Omri Preiss reacts to Bryan’s opinion piece.
At the time I arrived at UC, in January 2009, the catastrophe of the financial crisis was in full swing. What may have seemed as agitated doomsaying and fear-mongering by the media a year earlier, now looked to the innocent, uninformed, by-stander (the electorate at large) as a ride down the rabbit hole. What this meant was unclear, but if after the Great Depression it took four years for Roosevelt to come out with the New Deal, then we figured, naive as we were, that by the time we graduated things should probably be on the mend. I distinctly remember how privileged and inordinately fortunate I felt at the prospect of spending years of unprecedented crisis in that comfortable environment, sheltered from the economic tempest without.
Sheltered as it is, UC, along with many similar educational institutions, chooses to don labels like ‘excellent’ or ‘elite’, and seeks to nurture in its students a view on what those labels might mean. Lest we fall to delusions of grandeur, it is important that we question these, challenge our self-conceptions, and look for the gaps and incoherencies. The idea of ‘elite’ inherently entails exclusion to whatever extent, and must be scrutinised.
Bryan, as he himself gladly acknowledges, has long been a vocal critic of these labels, and we should be grateful that voices such as his nudge us to reflect on what we meant to achieve at UC, and how it contributed to our formation, even when we do not necessarily agree. Any student that took the political theory course during their time, or international relations, introduction to philosophy or anthropology, will know that there are many ways of examining society and politics. Some instruments are blunter than others.
Race and colonial heritage are doubtlessly, regrettably, and inextricably, significant elements in the socio-political landscape of the Netherlands, and of Europe, then and now. Bryan produces a myriad of facts and figures to demonstrate that structural mechanisms of exclusion are in place, operating on specific segments of society, and, Bryan claims, keep them out of UC. The accuracy or veracity of the claims I do not intend to address, but rather the assumptions and conclusions.
While “whiteness” or “blackness” in this area of social criticism refer not literally to colour but political and identity categories of inclusion and exclusion, it seems dangerous to then apply them a priori to individuals. There seems to be a contradiction in condemning racial prejudice, and then assuming an individual to wish to be defined politically by that category, or to accuse her of privilege or opinion she may not have. Would an Indian UC student from a wealthy background be defined as ‘white’ or ‘black’? Would a Dutch student from an inner-city housing estate be defined as ‘black’ or ‘white’? Who are we to judge? This seems an unsettling and dangerous muddle, which could lead to prejudice on the side of the critic.
On the other hand, the structural mechanisms of racial exclusion operate on a macro level – through historical circumstance, public policy, political discourse, and economic conditions – education, housing, and social networks. To then attempt to make the accusation that UCU somehow guilty of practicing exclusion, because it is subject to the same social forces, simply does not add up. One would need to examine many more demographic and socio-economic variables to understand why one type of person might apply to UC and another might not. Very partial and rash conclusions do more to offend than they do to clarify.
During their time at UC, student are exposed to be much more ‘critical’ material, en masse, than an ordinary faculty of law, physics, or psychology. As in any community, some will notice, some will not, some will choose to be critical, or progressive, some will choose to be conservative. All are given the opportunity to choose, perhaps more so than in other systems.
If there are two elements to the UCU experience, which have appeared on every prospectus, and which are most important: the encouragement to connect and understand different ways of thinking in different fields in order to tackle a problem from different perspectives, and the life in a community which encourages active engagement, and sense of mutual responsibility. We have all heard it more often than we may have wished or cared to remember, but alas, there is no escape – UC students that have indeed taken these encouragements with them from UC will be grateful for them.
Social exclusion and marginalisation, poverty, prejudice, and xenophobia have all been on the rise, and are more important to tackle head on now than ever. They are driven by elements of social class, gender, race, power relations, material incentives, or cultural practices – there is no benefit in omitting criteria from the analysis. Above all it is important to recognise the gobsmacking intransigence and immobility that have been characteristic of our current politics, and through the bursting seams of that degraded structure, dangerous distasteful currents begin to flow.
Several generations of UC students have graduated, and the economic crisis does not seem like it will be going away soon. The increase in social tension and economic inequalities in our societies is staggering. The political leadership whose responsibility it was to provide a recovery from the crisis has failed miserably. The Right has proven its ideas bankrupt, while the Left has been unable to produce a new narrative to allow it to take political and policy discourse down a new route (yet). Not many would have thought the 21st century would look like this, and having been led down to this point, our generation finds itself in a precarious situation.
What we have learnt, though, is that we have responsibility. If our generation do not aim to do things drastically differently than the way they are being done, we will not be able to tackle the problems of climate change, economic stagnation, and inequality. If we do not engage, these will overtake us. Whereas criticism and reflection are key, active involvement solutions are needed.
This generation needs to be one that is politically mobilised and socially engaged, willing to attempt to grasp and contend with interconnected problems. For those who spent time at UC and have taken these lessons with them can count themselves fortunate.