What is the relationship between universities and democracy? From the purposes to the uses of university (and back)

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[Lightly edited text of a keynote lecture delivered to the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology’s Graduate conference at the Central European University in Budapest, 18 September 2017. The conference was initially postponed because of the problematic situation concerning the status of CEU in Hungary, following the introduction of the special law known as ‘Lex CEU‘].

 

 

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here – or rather, I should say it’s a pleasure to be back.

The best way to evaluate knowledge claims is to look at how they change over time. About three and a half years ago, during the launch event for From Class to Identity, I stood in this exact same spot. If you asked me back then what the relationship between universities and democracy is, I would have very likely told you at least one of the following things.

Conceptual, contingent, nonexistent?

Obviously, the relationship between universities and democracy depends on how you define both. What democracy actually means is both contested and notoriously difficult to measure. University, on the other hand, is a concept somewhat more easily recognisable through different periods. However, that does not mean it is not changing; in particular, it is increasingly becoming synonymous with the concept of ‘higher education’, a matter whose significance, I hope, will become clearer during the course of this talk.

Secondly, I would have most likely told you that the link between universities and democracy is contingent, which means it depends on the constellation of social, political, economic and historical factors, implying correlation more than a causation.

Last, and not least importantly, I would have told you that, in some cases, the link is not even there; universities can and do exist alongside regimes that cannot be described as democratic even if we extended the term in the most charitable way possible.

In fact, when I first came to CEU as a research fellow in 2010, it was in order to look more deeply into this framing of the relationship between universities and democracy. At the time, in much of public policy and in particular in international development discourse, education was seen as an instrument for promoting democracy, peace, and sustainable prosperity – especially in the context of post-conflict reconciliation. The more of it, thus, the better. This was the consensus I wanted to challenge. Now, while most universities subscribe to values of peace and democracy at least on paper, only a few were ever founded with the explicit aim to promote them. In that sense, I came to the very belly of the beast, but in the best possible sense. CEU proved immensely valuable, both in terms of research I did here and at the Open Society Archives, as well as discussions with colleagues and students: all of this fed into From Class to Identity, which was published in 2014.

For better or worse, the case I settled on – former Yugoslavia – lent itself rather fortuitously to questioning the relationship between education and values we usually associate with democracy. In Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which was, it bears remembering, a one-party state) higher education attainment kept rising steadily (in fact, at a certain period of time, in exact opposition to governmental policies, which aimed to reduce enrollment to universities) up until its dissolution and subsequent violent conflict.

The political landscape of its successor states today may be more variegated (Slovenia and Croatia are EU members, the semblance of a peaceful order in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia is maintained through heavy investment and involvement of the international community, and Serbia and to a perhaps lesser extent Montenegro are effectively authoritarian fiefdoms), but what they share across the board is both growing levels of educational attainment and an expanding higher education sector. In other words, both the number of people who have, or are in the process of obtaining, higher education, and the number of higher education institutions in total, are growing. This, I thought, goes some way towards proving that the link between universities and democracy is contingent and dependent on a number of political factors, rather than necessary.

Under attack?

Would I say the same thing today? Today, universities and those within them increasingly find it necessary to justify their existence, not only in response to challenges to autonomy, academic freedom, and, after all, the basic human rights of academics, such as those happening in Turkey (as we will hear in much more detail during this conference) or here in Hungary, but also in relation to the broader challenges related to the declining public funding of higher education and research. Last, but not least, the election of President Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the UK have by many been taken as portents of the decline of epistemic foundations of liberal democratic order, reflected in denouncement of the ‘rule of experts’ and phenomena such as ‘fake news’ or the ‘post-truth’ landscape. In this context, it becomes all the more attractive to resort to justifications of universities’ existence by appeal to their contribution to democracy, civil society, and sustainable prosperity.

Universities and democracy: drop the mic

I will argue that this urge needs to be resisted. I will argue that focusing on the purposes of university framed in this way legitimises the very processes of valorisation – that is, the creation of value – that thrive on competition, and whose logical end are inflated claims of the sort, to paraphrase you-know-who, “we have all the best educations”.

In doing this, we forgo exactly the fine-grained detail that disciplines including but limited to sociology and social anthropology should pay attention to. Put bluntly, we forget the relevance of the social context for making universities what they are. For this, we need to ask not what universities (ideally) aim to achieve, but rather, what is it that universities do, what they can do, but also, importantly, what can be done with them.

Shifting the focus from purposes to uses is not the case, as Latour may have put it, of betraying matters of concern in order to boast about matters of fact. It is, however, to draw attention to the fact that the relationship between universities and democracy is, to borrow another expression from Latour, a factish: both real and fabricated, that is, a social construct but with very real consequences – neither a fact nor a fetish, but an always not-fully-reconciled amalgam of the two. Keeping this in mind, I think, can allow us to think about different roles of universities without losing sight neither of their reality, nor of their constructed nature.

Correlation or causation?

Let me give you just two examples. In the period leading up to as well as in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US elections, much has been made of the difference in education levels of voters for respective candidates, leading some pundits to pronounce that the ‘university educated are voting for Clinton’, that the ‘single most pronounced difference in voter preference is college education’. That is, until someone bothered to break down the data a bit differently, which showed that 44% those with a college degree voted for Trump. Within this group, the most pronounced distinction is being white or not. In other words: it’s the race, stupid – possibly just about the most salient distinction in the US today.

 

Voterswcollegedegreesvrace

The other example is from a very recent study that looked at the relationship longitudinal data concerning outgoing student mobility from former Soviet countries, and levels of attained democracy. It concluded that “…Cross-sectional data on student mobility and attained democracy shows that former Soviet countries with higher proportions of students studying in Europe have achieved higher levels of democratic development. In contrast, countries with higher proportions of students studying in the most popular, authoritarian destination – the Russian Federation – have reached significantly lower levels of democratic development. This suggests that internationalisation of European HE can offer the potential of facilitating democratic socialisation, especially in environments where large proportions of students from less-democratic countries study in a democratic context for an extended period of time”.

Now, this is the sort of research that makes for catchy one-liners, such as “studying in the EU helps democracy”; it makes you feel good about what you do – well, it certainly makes me feel good about what I do, and, perhaps, if you are from one of the countries mentioned in the study and you are studying in the EU (as you most likely are) it makes you feel good about that. It’s also the sort of research that funders love to hear about. The problem is, it doesn’t tell us anything we actually need to know.

It’s a bit too early to look at the data, but how about the following: both the “level of attained democracy” and “proportion of students studying in the EU” are a function of a different factor, one that has to do with the history of international relations, centre-periphery relationships, and, in particular, international political economy. Thus, for instance, countries that are traditionally more dependent on EU aid are quicker to “democratize” – that is, fall outside of the Russian sphere of influence – which is aided by cultural diplomacy (whose effects are reflected in language fluency, aptitude, and, at the end of the day, framing of studying in the EU as a desirable life- and career choice), visa regimes, and the availability of country- or region-specific scholarships. All of which is a rather long way of saying what this graph achieves much more succinctly, which is that correlation does not imply causation.

 

dicapriocorrelations

 

Sociology and anthropology are particularly good at unraveling knots of multiple and overlapping processes, but history, political science and (critical) public policy analysis are necessary too. It’s not about shunning quantitative data (something our disciplines are sometimes prone to doing) but being able to look behind it, at the myriad interactions that take place in the fabric of everyday life: sometimes visibly in, but sometimes away from the political arena. However, this sort of research does not easy clickbait make.

What universities can do: making communities

In the rest of my talk, I want to focus on the one thing that universities can and do do, the one thing they are really good at doing. That is, creating communities. Fostering a sense of belonging. Forging relationships. Making lasting networks.

If you think that this is an unequivocally good thing, may I remind you that (a) this is a university-fostered community, but (b) this is also a university-fostered community. (For those of you unfamiliar with the British political landscape, the latter is the Bullingdon club, an Oxford University-based exclusive society whose former members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson). In other words, community-building can be both good and bad thing: it always means inclusion as well as exclusion. Universities provide a sense of “us”, a sense of who belongs, including to the elite who run the country. They help order and classify people – in theory, according to their aptitude and ambition, but in practice, as we know, all to often according to a host of other factors, including class, gender and race.

The origin of their name, universitas, reflects this ambition to be all-encompassing, to signify a totality, despite the fact that the way totality is signified has over time shifted from indexicality to representation: that is, from the idea that universities project what a collectivity is supposed to be about – for instance, define the literary language and canon, structure of professions, and delineate the criteria of truth and scientific knowledge – to the idea that they reflect the composition of the collectivity, for example, the student body representing the diversity of the general population.

This is why universities experienced a veritable boom in the 19th century, in the period of forging of nation-states, and why they are of persistent interest to them: because they define the boundaries of the community. This is why universities, at best a collective name for a bunch of different institutional traditions, became part of ‘higher (or ‘tertiary’) education’, a rationally, hierarchically ordered system of qualifications integrated into a state-administered context. This is why being able to quantify and compare these qualifications – through rankings, league tables, productivity and performance measurement – is so important to nation-states. It becomes ever more important whenever they feel their grip is slipping, either due to influences of globalisation and internationalisation or for other, more local reasons – such as when a university does not sit easily with the notion of a community projected by the political elite of a nation-state, as in the case of CEU in Hungary.

On the other hand, this is why universities police their boundaries so diligently, and insist on having authority over who gets in and who stays out. In fact, the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy were explicitly devised in order to protect universities’ right to exercise final judgment over such decisions. Last, but not least, this is why societal divisions and conflicts, both nascent and actual, are always felt so viscerally at universities, often years in advance of other parts of society. Examples vary from struggles over identity politics on campus, to broader acts of political positioning related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance.

This brings me to my final point. The biggest challenge universities face today is how to go on with this function of community-building in the context of disagreement, especially when disagreement includes things as fundamental as the very notion of truth, for instance, as with those who question the reality of climate change. Who do universities reflect and represent in this case? How do we reconcile the need to be democratic – that is, reflect a broad range of positions and opinions – with democracy, that is, with the conditions necessary for such a conversation to endure in the first place? These are some of the questions we need to be asking before we resort to claims concerning the necessity of the relationship between universities and democracy, or universities and anything else, for that matter.

Incidentally, this is one of the things Central European University has always been particularly good at: teaching people how to go about disagreeing in ways that allow everyone to learn from each other. I don’t know if any of you remember the time when the university mailing list was open to everyone, but I think conversations there provided a good example of how to how to discuss differing ideas and political stances in a way that furthers everyone’s engagement with their political community; teaching at CEU has always aspired to do the same.

That is a purpose worth defending. This is a purpose that carries forth the tradition not only the man who this room was named after, Karl Popper, but also, and perhaps more, a philosopher who was particularly concerned with the relationship between modes of knowledge production and the creation of communities: Hannah Arendt. Thus, it is with a quote from Arendt’s Truth and politics (1967) that I would like to end with.

 

“Outstanding among the existential modes of truth-telling are the solitude of the philosopher, the isolation of the scientist and the artist, the impartiality of the historian and the judge (…) These modes of being alone differ in many respects, but they have in common that as long as any one of them lasts, no political commitment, no adherence to a cause, is possible. (…) From this perspective, we remain unaware of the actual content of political life – of the joy and the gratification that arise out of being in company with our peers, out of acting together and appearing in public, out of inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed, thus acquiring and sustaining our personal identity and beginning something entirely new. However, what I meant to show here is that this whole sphere, its greatness notwithstanding, is limited – it does not encompass the whole of man’s and the world s existence. It is limited by those things which men cannot change at will.

And it is only by respecting its own borders that this realm, where we are free to act and to change, can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises. Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”

 

Thank you for your attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zygmunt Bauman and the sociologies of end times

[This post was originally published at the Sociological Review blog’s Special Issue on Zygmunt Bauman, 13 April 2017]

“Morality, as it were, is a functional prerequisite of a world with an in-built finality and irreversibility of choices. Postmodern culture does not know of such a world.”

Zygmunt Bauman, Sociology and postmodernity

Getting reacquainted with Bauman’s 1988 essay “Sociology and postmodernity”, I accidentally misread the first word of this quote as “mortality”. In the context of the writing of this piece, it would be easy to interpret this as a Freudian slip – yet, as slips often do, it betrays a deeper unease. If it is true that morality is a functional prerequisite of a finite world, it is even truer that such a world calls for mortality – the ultimate human experience of irreversibility. In the context of trans- and post-humanism, as well as the growing awareness of the fact that the world, as the place inhabited (and inhabitable) by human beings, can end, what can Bauman teach us about both?

In Sociology and postmodernity, Bauman assumes the position at the crossroads of two historical (social, cultural) periods: modernity and postmodernity. Turning away from the past to look towards the future, he offers thoughts on what a sociology adapted to the study of postmodern condition would be like. Instead of a “postmodern sociology” as a mimetic representation of (even if a pragmatic response to) postmodernity, he argues for a sociology that attempts to give a comprehensive account of the “aggregate of aspects” that cohere into a new, consumer society: the sociology of postmodernity. This form of account eschews the observation of the new as a deterioration, or aberration, of the old, and instead aims to come to terms with the system whose contours Bauman will go on to develop in his later work: the system characterised by a plurality of possible worlds, and not necessarily a way to reconcile them.

The point in time in which he writes lends itself fortuitously to the argument of the essay. Not only did Legislators and interpreters, in which he reframes intellectuals as translators between different cultural worlds, come out a year earlier; the publication of Sociology and postmodernity briefly precedes 1989, the year that will indeed usher a wholly new period in the history of Europe, including in Bauman’s native Poland.

On the one hand, he takes the long view back to post-war Europe, built, as it was, on the legacy of Holocaust as a pathology of modernity, and two approaches to preventing its repetition – market liberalism and political freedoms in the West, and planned economies and more restrictive political regimes in Central and Eastern parts of the subcontinent. On the other, he engages with some of the dilemmas for the study of society that the approaching fall of Berlin Wall and eventual unification of those two hitherto separated worlds was going to open. In this sense, Bauman really has the privilege of a two-facing version of Benjamin’s Angel of History. This probably helped him recognize the false dichotomy of consumer freedom and dictatorship over needs, which, as he stated, was quickly becoming the only imaginable alternative to the system – at least as far as imagination was that of the system itself.

The present point of view is not all too dissimilar from the one in which Bauman was writing. We regularly encounter pronouncements of an end of a whole host of things, among them history, classical distribution of labour, standards of objectivity in reporting, nation-states, even – or so we hope – capitalism itself. While some of Bauman’s fears concerning postmodernity may, from the present perspective, seem overstated or even straightforwardly ridiculous, we are inhabiting a world of many posts – post-liberal, post-truth, post-human. Many think that this calls for a rethinking of how sociology can adapt itself to these new conditions: for instance, in a recent issue of International Sociological Association’s Global Dialogue, Leslie Sklair considers what a new radical sociology, developed in response to the collapse of global capitalism, would be like.

As if sociology and the zeitgeist are involved in some weird pas-de-deux: changes in any domain of life (technology, political regime, legislation) almost instantaneously trigger calls for, if not the invention of new, then a serious reconsideration of old paradigms and approaches to its study.

I would like to suggest that one of the sources of continued appeal of this – which Mike Savage brilliantly summarised as epochal theorising – is not so much the heralding of the new, as the promise that there is an end to the present state of affairs. In order for a new ‘epoch’ to succeed, the old one needs to end. What Bauman warns about in the passage cited at the beginning is that in a world without finality – without death – there can be no morality. In T.S. Eliot’s lines from Burnt Norton: If all time is eternally present, all time is irredeemable. What we may read as Bauman’s fear, therefore, is not that worlds as we know them can (and will) end: it is that, whatever name we give to the present condition, it may go on reproducing itself forever. In other words, it is a vision of the future that looks just like the present, only there is more of it.

Which is worse? It is hard to tell. A rarely discussed side of epochal theorising is that it imagines a world in which social sciences still have a role to play, if nothing else, in providing a theoretical framing or empirically-informed running commentary of its demise, and thus offers salvation from the existential anxiety of the present. The ‘ontological turn’ – from object-oriented ontology, to new materialisms, to post-humanism – reflects, in my view, the same tendency. If objects ‘exist’ in the same way as we do, if matter ‘matters’ in the same way (if not in the same degree) in which, for instance, black lives matter, this provides temporary respite from the confines of our choices. Expanding the concept of agency so as to involve non-human actors may seem more complicated as a model of social change, but at least it absolves humans from the unique burden of historical responsibility – including that for the fate of the world.

Human (re)discovery of the world, thus, conveys less a newfound awareness of the importance of the lived environment, as much as the desire to escape the solitude of thinking about the human (as Dawson also notes, all too human) condition. The fear of relativism that postmodern ‘plurality’ of worlds brought about appears to have been preferable to the possibility that there is, after all, just the one world. If the latter is the case, the only escape from it lies, to borrow from Hamlet, in the country from whose bourn no traveller has ever returned: in other words, in death.

This impasse is perhaps felt strongest in sociology and anthropology because excursions into other worlds have been both the gist of their method and the foundations of their critical potential (including their self-critique, which focused on how these two elements combine in the construction of epistemic authority). The figure of the traveller to other worlds was more pronounced in the case of anthropology, at least at the time when it developed as the study of exotic societies on the fringe of colonial empires, but sociology is no stranger to visitation either: its others, and their worlds, delineated by sometimes less tangible boundaries of class, gender, race, or just epistemic privilege. Bauman was among theorists who recognized the vital importance of this figure in the construction of the foundations of European modernity, and thus also sensitive to its transformations in the context of postmodernity – exemplified, as he argued, in contemporary human’s ambiguous position: between “a perfect tourist” and a “vagabond beyond remedy”.

In this sense, the awareness that every journey has an end can inform the practice of social theory in ways that go beyond the need to pronounce new beginnings. Rather than using eulogies in order to produce more of the same thing – more articles, more commentary, more symposia, more academic prestige – perhaps we can see them as an opportunity to reflect on the always-unfinished trajectory of human existence, including our existence as scholars, and the responsibility that it entails. The challenge, in this case, is to resist the attractive prospect of escaping the current condition by ‘exit’ into another period, or another world – postmodern, post-truth, post-human, whatever – and remember that, no matter how many diverse and wonderful entities they may be populated with, these worlds are also human, all too human. This can serve as a reminder that, as Bauman wrote in his famous essay on heroes and victims of postmodernity, “Our life struggles dissolve, on the contrary, in that unbearable lightness of being. We never know for sure when to laugh and when to cry. And there is hardly a moment in life to say without dark premonitions: ‘I have arrived’”.

What after Brexit? We don’t know, and if we did, we wouldn’t dare say

[This post originally appeared on the Sociological Review blog, Sunday 3rd July, 2016]

In dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

– Bertolt Brecht

Sociologists are notoriously bad at prediction. The collapse of the Soviet Union is a good example – not only did no one (or almost no one) predict it would happen, it also challenged social theory’s dearly-held assumptions about the world order and the ‘nature’ of both socialism and capitalism. When the next big ‘extraneous’ shocks to the Western world – 9/11 and the 2008 economic crisis – hit, we were almost as unprepared: save for a few isolated voices, no one foresaw either the events or the full scale of their consequences.

The victory of the Leave campaign and Britain’s likely exit from the European Union present a similar challenge. Of course, in this case, everyone knew it might happen, but there are surprisingly few ideas of what the consequences will be – not on the short-term political level, where the scenarios seem pretty clear; but in terms of longer-term societal impact – either on the macro- or micro-sociological level.

Of course, anyone but the direst of positivists will be quick to point out sociology does not predict events – it can, at best, aim to explain them retroactively (for example). Public intellectuals have already offered explanations for the referendum result, ranging from the exacerbation of xenophobia due to austerity, to the lack of awareness of what the EU does. However, as Will Davies’ more in-depth analysis suggests, how these come together is far from obvious. While it is important to work on understanding them, the fact that we are at a point of intensified morphogenesis, or multiple critical junctures – means we cannot stand on the side and wait until they unfold.

Methodological debates temporarily aside, I want to argue that one of the things that prevent us from making (informed) predictions is that we’re afraid of what the future might hold. The progressive ethos that permeates the discipline can make it difficult to think of scenarios predicated on a different worldview. A similar bias kept social scientists from realizing that countries seen as examples of real socialism – like the Soviet Union, and particularly former Yugoslavia – could ever fall apart, especially in a violent manner. The starry-eyed assumption that exit from the European Union could be a portent of a new era of progressive politics in the UK is a case in point. As much as I would like to see it happen, we need to seriously consider other possibilities – or, perhaps, that what the future has in stock is beyond our darkest dreams. In the past years, there has been a resurgence of thinking about utopias as critical alternatives to neoliberalism. Together with this, we need to actively start thinking about dystopias – not as a way of succumbing to despair, but as a way of using sociological imagination to understand both societal causes of the trends we’re observing – nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and so on – and our own fear of them.

Clearly, a strong argument against making long-term predictions is the reputational risk – to ourselves and the discipline – this involves. If the failure of Marx’s prediction of the inevitability of capitalism’s collapse is still occasionally brought up as a critique of Marxism, offering longer-term forecasts in the context where social sciences are increasingly held accountable to the public (i.e. policymakers) rightfully seems tricky. But this is where the sociological community has a role to play. Instead of bemoaning the glory of bygone days, we can create spaces from which to consider possible scenarios – even if some of them are bleak. In the final instance, to borrow from Henshel – the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.

Jana Bacevic is a PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She tweets at @jana_bacevic.