Sunday, July 15, 2012

International security: A case for a better politics

A better politics, you ask? 

Whether this satirical inscription on a Dutch innkeeper's sign upon which a burial ground was painted had for its object mankind in general, or the rulers of states in particular, who are insatiable of war, or merely the philosophers who dream this sweet dream, it is not for us to decide.
Immanuel Kant
 ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’, 1795

Later this month (July) I will welcome a new cohort of students who have enrolled in my course ‘International Security’. It is one of several courses I teach, and I enjoy teaching it. In the last few weeks however, as I’ve watched our domestic politics unfold and observed Japanese politics a little more closely than I usually have the opportunity to do, I’m coming to the conclusion that our focus on ‘security’ has probably contributed to our less than healthy polity.

How so?

This post is actually more closely related to last week’s post on whackademia than we should probably admit. As we’ve known for some time, many courses in the arts and humanities departments are now largely driven by economic imperatives, bottom lines, bums-on-seats, call it what you will. Those who drive university budgets want to see numbers—a beautiful set of numbers—and that generally means when a course falls below a (usually arbitrarily) determined number, it gets dropped. Sometimes it might get ‘parked’ in the scholars’ desert, like many of those jets we’ve seen parked in deserts with the hope of return eventually, but the likelihood is low.

For a course, or a ‘program’, to obtain numbers it must have something of the zeitgeist about it—it must be ‘cool’, ‘interesting’, ‘relevant’, ‘get me a job’-type attractive. Lecturers become salespeople; courses suffer the vicissitudes of fashion.

Following my stint in the Senate as a staffer, I returned to work at a sandstone university in Brisbane (which shall remain nameless). I was completing my doctorate in Japanese politics and international relations and, more by accident than design, was teaching courses on Japanese government, democracy in East Asia, and was generally considered the ‘Asianist’ in the department. I also assisted in teaching a course in 20th century conflict and terrorism—the IRA, the ETA, the Japanese Red Army—remember them? Our greatest concern then in ‘terrorism’ was the chemical or biological threats; plane hijackings were so 1970s. We were still worried about war but it was a post-Cold War world and ‘the West had won’. Or so some thought.

Enter 9/11 (2001) and International Security. That morning, Australian time (the horror would unfold later that night, our time), I was teaching my course on Democracy in East and Southeast Asia. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was my ‘talking point’ text. If Asia was pursuing the democratic ideal, it wasn’t Athenian, it was American. What, in fact, was ‘American democracy’? We were casting a broad net across the 20th century. World War I, I offered, resulted in the founding of the League of Nations; World War II saw the formation of the United Nations. The world, it seemed, sought to find a way through abhorrent times to have us all sit down and work out why it happened, and how might we make it not happen again.

In the decade since the end of the Cold war, it seemed the world was still a little tetchy; we hadn’t quite worked out the ‘New World Order’ and democracy, I suggested, wasn’t providing the answers perhaps we all wanted. Certainly, in Asia, it was meeting some resistance. As I am wont to do, I proffered a rhetorical proposition to the class: perhaps the world needs another grand event that will shake us from our complacency vis-à-vis democracy. This was the morning of what was to become etched in our minds as 9/11.

We were all in a state of shock the next day at work. Media outlets sought comment from many of us for ‘the answers’, the ‘whys’, the ‘wherefores’. My students were somewhat dumbfounded, perhaps a little spooked by our class the day before. Not as much as I was. I might have prognosticated, but I certainly didn’t have a plane-jacking of this magnitude in mind*.

But one condition the author of this essay wishes to lay down. The practical politician assumes the attitude of looking down with great self-satisfaction on the political theorist as a pedant whose empty ideas in no way threaten the security of the state, inasmuch as the state must proceed on empirical principles; so the theorist is allowed to play his game without interference from the worldly-wise statesman.
Immanuel Kant
 ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’, 1795

But where is this taking us? University politics departments were quickly driven towards ‘security’ courses. The terrorism course I had taught in suddenly trebled in numbers. Students were suddenly less interested in questions of democracy and other political philosophies and wanted answers for why 9/11 happened and how could we prevent it happening again.

Do you recall the response? It wasn’t to seek to understand others. It was ‘war’, a war on terror and a fight against the axis of evil. It was about ‘othering’ a particular group of people for their physical and spiritual beliefs. ‘Specialists’ on the Middle East suddenly popped up everywhere and the demand to learn Arabic increased, usually independently of each other. And there was ‘Tampa’, perhaps Australia’s turn for the worse in this unfolding new world order. (As an old-fashioned area studies-trained academic I found the mutual exclusivity of the two quite interesting…and bewildering. Not quite as bewildering as the subsequent accusation by an academic acquaintance that I was trying to be some kind of ‘gatekeeper’ via language knowledge into the politics of security.)

Those elements of political philosophy that might have taught us a little about who we are, where we fit in the world, how we might understand human nature, quickly withered, and were ‘parked at the desert’. Soon we had every possible variation of ‘security’ and in doing so, we excluded the politics of humanity, of understanding. Similarly, the courses in comparative government, of the type I taught were also phased out in favour of ‘security’ or ‘problems’ in the region.

As I observed our federal parliament’s very very sad ‘debate’ on asylum seekers last month, as I try to understand why our citizens are so disaffected with politics, as I try to encourage students to robustly engage in the polity, I am moving towards articulating the return of comparative government to the curriculum, of political philosophy, of more positive ways to represent how power can be distributed (for that is politics). The politics of ‘security’ should not be about inculcating the politics of ‘fear and loathing’ of our common humanity. Understanding complex issues is imperative, but it is not something you’re going to get in a 13-week course.

Such being his attitude, the practical politician--and this is the condition I make--should at least act consistently in the case of a conflict and not suspect some danger to the state in the political theorist's opinions which are ventured and publicly expressed without any ulterior purpose. By this clausula salvatoria the author desires formally and emphatically to deprecate herewith any malevolent interpretation which might be placed on his words.
Immanuel Kant
 ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’, 1795

I’ve started acting on this. I begin my course now with a discussion, not unlike this one here which sets out what we might think about. I begin with Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ (the first paragraph of which you’ve seen sprinkled through this post), I move towards a discussion of political philosophy as it challenges our notion of what makes humankind seek to solve problems through war, or peace. I want our ‘security’ to be positive and outward-looking, not inward and loathing.

And when I win Lotto, I will set up my very own P-School, an institute with a purpose to revive the fine art of political discourse and the good it should bring society, not the pettiness and point-scoring, factional fighting and narcissistic nebulousness which passes for politics today.

And there shall be courses on comparative politics! All that is old shall be new, again.
*There was a little more apprehension on my part as well and it was personal. My aunt was a pilot for United Airlines at the time, on the New York route. It was a tough few hours before we had her safety, albeit a close call, confirmed by my uncle.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Whackademia: yes, some of us are troubled by it

Should I stay or should I go...

Amongst a certain universiterati, Richard Hil’s tales of contemporary universities in Australia rings quite true and somewhat disconcertingly. In his recently published book Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University (New South, 2012) Hil has put on the record what many of us talk about in the corridors and carefully selected public spaces. His book should trigger a serious, national-level rethink about the state of our tertiary education but I doubt it will shift already entrenched positions on both sides of the chessboard.  

A few declarations first: Richard worked at my university briefly and while I didn’t meet him, I know of him via colleagues who did work with him. I’ve chuckled a little at his ‘Joseph Gora’ columns in the Higher Ed section of The Australian. I am a pre-Dawkins idealist when it comes to the transformative power of education (not just an idealist, actually; a beneficiary of the same). I walked through the gates of university with the intention of joining the teaching profession in the early 1980s, but was drawn to the idea of the ‘academy’ somewhere around my honours year. A couple of years studying in Japan had tripped the ‘curiosity’ wire in my mind and by the end of the 1980s I thought I was heading for a career in learning, teaching and the expansion of the body of knowledge. It was the wrong time to cultivate such lofty ideals.

I am also an active member of the staff union, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), for a number of reasons not the least of which is the sense of the collective action required to give education a meaningful role in building a strong and enriched society.

My piece on accountability (last post) is in fact a bit of a precursor to this response to Hil’s book. There is a bit of accountability madness going on in the tertiary sector which by and large impedes the joy of learning. It kills of the serendipity and spontaneity that an exchange in the lecture theatre or the tutorial can engender. I try to stimulate the wonder of knowledge and learning anyway, in spite of the hurdles.

The post-Dawkins regime has cultivated a particular ideology within the sector which I think impedes the soul and purpose of a university. It has driven a utilitarian, skills-based education (for which we had previously adequate facilities) which, in turn, is helping to drive a certain degree of inward-looking individualism and that leads to the sort of weeks we had in politics here, the week before our political leaders broke for the winter recess.  We do need to broaden our scope, our compassion and our purpose.

I won’t reiterate the content of Hil's book here—those of us in the system, of a certain vintage—certainly know what he’s talking about. Those older than me are mostly retired. Those younger than me have adapted in ways that I probably won’t because I hold to a different view about the purpose of education and scholarship. Yep, it is probably an old-fashioned notion but it matters to me, and where I can, I try to parlay those views in the classroom.

I do have a problem with the overdose of administrative and ‘transparency’ requirements that are sucking up more and more of our time. Hil captures this quite well. There are levels of accountability which are ultimately petty and potentially punitive. Not a lot of this actually adds to the educational experience that might be made available to students…if we could. We are encumbered by ongoing reviews and restructures which leave people feeling insecure and fragile. At its most lamentable, there is an increase in workplace health and safety issues leading, regrettably, to instances of bullying and related behaviours. 

Academic staff at the teaching/research coalface feel the squeeze from above and increasingly from students who are pressured to ‘succeed’, sometimes unreasonably and often in a shallow sense of the word. It is the unhealthy manifestation of a particular competitive, individualistic approach which seems to be all pervasive. I see the levels of stress increasing among colleagues and many good people have left, and many are considering their options. 

Right now it is a non-teaching time. I arrived at work the other day at 9am. I had a series of meetings, consultations with colleagues and students, admin matters to attend to and so on. I actually got to start the work I needed to do around 4.30pm. I left the office, with work unfinished, at 10pm. It's a fairly common day in the #lifeofalecturer. Many of us average 60 hours a week, or more. 

Universities are by and large, run like some imagined ‘business’ or corporation. Actually, they’re not supposed to be run that way. I explained to a ‘post-Dawkins’ colleague recently that universities were supposed to be a little bit separate from society, a way to ‘look in’ from afar, to think, to contemplate, to reflect on the foibles of human nature, for better or worse, and what we might do to understand that. He was a little surprised. Yeah, call me old-fashioned but…

But that approach doesn’t make us irrelevant. Indeed, we could be more courageous and assert our relevance. Society ought to be diverse, we can each contribute in different ways, not prescribed conforming KPI-ed roles. Society can indeed progress through serendipity and curiosity. We’re not exactly encouraging that in our education systems at present. Indeed, in another conversation, I was talking to a parent whose child was taking a 'gap-year', a year off study between high school and university. I said that once upon a time, university was a person's 'gap-year' an important transition time. There was a little shock, a little nostalgia, a little shared guilt that university was no longer what it might have been. 

It will take a courageous education minister to say ‘stop the bureaucratisation and teach, research and educate’. I’d like to start by setting a three year trial—let’s just stop all this petty form-filling, matrix-building, citation-measuring for just three years, and see whether or not the quality of education is better or worse for the experience. If it is better, I will rest my case; if it is worse, I shall eat my PhD testamur.

 If we can encourage students to engage with the content not the assessment, not the grade at the end, then education just might happen in more beneficial ways. I am forever grateful that my narrow, utilitarian first-year undergraduate views were cracked wide open, challenged and expanded by any number of passionate, engaging academics back then. They knew their material because they got time to read and research and write and think. I’m not sure that I’d quite manage to be an undergraduate in the same way today. There was also a greater degree of ‘eccentricity’ among some of our teachers which wouldn’t pass today. The thought we might sue our lecturer because they didn’t perform to expectations and the educational contract was just…well…for heaven’s sake, it just didn’t enter our heads.

Hil’s book will be the corridor chat of the ‘ivory tower’ for a little while; we’ll all nod in agreement, titter* at some of the quotes and people he cites (because we all know them—or may even be them). His suggestions at the end for a kind of low-intensity passive resistance address some of the day-to-day frustrations, but they won’t fix a broken system. That takes enormous courage and a strong and confident constituency. We’re not really there any more.

I think I am a passionate, but tired, educator. I’ve spent many years in my field, seeking to understand the world, specifically our Asian neighbours, in ways that might make the world a better place. For many years, I accidentally-on-purpose ‘backed’ the right horse Japan; nowadays it’s all about China, so really, my expertise is not really useful anymore…I’d like to do more but time is running out.
I will walk away from my profession sooner rather than later. I have things I want to do, books I hope to write, matters I need to ponder, that the present system impedes. I don’t want to end up bitter and cynical but the bureaucracy is driving us in that direction.

Vale education, it could be better but it will just take…some courage.

*A pre-twitter mannerism of those who enjoyed a conspiratorial chuckle behind discreetly-placed hands.