I’ve just been chatting to a group of student protestors from the Occupy Warwick camp and came away feeling buoyed up by the calm, intelligent commitment of many of our students. We talked about public space, the deligitimisation of public citizenship, activist tactics and much else. While I got to sit in the “status” seat — they were just pallets, but position is everything! — and I while I talked solo for the first ten minutes, after that it was a genuinely open discussion, with the students challenging me and each other, thinking about points raised, giving me ideas. It was what I want all my seminars to be like.

That got me thinking about why seminars are not usually like that. They tend to be a bit more stilted, a bit more ‘plodding through the material.’ Here are a couple of thoughts.

  1. The Occupy Warwick people have created a space that is focused on their agenda, not academics. It was not about “the exam”, it was not about Home Office-mandated “monitoring points”, it was their space to discuss and learn their stuff, and anyone was welcome to pop in. No-one paid a fee to be there.
  2. Classrooms send too many signals of “me teacher, you ignorant drop-kick”. All sitting around in a tent freezing our arses off together minimised that. So too, however, would some nice comfy couches, some heating and a coffee machine. I’m not recommending we do all our teaching in tents, but too much teaching room design is simply Dickensian.

So, while I felt tremendously cheered by a fine bunch of young people, I then got slightly depressed about my university’s predictably uncomprehending approach to this kind of thing. OK, they are not UC Davis, not by a long stretch. But when the Deputy Registrar tries to ask the students to shut it down because the extra security they have had to hire needs to be diverted for the staff Christmas party, you have to wonder about management’s priorities. Cake and party poppers good; free deliberative spaces not good. In a university. Right.

Universities try to promote themselves as essential in a democracy, because they promote free thinking, creativity, probing and inquiry. They try to justify their use of public money on that basis. But they then tell people that such thinking needs to be done on the university’s terms alone, put up “private property” signs and charge big fees for the privilege. Academics play into this intellectual authority game in so many ways.

We are a long, long way from the days when universities were fairly anarchic places — sometimes with student control, sometimes self-managing scholarly communities — and there are many reasons to be thankful that that is the case. But many universities at present are trying to have their cake and eat it too, trying to present themselves as essential public spaces for free inquiry, while quashing unsanctioned attempts at doing that very thing.

That is to be resisted. Hooray for Occupy Warwick. Hooray for Occupy.

For more thoughts on democracy and public space, check out my book coming out next month.

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