Winged Bull 1

Mosul: museum and archive on the front line

Islamic State militia captured Mosul on 10 June last year. By December, there were reports of the destruction of libraries and archives: the Sunni Muslim library, the library of the Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers, and the Mosul Museum Library. Parts of the campus of the University of Mosul have been occupied and university libraries and archives damaged. Then, in February this year, IS released a video of militants destroying artefacts in the Mosul Museum with sledgehammers and drills. In April, the IS distributed a further video of their destruction of the thirteenth century BC city of Nimrud.

IS’s depredations have been countered by international outrage. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova: “I condemn in the strongest possible manner the destruction of the archaeological site of Nimrud in Iraq. This is yet another attack against the Iraqi people reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country: it targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage”.

Writing for the Spectator on 15 March, columnist and iconoclast Simon Jenkins attacked UNESCO as a “world cultural bureaucracy” that is “at the service of fanaticism”. For Jenkins, these standard responses to the destruction of cultural property are hypocritical, the concern about uniqueness and authenticity a waste of time:

What the West can and should do is prepare for the aftermath of this devastation. A huge task will one day face those who care for these places. Syria and Iraq host the records of the dawn of the known world. The ancient city of Aleppo has been flattened. The Assyrian and Parthian capitals are bulldozed. The oldest Christian churches on earth are being wiped off the map as you read this. These sites must be restored, with replicas if necessary.

When it comes to hypocrisy, Jenkins has a point. The West has been destroying other people’s cultural property since the Crusades. Jenkins remembers the Dresden firestorm of the Second World War – “the heirs of Bomber Harris are not squeamish about the far end of a bomb site, be it a human being or a historic building”.  W.G. Sebald’s extraordinary book, On the Natural History of Destruction, is well worth revisiting for his evocation of the total destruction of Hamburg in 1943: “the death by fire within a few hours of an entire city, with all its buildings and its trees, its inhabitants, its domestic pets, its fixtures and fittings of every kind, must inevitably have led to overload, to paralysis of the capacity to think and feel in those who succeeded in escaping” (Sebald 2004: 25).

The issue of uniqueness and authenticity, though, is more complicated.

Jenkins is right to point out that no archaeological site, and certainly not the treasures of Iraq and Syria that are now in such danger, are authentic. Archaeologists and robbers (sometimes the same thing) have been at them for two centuries and generations of custodians and conservators have been restoring, repositioning and reinterpreting. The bottom line for Archaeology is that it is a discipline that destroys as it discovers. However painstaking and scientific an excavation may be, once a site is dug it’s dug, and everyone afterwards is dependent on the excavator’s notes and records rather than the original traces in the ground.

Uniqueness, though, is different. Jenkins is quick to propose replicas. He is also chairman of Britain’s National Trust. The National Trust looks after more than 300 historic buildings and it is unlikely that many of their millions of visitors would be content with replicas. Not surprisingly, Iraqis interviewed after the IS videos were distributed online were horrified by the destruction. Mardean Isaac, an Assyrian writer in Baghdad, told the Guardian: “when you watch the footage, you feel visceral pain and outrage, like you do when you see human beings hurt”. Tamara Saad, a young woman from Mosul interviewed by the New York Times said: “we feel proud of our ancient culture in the way you have something in your house that you pay no attention to until someone comes into the house and destroys it. You feel devastated.” It’s difficult to imagine these interviewees being any more satisfied with a replica than, say, a visitor to the Tower of London.

The significance of these material traces of the past is all the more for communities caught up in the vortex of extreme and continuing violence. Art and artefacts are some of the few stable markers of identity; memory made material, something to hold on to. Mahfodh Dawood, a poet who used to work for the Ministry of Culture, told the New York Times: “the message of ISIS was that it wants to rob us of our identity. At this point, just about the only thing it means to be Iraqi is that you are responsible for the civilization that was here and goes back thousands of years, nothing else”.

This can make museums important in post-conflict reconstruction. Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq was closed after the American occupation of 2003. Then, there was extensive looting and theft of high-profile antiquities that has still not been satisfactorily explained. The museum has been officially re-opened in defiance of the IS damage to the libraries, archives and museums of Mosul. Close examination of the IS video showed that, as with the looters of the National Museum back in 2003, the IS militia had often mistaken plaster cast replicas for originals; the National Museum’s Director was able to announce that the originals were in safe storage in Baghdad.

But not everything destroyed in Mosul has been a replica. The IS video shows the partial destruction of one of the Winged Bulls of Nineveh. These sculpted mythological figures were known to the Assyrians as lamassu, and are believed to represent the strength of the animal, the swiftness of the bird and the intelligence of the human head. They guarded the gateways to palaces and temples in Mesopotamia as protection against demonic forces.

Other Assyrian lamassu were removed in the name of archaeology in the nineteenth century. Two were taken by Austen Henry Layard, who excavated here between 1845 and 1851; one is now in the British Museum and the second in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Simon Jenkins is a passionate advocate for the importance of continuity with the past and for the cultural heritage that anchors us:

To read of the loss of ancient monuments is heartbreaking. When they date from the dawn of western civilisation in the Mesopotamian valley, the pain is the greater. Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh are 6,000-year-old bedrocks of our culture. Like the smashed statues in Mosul museum, their destruction tears at the roots of Eurasia’s shared identity. That identity may stay recorded in books, pictures, museums. But the continuity of place is lost. The narrative is snapped.

Here, at least in part, a solution is evident. When the IS militia have been defeated and Iraq is recovering from the firestorm unleashed by the 2003 war, the lamassu removed by Layard almost two centuries ago should be repatriated from London and from New York.

Given their years of suffering and their pride in their history, why should Iraqis make do with replicas?

**

Guardian (2015). “Isis video shows destruction of ancient Assyrian city in Iraq”. April 11. http://theguardian.com/

Hall, J. (2015). “’Ancient statues’ destroyed by ISIS in Mosul were FAKES – and the originals are safely stored in Baghdad, claims Iraqi museum director”. Daily Mail, March 16. http://dailymail.co.uk/

Jenkins, S. (2015) “When Isis destroy ancient monuments, it’s not always true that ‘people are more important’”. Spectator March 14. http://spectator.co.uk/

Kimmelman, M. (2015). “A Struggle to Secure Iraq’s Shared Past, and Perhaps Its Future”. New York Times, 9 April. http://nytimes.com/

Sebald, W. G. (2004). On the Natural History of Destruction. New York, Modern Library.

Shaheen, K. (2015). “Isis fighters destroy ancient artefacts at Mosul museum”. Guardian, February 26. http://theguardian.com/

UNESCO (2015). Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/armed-conflict-and-heritage/the-hague-convention/#c167451 Accessed 22 April 2015.

UNESCO (2015). “UNESCO Director General condemns

destruction of Nimrud in Iraq”.

Lampedusa

Lampedusa

This last week hundreds of migrants have drowned in the the Mediterranean – the total who have died is still unclear. Earlier this month, Anders Lustgarten’s play, Lampedusa, premiered at London’s Soho Theatre. Here is Stefano, one-time Italian fisherman now employed to recover bodies from the sea:

The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you’d think. Some are warped, rotted, bloated to three times their natural size, twisted into fantastical and disgusting shapes like the curse in that story my grandmother used to tell me. Dead of winter. Chills down yer spine. Others are calm, no signs of struggle, as if they’re dozing in the sun on a lazy summer afternoon and a tap of the arm will bring them gently awake. Those are the hardest. Because they’re the most human.

Lustgarten is angry, and his anger is palpable through the words of his two storytellers, Stefano and Denise. Denise is a debt collector for a payday loan company in Leeds. Last year, more than 4000 refugees drowned making the illegal sea crossing from North Africa to Europe. Lampedusa, midway between the Libyan coast and Sicily, bore the brunt of this humanitarian disaster.

The European Unions’s response has been to attempt deterrence, cancelling support for Italy’s Mare Nostrum programme and replacing it with patrols close in to the Italian shoreline, leaving little hope of rescue when the smugglers’ overloaded boats sink. As a deterrent, this will fail. As Stefano hears from a survivor: “if those men in their offices knew what we were coming from, they’d know we will never, ever stop”.

And yet this is a play about hope, both for those caught up in the bitter tragedy of the Mediterranean and for those navigating the complex fault lines of the city.

Denise is working class, mixed race and fed up:

Spat at on the bus this morning. Couple of public schoolboys I’d say. I’d not heard ‘chinky cunt’ and ‘fucking migrant’ in that accent till recently. But lately I get it quite a bit. Middle class people think racism is free speech now. Tip of the iceberg, Farage. Tip of a greasy, gin-soaked iceberg of cuntery. The matchless bitterness of the affluent.

She is working to see herself through university, determined to leave her mother’s legacy behind her. She’s cocky and self-assured about the evasions and excuses of the people’s whose debts she’s employed to call in; she’s seen it all and she’s unmoved. But then she’s touched by an act of irrational kindness:

Carolina her name is. Portuguese lass, on her own with a little kid. Jayden. … In the end she invited me over to dinner. Tomorrow night. She’s making some Portuguese speciality with salt cod in it. Sounds absolutely disgusting to be honest, but … I shouldn’t really go. It’s against policy and all that. But I think she’s a bit lonely. Doesn’t know that many people over here. I think she could do with the company.

For Stefano, hope comes from Modibo, a musician and mechanic from Mali, and a survivor washed up on the beach at Lampedusa.

Stefano is wary: “you try to keep them at arm’s length. If you let them get close, you never know what they might ask for”. But Modibo persists, fixing the engine on Stefano’s boat, offering him coffee. When Stefano learns that Modibo’s wife Aminata is making the crossing to join him, he offers to break from procedure, to go out and search for her boat.

There is a storm of Shakespearian proportions: “there’s a flash of lightning and out of the corner of my eye, this Leviathan looms. A monstrous wave as tall as a tower block, so tall it has little waterfalls tumbling from its crest. I freeze. And Leviathan pounces”.

Against our expectations, Aminata is rescued and is reunited with Modibo:

We pull up to the pier. It’s packed, a wall of people, and I’m scanning for Modibo’s face but there’s a splash, Aminata’s over the side and into the shallows, and there’s a kind of keening noise from the pier and a second splash and it’s him, he’s in the water too! These two torpedoes rocketing together, to meet in an explosion of sheer joy and relief and the ecstasy of deepest pain averted. Limbs entangled, rolling over, yelling, laughing, water splashing everywhere, this fantastical new sea creature. Tears and hands over mouths and hugging on the pier.

Hope is unfashionable in the traditional critiques of power but Denise sees through the shallow formulations of her politics course, the exam question about “the perils of untrammelled materialism”: “you could see the answer they wanted. The home of original thinking”. She answers differently, about “our ability to walk away from delusions, from traps, to save ourselves from our baser instincts”.

Stefano and Denise are saved from the traps, delusions and their baser instincts by the shadow figures of Modibo and Carolina. In touching Stefano and Denise’s lives they mitigate the bitterness of the unemployed fisherman, reduced to the morbid work of recovering the dead, and the woman trapped in the intercedes of race, gender and class, hardened to the circumstances of others. Connection comes from food and music; Carolina’s bacalau, the “salt cod thing” which turns out to be “delicious. It were absolutely delicious”. Modibo’s music: “a song called Lampendusa. It’s meant to be about all the people who’ve come here seeking a better life. The drowning and the terror. The hope and the futures. I don’t know if I can hear all that in there personally, but it’s beautiful. Listen”.

Theatre like this works as a space apart. The staging is concentric circles of bare wooden benches, with Stefano and Denise moving among us. We are the bystanders on the pier at Lampendusa, and we are beside Denise as she trudges through Leeds: “four o’clock this afternoon, soaked to the skin, I’d been up and down more piss-stained staircases than a Channel 4 benefits documentary”.

From this space apart, the de-humanization of bureaucratic systems becomes more sharply apparent – the tendencies towards what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. What state of mind is required in making the decision to withdraw the search for smuggler’s boats before they can capsize, killing thousands in a year? What kind of numb detachment is required to hold down a job collecting debt or denying benefits? This is theatre that probes, exposes, challenges, making us think differently. It is why we need the creative arts and the critical humanities, and why those behind the desks may fear them.

Lustgarten is uncompromising: “at the heart of our self-delusion about migration is a wilful misunderstanding about why people come. They don’t come to soak the benefits system, because hardly any of them know it exists. They come out of desperation, because their country is on fire or their government is repressive or climate change is killing their crops. Often that’s down to the West”. This makes hope all the more vital, the only way of countering the Leviathan, the giant waves of unfeeling bureaucracy that douse the sparks of humanity.

Lampedusa ends with Stefano’s challenge: “I defy you to see the joy in Modibo and Aminata’s faces and not feel hope. I defy you”.

**

Lampedusa, by Anders Lustgarten. Directed by Steven Atkinson. Louise Mai Newberry (Denise), Ferdy Roberts (Stefano). Soho Theatre, London. Play published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.

Anders Lustgarten: “Refugees don’t need our tears. They need us to stop making them refugees”.   Guardian, 18 April 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/17/refugees-eu-policy-migrants-how-many-deaths

RhodesFalling_700

Rhodes’ Legacy

Cecil John Rhodes was controversial in life and death. Over the past weeks the future of his statue at the University of Cape Town has split opinion in a rush of words that has become countrywide. On 8 April, UCT’s Council agreed to remove the statue in a victory for the Rhodes Must Fall student movement.

The issues behind the protests are more substantial than the commemoration of a long-dead imperial dreamer. They comprise three intertwined sets of challenges: the university’s admissions policy; the student experience; and the demographic profile of the academic staff.

UCT is South Africa’s most sought after university. Crafting an equitable admissions policy is complicated by the toxic mix of marked economic inequality and the legacies of racial segregation, and by the constitutional requirement that universities address the continuing consequences of apartheid. As a result, UCT uses a mix of US-style affirmative action and what would be understood in Britain as contextual admissions.

This makes continuing dissent inevitable. The Rhodes Must Fall student movement’s demands are simple: “adopt an admissions policy that explicitly uses race as a proxy for disadvantage, prioritising black applicants”. But for others, also demanding radical change but grounded in the long and principled tradition of non-racism, any use of race as a criterion is anathema. White middle class families see their children as unfairly disadvantaged. Many middle class black students, born into a new country and beneficiaries of the best schools, resent the implication that they need a leg up to get in. And for a large number of aspirant black students from poor families and impoverished communities, UCT is still as inaccessible to them as Rhodes intended it should be.

The student experience combines the formal curriculum, the extra-curricular opportunities of a traditional campus, and the attitudes and expectations that people have of one another; together, the institution’s culture. Given that South Africa’s higher education system was built on a double grid of discrimination by race and then again by language and ethnic identity, this is inevitably a difficult area. As Vice-Chancellor Max Price has acknowledged, there is a pressing need to build an institutional culture of inclusiveness, where all feel welcome.

The alienation that students can feel is expressed by fourth-year student Mbali Matandela:

The lectures don’t represent your history or your narrative at all. You don’t see yourself on the campus monuments, or the naming of the buildings. You then turn to your books which don’t address you. Students learn from lecturers, and lecturers learn from students, and you share an experience. When the experience is not there, you’re almost disconnected from knowledge itself.

The demographic profile of the academic staff is inseparable from the student experience. While white South Africans are now less than 10% of the population as a whole, a substantial majority of UCT’s more senior academic staff are white and those holding professorships are overwhelmingly male. Experience elsewhere, and particularly in the US, has shown that changing a university’s demographics is a long journey that must start with the recruitment of strong cohorts of doctoral degree students and continue with close attention to selection and promotion processes. The problem now, that has sharpened around the controversy of Rhodes’ statue, is that more than twenty years have passed since the initial commitments of a new democracy. It is difficult to defend the argument that a further two decades will be needed before South Africa’s leading university will have a profile that reflects and enhances the abilities and expertise of its people as a whole.

Taken together, UCT’s contested admissions policy, fractured institutional culture and low levels of recruitment of black academic staff have come to stand for the slow pace of transformation in South African higher education more generally, and for the growing alienation of those coming of age. Sociologist and public intellectual Xolela Mangcu sees a clear danger of heightened conflict ahead:

If people can continue to behave in hurtful ways without knowing it, then surely a counter-reaction is inevitable? Between us and that outcome stand the students of UCT. They are our best antidote to racist psychosis. They are the miner’s canary that is foretelling us of the perils of racial war. Heed them, and heed them now.

Statues everywhere can be complicated. They freeze a likeness of a person at a moment when it is assumed that their legacy will be celebrated forever. This is almost always wrong and the streets and squares of cities across the world are littered with bronze and granite monuments to people who were responsible for heinous deeds. But now and again their moment comes and they prompt claims and counterclaims that force new and significant solutions for seemingly intractable problems. Rhodes was a megalomaniacal imperialist with an unshakable belief in his racial superiority. With some irony, his fall may prove to be his most enduring legacy.

Also published by Times Higher Education, 16 April 2015

**

Paul Herman, “Rhodes Must Fall: students have their say”. News 24, 2 April 2015

Xolela Mangcu: “The Rhodes debate: dead men walking”. City Press 29 March 2015. http://www.citypress.co.za/news/the-rhodes-debate-dead-men-walking/

Max Price: “Addressing the shortage of black and women professors”. 7 November 2014. http://www.uct.ac.za/dailynews/?id=8891

Max Price: “From the VC’s Desk: Update on Rhodes statue and occupation of Bremner Building”. 28 March 2015. http://www.uct.ac.za/dailynews/?id=9063

Rhodes Must Fall: https://www.facebook.com/RhodesMustFall

University of Cape Town: “Transform UCT”. http://www.uct.ac.za/news/Transform-UCT/

 

 

Frankenstein 1831

Facebook/Fakebook

Ronald Alexander Pinn died in 1984 from a heroin overdose. He was twenty years old. After coming across his grave in Camberwell New Cemetery his contemporary, Andrew O’Hagan, decided to resurrect him:

“What was it to live a second life? What was it to use a person’s identity – and did anyone own it in the first place? Is it the spirit of the present age, that in the miasma of social media everyone’s ‘truth’ is exploitable, especially by themselves? Is the line between the real and the fictional fixed, and could I cross the line of my own inquiry and do the police in different voices? Could I take a dead young man’s name and see how far I could go in animating a fake life for him? How wrong would it be to go on such a journey and do what these men had done? I chose to get at the conundrum by pursuing Ronald Pinn into the fantastical dimensions of a future life he didn’t live. If the task ahead turned on an outrageous defilement of a person’s identity, then that, too, would be part of the story I was trying to tell”.

Equipped with a passport, bitcoins and a Facebook following, the new Ronnie Pinn spiralled down into the Dark Web of drugs and guns until his creator decided to delete him.

This contemporary Frankenstein and his unlikely monster raise a number of interesting questions about our virtual world and where it’s headed. Facebook now has about 864 million daily users and the company believes that about 67 million of these are fake. That’s a huge army of avatars, close to ten times the population of London. If one persistent person can appropriate an identity and develop a criminal doppelganger, how much more could a rogue state agency, or a corporate behemoth, do (or are already doing)?

O’Hagan’s experiment at playing God started with an ethical question. He was interested in the reluctant revelations by the Metropolitan Police of the work of their Special Demonstration Squad. Members of the SPD had taken the identities of dead children, using these creations to infiltrate radical organizations. They had often built a ‘legend” of their second lives, visiting places where their namesakes had lived and died, forming relationships, letting their bodies be the bodies of imagined others. There was no self-questioning in these reluctant revelations, no apparent ethical concerns; the Met released the information about their undercover operatives because they had to, in the spirit of a briefing about crime levels, or budgetary difficulties. For O’Hagan there was much more to it than this.

The first Ronald Pinn turned out to be ideal for this experiment. Apart from a single blurred photograph, he had left no trace on the Internet. Friends and acquaintances had only the slightest of recollections and there was little in the discoverable paper archive.

O’Hagan started by acquiring – legally – copies of Ronald’s birth and death certificates. Next came an e-mail account, and then fictional background details: a primary school that would have been right for Ronnie at the time, successful progression through school to university – Edinburgh – and a credible fake degree certificate, bought on-line.

At this point the new, fortyish, Ronnie needed a face. O’Hagan photoshopped this from his own photograph and photographs of two other men, creating his virtual offspring, at least to some extent, in his own image: “he was a composite yet he seemed quite ordinary – everyone, after all, is a composite – and nothing about him suggested he wasn’t walking in the world like us”. And the new Ronnie Pinn did indeed start walking in our world. He gained new Facebook friends, a football team (West Ham) and a job as a driver with Executive Cars. His new friends discovered that he was a disillusioned academic (History), gay and anti-Europe. He still needed some help from his maker: a stash of bitcoins, a driver’s licence, passport and an empty flat in Islington for his mail. This done, he had a life of is own, “like a character in fiction who must express himself not merely according to his author’s wishes but according to some inner mechanisms embedded in his past and in his nature”.

And here, some two centuries later, is Frankenstein’s realization of the dark imagination again made tangible. Ronnie Pinn bought white heroin, marijuana, Tramadol painkillers and other drugs, all delivered to his Islington drop box:

“he started as a way of testing the net’s propensity to radicalise self-invention, but, by the end, I was controlling an entity with just enough of a basis in reality to reconfigure it. Ronnie Pinn’s only handicap lay in his failure physically to materialise, but, nowadays, that needn’t be a problem”.

Like Frankenstein before him, O’Hagan found it impossible to kill off his creation. Facebook resisted to the last, pleading in the names of his Friends. And while Ronnie’s last tweet was one word – “goodbye” – he lives on in the digital archives of his various accounts and in the fragments of his digital DNA, circulating for ever across the Internet.

Andrew O’Hagan is a gifted novelist who uses his art to tease out things that we pass over and take for granted. I recently put some of these issues to my Executive MBA class; forty-five smart, mid-career people from a wide range of professions and interests. When we started looking more closely at our cyborg tendencies, we all became a little obsessed; in some way or other the disembodied compatriots of the second Ronnie Pinn must touch all of our lives. How do we know if Facebook friends are “real”? Does it matter? Has our identity been appropriated by somebody else? What if, like those who formed emotional bonds with the fictional doubles of the Special Demonstration Squad, a Significant Other really is “other”? And, looking forward to the world of a third Ronald Alexander Pinn, what if a virtual identity could be implanted in a human clone, making the Boys from Brazil look like an entertaining sideshow? If she could only have known, Mary Shelley would have had a ball.

O’Hagan borrowed the first Ronald Pinn’s short life to explore the ethically dubious behaviour of the police, to test the limits of the virtual world and to experience the ways in which, for a writer, fictional characters develop lives of their own:

“Many of our modern crimes are crimes of the imagination. We think of the unspeakable and exchange information on it. We commit a ‘thought-crime’ – giving the illicit or the abominable an audience. Some of us pretend to have relationships we don’t actually have just for the sense of freedom it gives us, and some want porn for that reason too. Building the fake Ronnie became something more than creating a character in a novel: it became personal, like living another life, as an actor might, trying not only to imitate the experience of a possible person but to test the meaning and limits of empathy”.

O’Hagan’s immunity is in his fiction, in the web he weaves between his experiences, experiments and imagined scenarios. Did he go to the point where he could be a “person of interest” to the Met? We don’t know, and nor should we. And yet – late in the day, when the composite image of the fake Ronnie Pinn had an established presence across social media, O’Hagan discovered that the real Ronald’s mother was still alive, holding on to her memories of the son she lost twenty years ago. What will she feel when she discovers that a new life and persona has been built on the birth certificate of her dead child? What is the ethical distinction between this literary exercise, and the appropriation of identities by the Metropolitan Police?

And yet – while modern crimes are crimes of the imagination, what happens when imagined possibilities break through the membrane of thought and become all too material? When an avatar like Ronnie Pinn buys Class A drugs on the Internet and has them delivered to an Islington flat? Frankenstein’s monster, haunted by what he discovered himself to be, rushed into the icy wastes of the North Pole. His virtual successors are immune to such earthy constraints.

**

Andrew O’Hagan. “The lives of Ronald Pinn”. London Review of Books 37 (1) 8 January 2015: 3- 10.

 

boombust

Boom Bust Boom Bust

We are a group of economics students who started a campaign to reform undergraduate economics education in 2013. Along the way we realised, just how important economics is. Nearly 6 out of 10 unemployed young people polled said anxiety had stopped them from sleeping…

Now, two years later, the Post Crash Economics Society (PCES) has held its first (un) conference in Manchester. Students across universities in London are campaigning against ruinous levels of fees and in Montreal there is a movement for a new printemps érable, a Maple Spring in the tradition of the Canadian student protests of 2012. With years of negligible economic growth the new norm, the graduate premium, which justified high fee levels as an investment against high lifetime earnings, is the preserve of a favoured few. These and similar groups of students are arguing for a different model of higher education, and for new approaches to the curriculum. It’s important to listen to what they have to say.

PCES was inspired by a 2011 conference at the Bank of England (hardly a subversive organization). The purpose of the conference was to discuss whether the ways in which economics is taught at universities is fit for purpose in the light of the 2007 financial crash. This seems a fair enough question, given that economists across the world failed to anticipate the biggest financial disaster in most of our lifetimes. As the Manchester students put it: “we were intrigued and excited to hear about this event. The economics we were learning seemed separate from the economic reality that the world was facing, and devoid from the crisis that had made many of us interested in economics to begin with”.

Since then, PCES has developed an augmented curriculum, trialled as a voluntary course with an impressive range of guest lecturers – “Bubbles, Panics and Crashes”. They have produced a major report – “Economics, Education and Unlearning” – which is well worth the read. Here is what Andrew Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, has to say in its introduction:

“The agenda set out in this Report is exciting and compelling. While not exhaustive, it begins to break open some of the economics discipline’s self-imposed shackles. Some of this is discovery of the new – for example, in the area of evolutionary, neuro and behavioural economics. But a large part is rediscovery of the old – or, in some cases, dusting down of the neglected – for example, in the area of institutional economics, economic history and money and banking”.

This week’s PCES (un) conference – Boom Bust Boom Bust – included a line up of speakers from other universities at which significant changes are being made to the Economics curriculum. In this, students are insisting on being recognized as active agents in their learning. In turn, this should shake away assumptions that the curriculum is a passive and self-evident framework for administering teaching.

Meanwhile, students at the London School of Economics had occupied a building and declared for the Free University of London. Here is Harry Blain, of openDemocracy:

“On March 18, I was surprised to see the usual posters on entrepreneurship and careers in finance displaced by the simple message: ‘Our Turn to Talk.’ Hanging from the LSE old building – often the spot where we take photos with our parents, ensuring we get the school’s logo in the background – was the banner, ‘Occupy LSE.’ At its core, this is a movement about redefining the principles that drive our education, captured in the rallying cry ‘University is not a factory!’ … Education is not about churning out obedient citizens, ready-made for a career in an economy designed by distant corporate and political interests. In any case, such careers prove elusive for many graduates today. The reality, instead, is ‘overqualified and underemployed’: casual, low-paid, often unstable work – with a mountain of debt.”

And in Montreal there are continuing demonstrations against the Quebec government’s cutbacks in education funding and insistence on the now tired and discredited model of a high fee, personal gain motivation for university education. Whether this develops into a re-run of Canada’s 2012 student movement remains to be seen. What is clear is the misfit between a government policy that seeks continuing fee rises that are significantly in excess of the rate of a rate of return that is conceptualized only in terms of private benefit.

On of the basic aims of higher education must be to achieve forms of learning that are interactive, seeking that magic combination of experience, knowledge and expertise that provides for a new and informed view of the world. When older ways are discredited, it’s time to listen carefully and to build a new consensus. Harry Blain:

Stand with us. Or, at the very least, listen to us, because the Free University of London is not just a physical space, but an angry and passionate collective voice – one that won’t be fading away

**
Boom Bust Boom Bust: Why Economics is for Everyone. Manchester, 31 March to 2 April 2015. http://boombustboombust.com/

Post-Crash Economics Society (2014), Economics, Education and Unlearning: Economics Education at the University of Manchester. Manchester. Available at http://www.post-crasheconomics.com/economics-education-and-unlearning/

Harry Blain. “”Our turn to talk”: why we should listen to Occupy LSE”. 30 March 2015. Our Kingdom: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/harry-blain/our-turn-to-talk-why-we-should-listen-to-occupy-lse