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Institutionalised Apathy

22 Jul 2020

William Leng

Institutionalised Apathy

We can say of Higher Education that it reflects political biases. That it institutionalises aspects of the unwanted past, or hastily breaks down debate over difficult, provocative topics. It is argued that a university should embody that melting pot of peoples and ideas- a system driven by a form of liberal intellectualism. But so often this ideal folds in on itself as contradictions multiply and grow. Clive James wrote that Cambridge students in the 1960s would see George Steiner argue that the ‘Crisis of Western Civilisation had reached a point where it would be better if everybody stopped talking’ whilst others went to hear F. R. Leavis talk about how the crisis of Western Civilisation had been made worse by Steiner. Meanwhile, Raymond Williams captured in Thomas Caryle’s unravelling career ‘…the tragedy of the situation: that a genuine insight, a genuine vision, should be dragged down by the very situation, the very structure of relationships, to which it was opposed…’. The contradictions in both cases reflect the two layers of academic discourse always unavoidably at odds with one another. And this is what higher education attempts to reconcile; to contain the tides of inter-departmental, academically orientated conflict, and downplay the inevitable problems such conflicts provoke against the institution itself. As for the students- the ‘citizens’ of this great nation-state, the ‘university campus’- all manner of problems boil over.

I’m sat in an awkward seminar. A cough here and there breaks an increasingly uncomfortable silence before a question is posed, to be answered by all of us individually around the room. ‘Out of ten, how radical would you say you are?’ God help the first poor soul answering an open-ended question like that. She said five. Wise. Middle ground, can’t go wrong; a bit spineless perhaps? Eight- bloody hell bold one here-, two, three, five… ten. Ten?? Well, they’ve messed up. I had. I had messed up. Even the tutor found it a bit arrogant that I should be promoting the armed revolutionary uprising of workers around the world, whilst wearing the student equivalent of a suit and tie. He presses me to qualify my view. I gush, grow red in the face and blurt out some ominous sentence that would forever mark me down as a complete fraud. ‘I’ll be honest, I just wanted to sound interesting’. Honesty never goes down as well as you’d hoped, and the laughs were immediately cut through- my tutor pounced on the opportunity I had handed to him on a plate. He dived into a well-rehearsed monologue on fashionable politics, populism and the cult of left-wing radicalism amongst students, the reactionary nature of the young in establishing political opinions, the sheepish silence of the vast majority and his own born out story of political self-exploration in a time when to be radical was wrong!

His appeal around the room wavered as a partisan political position took shape. The speech, while capturing some of the better qualities of a self-confessed left-wing radical, was met with a few awkward glares. There is a self-awareness amongst students that politics always punctuates academic debate, especially in history departments. In this instance, in a seminar about radicalism in the United States, it was no surprise we found ourselves camped in the politics of the New Left of the 1960s. And yet, certain students seemed tired, as if rolling their eyes at yet another left-wing intellectual getting their hands in on the past. Anyone would find it difficult to contest the positive impact left-wing radicals of their day had in enacting positive change, or at least in shifting the goalposts of class, race and gender. Finding yourself agreeing in the 21st century with left-wing radicals of the 20th doesn’t suddenly condemn your own political persuasion to some wishful idealised cause. It just shows the progression of history. Ideas once thought radical and dangerous are now so taken for granted that we’ve largely become blind to their continued abuses. So what was going on? When did the left suddenly go out of fashion?

What I had revealed to my tutor as a precursor to his monologue- ‘I just wanted to sound interesting’- perhaps captured some of those students’ most reasonable complaints; indeed a complaint dominant amongst those critics of the left more generally. Such is the left’s tendency to provoke, protest and confront that it ‘over-corrects’, and takes a step too far. Criticism arises over its influence to sensationalise or trivialise, for example, protesting and strike action, where those who participate do so with a kind of blind reactionism, simply following ‘the trend’.

Having experienced the strikes on campus throughout the previous academic year, I’d say these critics are misguided. To be honest, I felt the overwhelming response mirrored that description given by Tom Hayden in the 1960s- ‘institutionalised apathy’. Hayden reasoned that ‘apathy is not simply an attitude; it is a product of social institutions, and of the structure and organization of higher education’. His words chimed with my own inactivity. Walking into campus past the picket lines, clasping several hundred flyers that I had taken out of awkwardness, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I wasn’t out there with them. The shame of it all. Here I was, a walking embodiment of the left-wing, politicised student, complete with my copy of Raymond Williams and a Labour Party pamphlet from 1961, ‘Signposts for the Sixties’ (for my dissertation), walking straight past them and right on into campus to meet up with a friend. My guilt reached fever pitch when, sat drinking a hot chocolate and joking about not having seminars for three weeks, an obscure quote from Hilaire Belloc flashed past my photos as if fate and circumstance were mocking me; ‘No such material cause determined the degradation from which we suffer. It was the deliberate action of men, evil will in a few and apathy of will among the many…’. I really was a hypocritical, trend worshipping, apathetic student wannabe. Not only did I take screenshots of quotes from interesting books, but I was the living embodiment of that critical narrative of the left- idealism faltering in the face of reality. Setting aside his critique of materialist history, Belloc’s words reminded me fervently of the apathy described by Hayden. Apathy, institutionalised or not, seemed a consistent thread in the discourse of student political activism. Clearly, this idea that student culture should be inherently radical and reactionary contradicts a much more prescient reality, embodied by generations of people belonging to the left who remained and remain completely motionless and static at times of political antagonism.

Perhaps then there is cause for right-wing critics to berate left-wing students as an idealised bunch, at best the product of trendsetting and book worshipping. But of course, as became increasingly obvious for Tom Hayden, this only further necessitated action, protest and confrontation, to break through the deadlock that had become symptomatic of an institution and a culture whose silence was deemed itself an embodiment of political subordination. A quick Facebook flyby and a scan of the UCU website seemed to confirm to me that university lecturer strikes had been woefully misrepresented from within the student body itself.

The dispute that led to strike action across university campuses in the academic year 2019/20 didn’t involve students directly- it was essentially between the UCEA and the UCU. Each wave of negotiations had consequential, rather than immediate, influence over the framework of students’ university education. For example, the Four Fights initiative (put together by UCU) tackled pay, workload, equality and casualisation- all aspects specific to staff. Students only became involved because of the knock-on effects a failure to resolve these issues was having/would have on staff’s capacity to effectively teach. Based on this alone, one might argue it was wrong to then place students’ education on the bargaining table in the case of strike action.

Indeed, a large portion of the affected student body complained that lecturers had prioritised their interests over their students'. Many were frustrated that we were forced to pay £9250 for a service we were not receiving. It was equally exasperating that lecturers persisted with a form of protest that, over at least three years, had seemingly failed to make any difference- maybe it’s time they considered a new approach. These frustrations, rightly at the forefront of students’ concerns, shows Hayden’s ‘institutionalised apathy’ in action. The commodification of university education- the taking for granted that the university should be, inherently, organised as a business- serves to render the very act of protesting and striking as unreasonable, unfair, and ultimately most damaging to students themselves. In expressing indifference or perhaps even disdain towards their striking lecturers, students only sought, rightly or not, to put themselves and their education at the forefront of the debate- but in doing so legitimised the case put forward by the university in the last instance. Taking this kind of stance, whilst completely understandable, forced the debate into a corner from which staff and lecturers were unhelpfully held to ransom.

Meanwhile, those that took action- and broke the deadlock- instigated that positive process which forces people to confront the problems of others, realise their own necessitated involvement, help highlight the problems and, ultimately, make decisive progress. It is not true that strike action is a futile gesture, nor is it fair to expect any employee to passively accept the erosion of their wages with below-inflation pay cuts, the failed resolution or even addressing of the issue of pay inequality, or the woeful mismanagement of workload because of incompatible employment contracts. It was only because of the strikes that any progress in these areas was achieved- ‘What really matters… is the power which you give us through your withdrawal of your labour. It shouldn’t be this way but sadly strike action is what moves our employers, and it is continuing to affect them’. But of course, these resolutions, the progress being made, and the continued process of negotiation have been undercut by a narrative which only focuses on strike action as a superficial, reactionary product of ‘left-wing’ culture- of which any students that show solidarity or support are unfairly described as belonging. How the news so often presents protests and strikes appears to have become engrained in the popular student psyche. As Stuart Hall said ‘…news tends to concentrate mainly on the most dramatic and violent aspects of confrontation rather than on long term causes or consequences. All strikers are militants, all strikers are irrational, every picket line is violent, whereas every settlement looks like a victory for common sense because its represented as in the national interest’. Switch out ‘news/apathy’ and ‘national/student’ and such a synopsis becomes just as relevant in the here and now as it did in the 1980s.

Returning to my seminar a few weeks after the first set of strikes, we came onto the topic of Tom Haydn. My tutor’s conclusion drew on contemporary parallels, in a slightly uncomfortable but no less important comparison to his actions standing out on the picket lines just a few days before. I was impressed how in his tone and his body language, sat down square with both hands clasped together resting on the table close in front of him, he took time to gauge the room. About seven of us had actually turned up, in a class of 15, and for him, and us, the idea of institutionalised apathy had been brought to bear plain as day. But some other nuances and criticisms bounced around in healthy discussion. The most significant of these was the idea of privilege, and the weight of responsibility passed on to us as a new generation. It was up to us not to fall into the pitfalls of those who came before, demarcating the left and right, contributing in part to that criticism brought to bear in my own words, ‘just trying to sound interesting’ rather than doing something positive. Despite the more optimistic outlook, Hayden’s words still upheld a pessimistic realism. Taking away a new-found impetus to engage, I no less had to confront the reality out in front of me. It might be a cliché, but it’s a damn good quote; ‘We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit’.