Anti-university

Bangkok University // WikiCommons

The anti-university produces docile people who stay inside the box. The anti-university destroys the individuality of its students. There is no university anywhere in the world that calls the police to arrest its own students simply because they think differently. The anti-university does not protect students or professors who are persecuted by state power.

In a society rich in intellect, the university is a source of evolved knowledge, higher education and the ethical ideal. In a society bereft of intellect, the anti-university is a desert void of knowledge, education and ethics, an instrument of power that produces the kind of citizens desired by Big Brother.

Evolved knowledge refers to the continuous search for knowledge that changes in line with the transformation of society and the world. Not infrequently, the university should blaze or illuminate the path of this transformation. The search for new knowledge necessarily challenges existing thought and must promote thinking outside the box.

There must be freedom of expression and respect for different opinions in order to promote thinking outside the box. This includes voicing objection to people who insult those who think differently than they do. Universities in societies rich in intellect are replete with diversity of thought because students and scholars dare to think, take chances and express themselves according to their potential. Universities in such societies are not clogged with restrictions on thought. This is because thinking is not a crime and, further, universities in these societies put measures in place to protect freedom of thought and expression. They do not permit the restriction of thought or the creation of fear to limit expression. For example, they prohibit the punishment or firing of a person on the basis of what they think.

These fundamental ideals form the bedrock of universities in societies rich in intellect the world over.

Higher education cultivates members of subsequent generations to become knowing subjects. They possess the knowledge and thoughtfulness to select and discern how to use information appropriately in the service of themselves and others. They do not only acquire a package of technical knowledge that instructs them to unquestioningly follow a pre-existing example or their teachers; they learn how to do more than act as if unable to adapt or think for themselves and replicate what has been done before.

The cultivation and training of these people must be built on broad, rather than narrow, knowledge. This will allow them to become acquainted with the act of choosing and aware of how to adapt in line with necessity. Therefore, the university must not produce parochial or pliant people who merely follow orders. They must be open-minded with respect to difference, so they can come to know and coexist with people who are different from them. This will make it possible for them to have civil relations and an awareness of how they affect others.

Higher education in this vein is therefore not an unconscious matter or a rite or a rigid belief that forces students to be followers while forbidding them using their minds. Transgression and the breaking of the box must be permitted. The unconventional must be permitted. Disagreement — and thinking that challenges old beliefs — must be permitted. Students must not be forced into conformity. Universities in societies rich in intellect therefore must allow students to dare to test boundaries. They are at the stage of education in which they must both dare to experiment and take responsibility for any harm caused to others. Universities in societies rich in intellect are laboratories that create limited harm and vast benefits.

The ethical ideal means that the university community must be built on principles, and professional and academic ethics must be the norm. The university must not sway in line with powerful interests or take political sides. Students and staff may of course choose a side, but the university must stand firm in its accommodation of political diversity. The university must not allow itself to vacillate motivated by bias, hatred, malice or vanity.

Universities in societies rich in intellect are therefore not only places that provide education and new knowledge but should also serve as beacons for society. The duty of a beacon is to stand alone amid the darkness of a swiftly moving sea. Universities must illuminate the path in times of darkness, so that those who lack knowledge can see the central point towards which they should walk.

The prestige of the world’s leading universities does not arise solely from their capacity to produce graduates to supply the market. This is part of it. But it also comes from steadfast adherence to the mission of the ideal of the university accumulated over many generations, described above, no matter the obstacles.

The anti-university in a society bereft of intellect is the opposite of the university in a society rich in intellect, in every sense. First, it is a desert that causes intellect and knowledge to dry up. Instead of the promotion of new knowledge, there is only the drumming of blind faith into society. As a bonus, fear of the development of new and challenging thought and knowledge is created. Therefore, the anti-university must construct restrictions that make existing freedoms wither and disappear. Anyone who pushes aside the box must be driven out from the anti-university.

Second, the anti-university aims to produce students who are followers unable to exercise reasoned judgement, who can think only narrowly and in the short term. It trains the next generations to be obedient and afraid of using their brains in the face of power. Simultaneously, it instructs them to be power-hungry and to exercise power over those in the lower classes. The anti-university produces humans who fear change. They fear people who think differently, and they fear their own possible difference.

Third, the anti-university is without principles and does not act as a beacon. The anti-university is simply an instrument of the ruling class. The anti-university sings its own praises excessively and tricks itself so fully that it mistakes a coconut shell for the universe.*

This is not the biased rant of someone motivated by fury, but rather a consideration of how society and the university are bound to one another. They are bound together in the building of new knowledge, freedom and diversity, in the nurturing and instruction of a population strong enough to face the danger posed by the manufacture of narrow people who blindly follow power. This is why the principles, ethics and functions that constitute the ideals of the university are of primary importance.

I think nearly all universities in Thailand have become bankrupt to the degree that they are now anti-universities. They have disintegrated in terms of social ethics and have become instruments to prop up a society bereft of intellect. This has led to the decline and crippling of the education system and of society as a whole. Some universities may still be able to reinvigorate themselves in terms of education. Only a few institutions, and a few departments, that have a reputation for their intellectual work remain.

My view is that Thammasat University became an anti-university many years ago in terms of knowledge, education and ethics. But the loss of another good scholar [Somsak Jeamteerasakul], on Monday 23 February 2015 cast the ruins of what used to be the university in sharp relief.

To all of the wise people in universities: we must reconsider whether we will allow the university to remain in ruins or whether it is time for us to work together to salvage and revive it. We must decouple ourselves from the anti-university.

Universities must protect academics and students who dare to break the mould and to oppose and challenge the powerful. This alone would create an opening for a great deal more freedom in universities and in society. This opening would allow a diversity of intellect to blossom once again.

To those university administrators who wish to rise in other circles: please go. Do not treat the university simply as a rung to climb — doing so will bleed it to near-death.

*“A frog in a coconut shell” is a well-known Thai proverb about a frog who believes there is nothing beyond the coconut shell under which he lives. He thinks he knows a great deal but actually knows very little.

Thongchai Winichakul is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Developing Economies (IDE-JETRO) in Japan. This article was originally written in Thai. Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn

January 23, 2019
March 17, 2019

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