Journalism and Art in Digital Societies (IV)

About the Role of the Academy in the Twenty-first century

In order to assess the feasibility of the academy becoming a control entity as I have exposed in the hypothetical scenario presented in the previous section, there are three questions that should be addressed: (a) is it technologically possible? (b) Would the given political and/or bureaucratic institutions allow this kind of projects to be implemented? And (c) is the academy willing to do it?

I imagine the answers to these questions will vary, not only from nation to nation, but between regions within a nation and cities and towns within a region. Regarding the first question, the technological requirements do not exceed what most major universities already have (i.e., access to an Internet Service Provider, web domain and web hosting services, physical infrastructure, basic production equipment and software, and access to libraries and databases). Hence, the real issue seems to revolve around the acceptance of this kind of projects from both state institutions and the academy. I do not think I could answer if someone asked me where, between Colombia and Australia, a hypothetical scenario like the one I have presented is most likely to occur. But I think the Australian political establishment would be less troubled than the Colombian, if they had to implement a program of this nature. Not that I believe the Australian political system to be immaculate (nor that I consider it to be particularly serious for that matter), but still  – and this is where I believe lies the major difference between the Colombian and the Australian political situations – the Australian society seems to have a clearer understanding of what a politician really is: a public servant.

This raises interesting questions about education in Australia and its influence on society. Can the fact that Australia is currently in a better economic and social situation, not only than a developing nation like Colombia, but than most Western, developed nations (e.g., the USA and the EU), be attributed to its educational system? Or is it just because of the minerals, the proximity to China and the geographical isolation of the nation/continent?

According to an article by Erica Cervini, published in The Age of October 25, 2009, the answer seems to lie closer to the premises exposed in the latter question. Cervini’s article, titled: Australian universities – safe, but not very good (2009), focuses on the impression by international students that, even though Australian universities were considered safer to study in than their counterparts from the UK and the US (something that at the moment was quite relevant because of recent attacks that international students, particularly from India, had suffered), the US and British universities were considered academically superior to the Australian.

This, as Cervini points out, is also evident when looking at The Times Higher Education World Ranking, where only seven Australian universities appeared within the list of top 200 universities worldwide.

The situation of Colombian higher education seems much worse, as there is not one Colombian university within the top 400 (there are only two Latin American Universities in the list). Based on this, one may venture to point out an equivalence between the Colombian and the Australian higher education systems: they both seem to have shortcomings to worry about.

In Colombia, the situation is more critical, as its primary and secondary education systems are also badly rated. According to the latest report of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) –which organises tests that evaluate basic skills in reading literacy, mathematics and sciences, less than one percent of the Colombian students who took the test show outstanding results in the three areas under evaluation, while almost half of them (47.1%) do not reach the second level in the area of reading literacy (on an ascending scale that goes from 1 to 6). This means half of the Colombian students do not have the basic reading skills that allow them to actively participate in a modern society.

In an article published in El Tiempo on December 8, 2011, journalist Camilo Jimenez explained why he resigned from his tenure at the Javeriana University: none of his students could write a one-paragraph summary without major orthographic, syntactic or grammatical mistakes. As Jimenez pointed out, the students were in their twenties, between the third and eighth semesters of their university careers and had four months to write the summary. But only five out of a group of thirty managed to produce an acceptable paragraph.

Beyond the debate of whether Jimenez’ public (and kind of spectacular) resignation contributes or not to the solution of Colombian educational problems, I think that, if Postman was alive and still writing, he could have included this example as a case study in a book titled I Told You So.

Based on the Colombian case and the main premises and questions exposed in this essay, it seems like in the early twenty-first century, the so-called developing nations (like Colombia) are increasingly being left behind by the so-called developed ones (like Australia).

In general terms I agree with this conclusion. However, I also think it may lead to a misconception; which is to believe that the solution to the Colombian problems can come from an educational system developed in, and with the aim of addressing, the needs of a developed nation like Australia.

This reminds me of Ken Robinson’s idea of “changing education paradigms” (2010) and also highlights the different interpretations that all social theories may have when one studies them under the light of a third world nation.

If the academy is to take a more active role within the practical functioning of society – as, for example, I propose in the aforementioned hypothetical scenario – this would most likely mean it should have to take higher risks. These risks may range from potential lawsuits and other legal actions to actual threats on the physical, moral and psychological wellbeing of the people representing the academy (i.e., teachers and students). The question, therefore, is whether these risks are worth taking?

Regarding the Colombian case, I believe they are. And I think this view is shared by most of the 20 to 30 thousand students who, in October 2011, participated on a march through the streets of Bogota; the students’ aim was to protest against an educational reform that was being debated in the National Congress at the time.

As exposed in an article published on the BBC’s website on 13 October 2011, the students argued that the proposed reform threatened to “lead to partial privatisation of the public universities”. At the end, the government withdrew the proposal and the student movement emerged as the winners in this confrontation. The movement was represented by an organisation called MANE[1], which in the aftermath of the movement published a statement where, besides declaring the ceasing of the protests, they also demanded an active role in the development of a new “alternative proposal for higher education” (MANE, 2011)[2].

Beyond the debate about the relation (one may say the confrontation) between public and private systems of higher education (which goes beyond the scope of my research), I believe a hypothetical scenario like the one I have presented would fit into that “alternative proposal for higher education” that MANE is demanding in its declaration.

The Advantage of Being Peripheral

The equivalence between what in the Colombian journalistic lingo is known as the goat and what Tom Wolfe calls “scoop journalism” reminds me of a concept exposed by the late Colombian humourist Jaime Garzón in a conference he held in the city of Cali, which I am studying in more detail in a related essay: that in Colombia, our understanding of the term progress is a foreign one, an imported one. This applies to virtually all economic, political and social practices; and journalism, like education, could not be the exception.

According to Garzón, the reason why Colombians have not been able to conceive our own definition of progress is because we don’t have an understanding of our own identity. To expose his argument, Garzón tells a joke of how in Colombia, the high classes want to be English, the middle classes want to be American, the intellectuals want to be French and the lower classes want to be Mexican.

Analysing Garzón’s premise, one could reach an explanation why, as mentioned earlier, people in Australia seem to have a stronger sense of national belonging (which leads them to be more critical and vigilant about the actions of their political leaders). Yet, I also think Australia and Latin America share an advantage – as the subtitle above suggests – of not having to carry heavy historical weights like those that seem to easily prompt conflict in other, more central continents, such as Europe, Asia and Africa.

This, however, has not prevented us (and by us I mean the Colombians, although I would not necessarily exclude the Australians) from forming our own historical and national dogmatisms. In this sense, I sympathise with Eduardo Galeano, when he confessed that:

Veneration for the past has always seemed to me reactionary. The right chooses to talk about the past because it prefers dead people: a quiet world, a quiet time. The powerful who legitimize their privileges by heredity cultivate nostalgia. History is studied as if we were visiting a museum; but this collection of mummies is a swindle.

But, beyond the Colombian example and its issues of national identity, I believe the problems of having an imported notion of progress, as well as an imposed and questionable version of history, are common features in most (if not all) peripheral nations.

But, beyond the comfort some may feel in sharing a common illness (a fool’s comfort as the popular saying goes), I believe there are some positive things in possessing a peripheral (and even a third world) perspective: one of them is that it makes it easier to see beyond what may be called the myth of postmodernism.

When I talk about the myth of postmodernism, I want to highlight the fact that humanity, as a species, still lives in a world that: (a) fulfils its energy needs mostly by burning fossil fuels; (b) is (still) divided by nations and (c) possesses social structure(s), both supranationally and within each nation, which (still) have a hierarchical, pyramidal structure. Looking at this, I would say that, if anything, we should refer to the present era as more-modern, or even mega-modern, but definitely not post. After all, I cannot think of anything post-modern existing outside academic, literary or artistic circles.

Fredric Jameson (1991) defines American postmodernism as “the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination”; therefore, “the underside of culture” still is “blood, torture, death, and terror”. Thus, rather than representing an evolution, postmodernism, if anything, represents the preservation of the social, economic and political structures of the modern world. This view complies with Galeano’s interpretation of the relation between the US and Latin America, and with Postman’s belief that contemporary (i.e., post-modern) television-based cultures may be perceived as an early version of the Huxleyan dystopia. Two premises that, although far from being antagonistic, are difficult to reconcile.

On the other hand, from the perspective of a third world or developing nation like Colombia, the arguments behind the ideal of postmodernism seem to lose relevance. How can there be a discussion about postmodernism when railroads –which may be fairly regarded as the ultimate symbol of modern, industrial societies – are not even working. This brings me back to the discussion about the digital divide and whether digital networks are acting as a levelling technology between developed and developing nations.

As a closing argument, at this stage I must present what may regarded as the first conclusion derived from my research, about the influence of digital technologies in the consolidation of a global public sphere. Although I, like Clay Shirky (2011), believe that digital networks offer logistical facilities for the development of a public sphere like no other technology since the printing press, I also believe there is a recurrent fallacy in the debate about the public sphere: which is to believe that the development of a public sphere is an end in itself (and not the means to an end).

This reminds me of the role of digital technologies in the social movements in North Africa and the Middle East. Although these movements are still too recent to draw any conclusions from them, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to augur an increasing radicalisation of anti-Western feelings and a rise of the most fundamentalist factions within the Islamic world as a result of these movements. This, in my opinion, would not deny the fact there is a public sphere being formed by the use of digital means of communication; which means that the existence of a public sphere does not guarantee that the conversations emerging from it would necessarily lead civil society to do the right thing.

Related posts:

The debate between Naïve Realists & Network Idealists

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[1] Acronym for: Mesa Amplia Nacional Estudiantil [National Student Ample Table]

[2] My translation.

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