Friday, November 19, 2010

Polytechnic Day: Higher Education and Democracy

I am slightly off topic here, as this post relates more to Universities role in society, rather than their future per so. I hope you'll forgive these occasional transgressions.

This week (November 17th)  marked Polytechnic Day. On this day in 1973 the Greek Military junta moved to put down a student revolt on the campus of the Athens Polytechnic. The bloody events mark the start of a chain of events that eventually brought the military junta down and restored Democracy to Greece.

If you say 'Student' in a word association game, chances are you'll think 'protest' or 'riot'. It's true. As recent fees protests in Ireland and the UK remind us, students are often the first to the barracades in any civil dispute. It's a long and proud legacy, and while I might disagree with them on the issues from time to time, they keep our leaders on their toes and provide a vital warning tone that all is not well. But this is a credit to the young, not to their Universities.

There is an idea doing the rounds that Universities are a vital keystone of democracy. Frankly, I think this is nonsense. We've had universities in Europe for almost a millennium, and it is only in the last century that we've had any substantial number of democracies worthy of the name. Meanwhile, Universities tricked on (admittedly, only barely) in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and all manner of other less remarkable thugocracies. Only in Maoist China and Pol Pot's Kampuchea left nothing standing high enough for Universities and their graduates to cower behind.

Universities are fundamentally conservative organisations. They cannot exist without the approval of the state, which recognises their degrees and allows them to operate. Their graduates are usually professionals who work in the existing system and are invested in it. They have no interest in change, and often find themselves first against the wall when the revolution comes, as symbols of the old order. In their time, Universities have been seen as bastions of Christianity, Upholders of True Communism, Faithful pillars of the Aristocracy, or whatever the prevailing nonsense of the day was. To present them as upholders of Democracy is nonsense, they simply tack to the wind.

That the tides of tertiary education and democracy have risen in tandem in the 20th century is correlation, not causation. Both are tied to a deeper increase in wealth and the rise of the middle classes. It's these middle classes who send their children to University, and can afford to. It's these same middle classes who, once they they have something to lose, withdraw their tacit support for autocractic regimes and press for a transition to democracy and rule of law. Where Universities find an inadvertent role is that they bring the youth of these middle classes together in the cities, where they can meet and organise. Poor democracies, like India, are remarkable exceptions, but it is only now, as it's middle class expands, that more Indians are getting to Higher Education.

It is true that Universities can promote social mobility, but often that is as an ideal, rather than the reality. Recent news reports in Ireland, (neatly summarised by Eoin O'Dell over at remind us that even here, the land of saints and scholars, that ideal is often unrealised. It is true that universities can provide a refuge for truth in the face of tyranny, but often not for long. The pen is mightier than the sword, but swords make a very convincing and immediate argument for compliance.

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