In my youth, I obediently followed the rules and repeated what I was taught. I was a pet to authority, and would reject that cage if I was given another chance.
Education put me in classrooms, made me ask permission before speaking, and made me compete with my friends to see who could produce the best low-grade bureaucratic output. Deviation was discouraged with threats of a dismal future.
I was told at my UK university graduation ceremony that my class had been educated to become critical thinkers and innovators. As far as I could tell, we were conditioned to regurgitate the literature, even if those ideas were unjust, incomplete or false.
We, excellent students, had been trained to excel in repetition and obedience.
Our universities are staffed by many of the best and brightest rule followers. They teach us how to think outside the box, but they also helped invent the box and often guard it fiercely.
Alongside the progressive ideals of intellectual romanticism, is the mundane fact that academic disciplines rely on an inherently conservative practice: writing books and papers for a small group of people who read the same kinds of books and papers. Mastering your discipline is typically synonymous with getting approval from a self-referential, intellectual bubble.
The conservative tendency of this practice is compounded by exams and testing which reinforce top-down forms of information ‘exchange’. Exams, careerism and rankings make it practically useless to go beyond course materials, thus ensuring the lid is kept firmly on the box.
I wonder how many students realise that the ‘critical’ debates in their courses are often just a theatre between progressive and conservative mainstream opinions. These debates seldom touch on fundamental issues with scientific practice, EU failures, US imperialism, the global oligarchy, or the deep relationship between capitalism and climate change. They provide little challenge to unsustainable ways of thinking and acting in our societies.
The premise underlying these debates is that global issues can be resolved within contemporary science, institutional arrangements and power structures. This is internalised by excellent students who get good grades, pursue career goals, learn from authorities and master their disciplines.
There is something unethical and counterproductive about this situation.
We know that we need to urgently transition to a new society with a sustainable future.
It does not help to teach obedience to ways of thinking and acting that support an unsustainable civilisation. It does not help to make students dependent on the dying relics of contemporary practice.
We should, instead, work with our students to critically and fundamentally evaluate our civilisation and sciences. We will all be better off when we live up to the romantic promise of using education and research to create a brighter future for all life on earth.
Constantijn van Aartsen, postdoc at the Faculty of Law