Monday, September 23, 2013

No politics on campus and the death of ideals

A recent incident at NCCU sheds light on efforts by those in power to neutralize universities as centers for new thinking and idealism

According to an old saying, the world is a classroom. But that does not mean that actual classrooms do not play a role in developing, shaping, and preparing young minds so they can look to the future with ambition and assurance. It is therefore worrying when schools, education ministries, and government officials seek to discourage students from political activism, as if developing one’s political consciousness were anathema to a well-rounded education.

In the latest incident, National Chengchi University (NCCU) earlier this month barred a group of students from performing a song opposing the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City on the grounds that this constituted taking part in political activism.

Every year, NCCU organizes evening performances to welcome new students to the university. However, before the rehearsals, the group was informed that they could not perform the song “How Are You Gongliao?” (貢寮你好嗎), as it was deemed to involve “anti-nuclear politics.” If they did not change the song, the university said, the group would be barred from performing altogether.

Student Gu Zhen-wei (古振輝) said this was unacceptable, adding that the song addressed environmental issues and had nothing to do with politics. Members of the group decried the event as “scripted” and were furious when organizers accused them of being stubborn by refusing — as others ostensibly had — to select a new song.

On the day of the event, another student expressed his anger by using red spray paint to write the characters “Without freedom of speech, how are we to think independently?” (沒有言論自由,何來獨立思考) next to the door to the gym.

The students have every right to be outraged, as do the many others who constantly feel pressure from above — parents, government officials, professors — to focus on their studies and stay out of trouble. In other words, to avoid politics at all cost, lest they be seen as “troublemakers.”

University is an important period in a person’s life, when one is mature enough to comprehend complex issues yet young enough to still be animated by the precious vitality of idealism. Classrooms and extracurricular activities should serve as venues to confront young minds to the many social and political challenges that beset the nation, and not as sterile environments in which to learn by rote and regurgitate whatever the figures of authority shove down their throats.

Of course, for those in power, it is much better to rule over an ignorant and compliant population, one that does not think freely or know better than to accept whatever is given them from above uncritically. Government officials and corporate leaders — the very same people who are encouraging censorship on campus — desire nothing more than an apolitical, neutralized labor force that will do as told and be too dumb to defy them when their rights are trampled by the rich and powerful. They want good little citizens, little more than automatons, who know what’s best for them, who grow up aware that they must avoid politics. And they cynically regard university campuses not as incubators for ideas and ideals, but rather (with pressure on educators, who themselves are told to stay out of politics) as barriers to prevent the emergence of leaders, thinkers, and revolutionaries, the kind of people who would challenge the very foundations upon which the rich, the powerful and the connected depend for the continuation of their domination.

Just do as you are told, avoid getting into trouble, and you shall prosper (within reason). But you will never transcend the existence of a consumer-subject, for in order to cross that line, one has to become politically aware and involved, willing to take action, and even to be uncomfortable for a while. (Photo by the author)

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