How to be a quiet idealist
At the end of term we have seen a crescendo of student activity and protest. Comment co-editor Lawrence Dunn reflects
by Lawrence Dunn
Wednesday 21st March 2012, 15:54 GMT
I don’t think I expected Owen Holland to be sent down. I think I expected some fine to be levied, which seemed to be the precedent. Such a thing would have been manageable, though, of course I don’t think that peaceful protest (however forceful) should be punished. In any case, I never got round to signing the ‘Spartacus’ letter (the letter asking for collective, rather than individual punishment), though gladly would have done. I was in the room, after all. It’s a bit late now, sad to say.
Amongst all the noise—the shouts of solidarity, calls for justice, newspaper inches, and the resurrection of the ‘Willetts thing’ (as it was so fondly called at the end of last term) and all its appended arguments—it is easy to forget that we are talking about a real individual person, whose appeal has yet to be conducted.
The need for outrage, and the need for pressure to be exerted on the University authorities is great. But similarly, the need for the legal team to get on with their work, without being hounded by the press, is important too. All of us noisy undergraduates are, in any case, going home (or else retreating into our respective libraries). Such junctures are apt for reflection.
I wonder, then, what it would be like to be at a university where individual student protestors, involved in collective actions, were not made scapegoats for seemingly political reasons. Where the most elite student debating society perhaps was prepared to take the issue of sexual abuse seriously, and not have to bundle a senior French politician (who is still under investigation) through the attached pizza restaurant and into a waiting police-car-for-hire.
Where the recently elected Chancellor was not a multimillionaire owner of an enormous national corporation, as apparently all serious leaders in public life are to be these days. Where the conviction of a don for sexual abuse and storing sexually explicit pictures of children was taken seriously and not brushed under the carpet.
Where, maybe, the University Students’ Union might have enough resources—including, let us hope, a building for undergraduates—to do its job as well as it can. Where we had a student body who fully realised their potential (and responsibility) to make a better futures; that all students are, in all countries, the flashpoint of progressive change; that we needn’t parrot our parents’ and parents generation’s tired and interest-conflicted arguments.
A university where, frankly, I wouldn’t feel part of the machine for renewing the British elite. A machine mostly responsible for the dire condition of the present elite, the complacency and class-conflict latent within. I would like to see the gradual death of ‘banter’, of colour-coordinated bow-ties, of going ‘on the lash’, of self-important posturing in tuxedos.
A university like this is really a sign, a signal for what we might wish the country to be at large. Or, perhaps more accurately, what the current and future elite would like it to be, or else, is prepared to tolerate. Now we are here, all of us (and some more than others, no doubt) are part of that elite, whether we want to be or not. I don’t want Lord Sainsbury, or DSK, thanks very much; and while we’re naming names, I’ll say I’m not so keen on Sir Richard Dearlove either (master, Pembroke, ex-head of MI6). But such figures are, if we are frank with ourselves, the price (or the prize, depending on one’s perspective) for being at an elite university.
Either one puts up with such people, or one makes a noise about them. Sadly, to make things better we might have to get our hands dirty—be prepared to be arrested, say. The kind of audacity required to make us think that we could make something better through individual action—an audacity that is often angry, sometimes pretentious, futile, tearful, but unrelenting—this is in short supply. I don’t have it; few that I know do. But those who do not have it often are to be found frowning (or cheering) from the sidelines and arguing self-
importantly amongst themselves.
I do not believe—as, so often it would seem that most other students do—that solidarity is the enemy of individuality. To have solidarity is not to conform—rather it is to make an individual choice, often a moral choice. This much might amount to quiet idealism; but that can’t be something to be ashamed of.
We are, today, engaged in an fight. It might be easy for some students here to forget that, but the nature of many of our public services (our universities, libraries, health and benefit provision etc.) is being swiftly, and without much fanfare, turned upside-down. We ignore such things—or drown each other out, standing at the sidelines—at our peril.
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