The University and the crisis

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 7 February 2011

Over the weekend, I attended “For People and Planet: Not Profit and Self-Destruction: Can Universities make the move towards, or even lead ‘transition’?” What follows are the questions that it raised for me. I have also included a few unattributed quotes.

Sustainability: Nothing is sustainable. Can the University as a physical form be sustainable? In the face of massive budget cuts, of an enforced, neoliberal re-focusing of its idea, and of outsourcing/privatisation, what will the University as institution and idea, ether do or become? How can the University seed alternatives? How can the University be open-sourced, so that its ideas can be shared for co-operative production and resilience, rather than coercive competition?

Is sustainability meaningless? What is to be sustained? Is capitalism to be sustained and humanised? Is a BA (Hons) History or an HND Information Technology or a Masters in Youth Work to be sustained and developed? Are our current rates of consumption/production of relative surplus value and use-values and things to be sustained? Is humanity to be sustained? Are we actually talking about the transformation of production and consumption, and the construction of our social wealth?

Transition: Is transition meaningless? We are in permanent transition. “Is the idea of transition to save [energy/money/XX] in a system of production that demands that we consume more [energy/money/XX] than we need?” Is the role of the University in the socio-economic crisis, and the crisis of environmental degradation, and the crisis of debt and financialisation, to enable places to become more resilient and to adapt to shocks? Is the role of the University to enable places to become more diverse in their organisation and production of socially useful things? Is it to enable places to become more modular in their organisation and production of socially useful things? Is it to confront places directly with feedback from their actions, so that those actions have consequences in-place? Is it to enable people-in-society to co-operate and associate? Is it to prepare for reactions to business-as-usual/shocks, or to prepare proactively for alternatives? Is it to suggest a different form of social wealth?

“The future is here right now. It just isn’t very well distributed”. Resource depletion and the impact of global capitalism aren’t distributed evenly within and across nations. Do we really think that socio-technical solutions will ameliorate this and enable 3% growth? Or do we need a deeper critique and set of alternatives? Doing less harm is unsustainable. So how does the University enable higher learning to address this issue?

Place: The University is a congealed space/place. What can be recovered or salvaged from the University as a physical form or as an idea? How can the ideas of the University be open sourced for society? Is the University a fetish? Can “knowing” be re-seeded in society? Do the proliferation of self-organised open “schools”, engaged at, and dissolved into, the level of society highlight that higher learning is more resilient than higher education? Where universities form an essence of congealed competition, can they be a place for co-operative solutions to the problems of place? In the face of business-as-usual, how can the University as an actor-for-capital, help us to work against our alienation into an organisation, or our alienation into the production of commodities? How do we encourage open dissensus in the academy? How do we take what matters into a new way of living?

Can we imagine a new form of social wealth? How do “really free schools” enable us to organise or associate or demonstrate a new form of social wealth? How do they help us to be against the current organising principle of higher learning, focused on separation of subject, and distraction from the problems of place, and coercive competition and debt? If we are entering a world of scarcity rather than abundance, where 3% growth is unsustainable, how can we enable a permaculture of higher learning to take root? Is the socially useful role of the University to provide opportunities/places for permacultures to flourish?

Curriculum in place: In the curriculum we need to reveal the revolutionary moment. We need to teach in the moment of crisis. We do not need a pedagogy for transition, which becomes reified or a commodity. We need teaching that recognises why/critique in the process of learning. We need to teach and think and act and be responsible in public. To do this in private is a negation of our social responsibility. We need to encourage our students in the creation of our social wealth through association, and to contribute towards the creation of an alternative social world.

How do Universities engage with the places where they produce, consume, create value, have value, look for profit? Place is a site of emotion and action. The University’s activities need a physical grounding. They cannot be dissociated from place if disruption is to be overcome. Thus, the politics of place, of working in consensus [not majority], of squatting and reclaiming space, of recognising power, is vital in the development of alternatives. The history of higher learning in place needs to be reclaimed and salvaged. Is the important issue not how can the University outreach into the community, but how can the community outreach into the University?

Universities and places of higher learning need to be reclaimed as sites of radical production and action. There is a history of bravery and courage in the face of disruption, and a social history of opposition and bravery and courage needs to be recovered. Universities and places of higher learning need to help people reclaim their histories and to connect their stories to alternative means of production of their lives, and to demonstrate that the iron cage is not the only option. This means opening up places for fellowship and association, based on histories of courage, and against the dangerous and damaging assumptions of business-as-usual. How do Universities and places of higher learning engage with the lessons of the past to encourage resiliency in people?

Technologies in public: How do technologies support shared histories and stories, within and against and beyond the economies of scale in the University? How can the University seed new networks for critique and the production of alternatives? “We need options in a time of crisis. We do not need to extend our work and pretend it will go away.” How can we “create safe spaces in which we are allowed to be wrong?” Can we do this thinking, improvisation, imagining in public, using technology to support the network? How can we develop the habits of opposition without group-think? We need to share examples, so can technology help us to create and nourish “a parallel infrastructure for higher learning”? Can the edges help redefine the centre without being destroyed? Can this help us to open-source solutions that are rooted in a life-world?

Self-awareness: How do either the University or places of higher learning enable me to be against the impossibility of my life? How do they help me overcome the negation of my negation in capital? How do either the University or places of higher learning enable me to be for the possibility of me? What fellowships and associations enable the possibility of me?

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