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					Academic Engagement in
Politics: Reflections from an Irish
Perspective
Or….‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’


 Dr. John Barry
 Queen‟s University Belfast
 Northern Ireland
Educate, Agitate,
Organise
 Rallying cry of progressive, left,
  libertarian and anarchist groups for
  over a century

 Slogan of the ‘Industrial Worker’s of the
   World’ (IWW) Union, (known as the
   ‘Wobblies’) circa 1910.
But first…A word from one
of our sponsors….
 “Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men
    who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without
    thunder and lightning.... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It
    never has and never will”. Frederick Douglass, freed slave and anti-
    slavery campaigner (1857)

 What is the role of the academic, the „public intellectual in such contexts of
   political struggle and activism?

 Knowledge (is) power (leads to) responsibility

 How does my daytime job relate to my evening and weekend work?

 And vice versa?

 „Academic‟ as in „its just academic‟ – irrelevant, pastime – hobby, interesting
    but useless
Teaching and Research
 Academic political activism and dangers of abusing one‟s position in context of
    teaching
 Begin from a view of my job as to teach and hopefully produce, critical, and
    hopefully engaged, citizens

 „Teaching politics, politically‟ i.e. through free debate and argument, to give students
     the tools and experience and exercise to develop their own ideas, challenge mine

 Not to produce, in the words of the former Vice Chancellor of my university, „Oven
    ready graduates‟, ready to be slotted into the labour market.

 Success is NOT that all my student think, act, vote „Green‟ but WHATEVER political
    position they take on this issue is one the is informed and reasoned, not
    unreflective

 What is a university education for? Is it a business? A play of „skills dissemination‟?
   Or the latter plus a training ground for citizenship and individual political, social and
   personal development?
Teaching and Research
Problems of being seen as too „partisan‟, „ideological‟ and therefore
   losing that most conventionally prized virtues of the academic –
   „neutrality‟, „objectivity‟

But… the unbiased listener is deaf – issue is contestation of ideas,
  values not abandoning of one‟s values and perspectives

Academic peer review process (properly done)– very useful and
  important „quality control‟ on minimising purely ideologically biased
  research

but equally importantly helps protect one‟s status as an academic
   from charges that one‟s academic work is „corrupted‟ by one‟s
   activism

Political activism can help improve one‟s scholarly work – do we think
   less of JS Mill‟s work because he agitated for women‟s rights, but
   what of Heidegger‟s work and his connection with the Nazis?

In relation to many aspects of teaching sustainability politics or green
    politics, the outside world within which students live is already
    ideologically loaded, so critiques of dominant knowledge/power
Northern Irish Context
 Northern Ireland political context – post-conflict, ethno-nationalist dynamics,
    consociational settlement
 Often for first years that I teach, it‟s the first time a „Catholic/nationalist‟ has
    sat beside a „Protestant/unionist‟
 Accents matter
 University as a non-engaged actor politically – a „safe haven‟ from the
    surrounding conflict
 You cannot ignore the political context…but of course most of the time it is
    ignored
 Pedagogic reasons for using/referring to the political conflict/settlement – like
    references to popular culture (using The Sopranos to explain aspects of
    Machiavelli), the conflict, peace process/settlement is a way to may the
    abstract real for students
 Small size of Northern Ireland – a village, everyone knows one another – one
    cannot hide one‟s public political activism, so best to simply be honest
    and open about it
Some personal reflections
 On one hand, being an academic is not good for a „conventional‟
   political career – we‟re not dogmatic enough! Everything is
   provisional, and needs to be qualified and as academics we tend
   to be interested in the complicated not the simple, and we tend not
   to like to toe „party lines‟ arbitrarily!
 Hard lesson I learnt in relation to press releases – remove the
   footnotes!!
 But also, as an academic I am unusual as a politician in that on the
   basis of new evidence or argument I am willing to change my
   view, and also to acknowledge the virtues (few as they are!) in the
   views of my opponents
 And also, in part as an academic, I „play the ball, not the player‟, keep
   the debate/argument focused on the issue not the person
Past struggles for justice
and social change
What we‟re struggling
 against…?



What are we struggling
 for?
OK, so what does it mean
Educate…
1. Problem of ignorance…
„The unexamined life is not worth living‟ Socrates
(Most) people don‟t willfully seek to destroy the
  planet and exploit and harm other people
2. Issue of structures and individual and
  collective action and behaviour – state, market,
  mainstream culture etc.
3. Leads to problem of mindlessness…
Example of „mindless consumption‟
Educate…
4. Ignorance, apathy and elite dominance…
Crisis of democratic politics –
   a. decline in voting, participation in politics
   b. eclipse of being a „citizen‟ by „consumer‟ identity
   e.g. of US President Bush‟s urge to Americans post
        9/11 to „go to the malls‟
   c. consumer society – a betrayal of the Republic? Of
   democracy?
Issue is achieving balance between consumerism and
   democratic citizenship
Remembering that democracy DOES NOT require
   consumerism or excessive material affluence
Agitate…

 Critique of the current „new world order‟
 Free your mind …
 And have fun while doing it!

 Role/ responsibility of academics in giving
  students/citizens the critical skills,
  education, tools to know how to be
  politically active
From adbusters.com
Pop a pill for every ill…

More profit in illness,
  stress, mental illness
  than health and well-
  being…

TV, advertising, marketing
  etc. is a significant part
  of the political
  environment in which we
  live and operate…so get
  to know it!
Lessons from the Zapatistas
– know your environment!
Organise…
 Individual action alone insufficient
 Danger of „lifestyle politics‟ – consuming green products
    WILL NOT create a sustainable and just society
 Necessary but not sufficient
 Also, there is no „one size fits all‟ model of a just,
    sustainable society, value of pluralism
 Need to organise politically and act collectively
 Individual action alone will not change state or corporate
    behaviour and policies
 Non-violent direct action as a strategy… this is what
    democracy looks like….
This is what democracy
looks like….
Conclusion
 Academic engagement in politics – obligatory or
   voluntary?
 “being an activist is my rent I pay for living on this planet”,
   Alice Walker
 Many ways for scholars to be active in politics – from
   standing for elections to canvassing for candidates to
   providing knowledge/information, writing
   letters/columns in the press
 Rationale for courses in PhD training on this issue?
   Alongside courses on how to communicate with the
   public/write policy briefs for decision-makers?
 Take your pick…Educate, agitate, organise!
New Thinking and
Creativity
            The thinking which got
              us into the problem
              cannot be the same
              we need to solve it.
            Albert Einstein

				
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posted:3/10/2010
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