy a strange position in the landscape for an election like this. We house students, some of whom will graduate and go back to England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, but for the purposes of the independence referendum will be able to vote. I imagine that the older universities in Scotland have rather more of these students than my institution. We also house students who were born a few miles away from the campuses at which they learn, and who will go on to live in Scotland for the rest of their lives. We train our students to engage with information critically and to make their own minds up. So what should we be doing?

When I lecture on capitalism, or on feminism, I do not hold back in revealing my opinion. Am I encouraging students to make up their own minds as long as they agree with me? I would like to think not, but the danger is there. I cannot help but think that all 'right thinking' people would adopt my position. How can I hope to train my students to think for themselves in this context?

I don't have any answers, but I am realising that my students will be voting in what could be quite an important referendum in the first teaching week of this term, and I probably will not have the opportunity to engage with them on their thinking and the extent to which they have considered the issues.

It's probably just as well, but I can't help but think that I'm not fulfilling my responsibilities. I suppose the biggest challenge may come afterwards, when we will need to talk about what this decision actually means for us.

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