Luister – Listen – is a new film about race, language and exclusion at one of South Africa’s premier universities. Some thirty students talk about everyday acts of prejudice that make them feel unwanted:

Luister – the Afrikaans word for Listen – is a documentary about the lives of students of colour who attend Stellenbosch University, a South African institution of higher learning. In a series of interviews, students recount instances of racial prejudice that they continue to experience in the town of Stellenbosch, and the enormous challenges that they face due to the use of Afrikaans as a language of teaching at the university. Luister is a film about Afrikaans as a language and a culture. It is a film about the continuing racism that exists within a divided society. It is a film about a group of students whose stories have been ignored.

Luister was made by Contraband Cape Town, and is on Youtube. It’s well worth its thirty minutes. The link is here.

One of the issues that the Stellenbosch students raise is the injustice of the “accommodation” that requires them to listen to lectures by means of simultaneous translation. Anyone who has been to an academic conference where papers are read in a language they do not understand will know what they mean. Whatever the interpreter’s skill, listening under such circumstances is complex, inexact and exhausting; a dominant incomprehensible voice and a whispered, inexact, interpretation with a time lag. With justification, Luister asks why students, paying fees to attend a public university in the country of their birth, should be made to feel like unwanted foreigners.

It would be easy to see Luister and the race and language issues it raises as a local problem. But the intimate relationship between language codes and exclusion is far more general and is grounded in a strong and long tradition of scholarship. This eloquent and compelling set of interviews has a relevance that is far wider than Stellenbosch’s particular history and complex politics.



Jenna Etheridge “Stellenbosch student: Being black is a social burden” News24 22 August 2015.

Blood and Heritage

The results of this week’s elections in Sri Lanka may prove decisive for reconciliation, following the end of a long and deadly civil war that ended six years ago. The divisions between Sinhalese and Tamil that shaped almost three decades of violent conflict are shaped and defined by cultural heritage, both through an extraordinary archive of texts and in the art and architecture on the landscape.

Sri Lanka’s elections coincided with the bombing of the Erawan shrine in Bangkok, which killed 22 people and the beheading of Khaled Asaad, and 82-year-old Syrian antiquities expert, who was executed by the IS at the World Heritage site of Palmyra. There is little credibility left in the old argument that heritage, art and antiquities are somehow “above” politics. People’s claims on the past are, more than ever, shaping politics across the spectrum, from the legitimate to extrajudicial violence.

UNESCO is at the heart of this storm. Here, the case of Sri Lanka reveals how the concept of world heritage was misappropriated and used to buttress the mechanisms of a violent and repressive state. Today’s heritage organizations can learn from this example, in re-conceptualizing their approaches to controversial sites that are entangled in contemporary, intractable, conflicts.

In 1982, and after intensive and divisive lobbying by Buddhist nationalists, Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle was declared a World Heritage site. This was at the beginning of the war that was to end almost thirty years later with accusations of genocide.

Sharply differentiated and politicized Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic identities originated in the nineteenth century as part of the complex manipulations of colonial rule. This stereotyping, which saturates life in Sri Lanka today, is tied to interpretations of the island’s cultural heritage and its traces in architecture, monuments, art and written texts that span more than 2000 years.

The dominant narrative is of a straightforward succession of Buddhist states withstanding external aggression. In this interpretation, the Sinhalese lineage was established in the sixth century BC when the island’s first king was banished there from northern India. This is a story of proud and persistent defence of religion and civilization against external aggressors; in this story Tamil Sri Lankans are, and always have been, an “enemy within”.

As has long been pointed out, neither the documentary nor the archaeological evidence supports this narrative. Both artistic representations on the remnants of urban architecture and excavations of living areas suggest a considerable degree of syncretism. This is supported by the documentary record, which maps a complex history of alliances, intermarriages, disagreements and skirmishes with South Indian polities, which is hardly surprising, given the proximity of the island to the mainland.

The idea of a long and noble lineage, overcome by Britannia’s might, suited British imperial jingoism while Buddhism appealed to the peculiar mysticism of the Victorians. This narrative also suited some post-independent factions and has continued to the present.

For example, Mahinda Rajapaksa, president through the closing years of the war until his defeat in January 2015 and a candidate in this week’s election, is portrayed as the custodian of Sri Lanka’s royal lineage. Named for the royal line of Anuradhapura, his government’s public works programmes are presented to visitors to the World Heritage site as a continuation of the great irrigation projects on which the economy of the first millennium was founded.

As ethnic battle lines hardened ahead of the outbreak of civil war, Sinhalese nationalists launched an extensive and successful campaign to woo UNESCO. This culminated in an elaborate display at Anuradhapura in January 1980, under an auspicious new moon. In the official account, included in the UNESCO-endorsed guide sold at the site today, some 200000 devotees witnessed a ceremony involving 4000 monks, 10 000 children dressed in white, 200 flagpoles, each with a drummer and bunting adorning the massive stupa. Dignitaries, dancers and drummers circumambulated the stupa before climbing to the top of the three basal terraces with a relic-casket to the chanting of sacred verses by Buddhist monks.

UNESCO was persuaded and declared Anuradhapura a World Heritage site in 1982, along with the remnants of the cities of Ritigala, Polonnaruva and Sigiriya. Together, these constitute the Cultural Triangle, the heart of the island and one of the largest cultural heritage complexes in the world.

The civil war began in the following year with the insurgency by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), claiming the right to an independent state in the north and eastern part of the island. The Cultural Triangle immediately became a target for violence. Now inscribed with a militaristic strand of Buddhist nationalism, Anuradhapura was attacked by the LTTE in 1984, resulting in a strong military presence across the World Heritage complex as a whole that was to last throughout the war. In 1998, and on the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence, suicide bombers killed sixteen people with extensive damage to Kandy’s Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the most important religious site in the Cultural Triangle.

Despite this evident and dangerous politicization of Sri Lanka’s cultural landscape, UNESCO continued to insist on the objectives of dialogue and development that Meskell identifies as the founding principles of world heritage. Here is Director-General Federico Mayor in 1990, marking the tenth anniversary of the Anuradhapura ceremony:

The Cultural Triangle project is indeed steering the proper course with its underlying dedication to safeguarding the national cultural heritage in order to foster and strengthen a sense of identity that cannot but contribute to the socio-economic development of the whole nation. Let us seek together the best and most practical means to lead this campaign to a successful and rewarding conclusion.

At the time of his speech, Sri Lanka’s world heritage sites were under continuous military protection from a mounting insurgency that was affecting all aspects of life in the country.

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 with a decisive victory by government forces and accusation of genocide against the Tamil minority that have yet to be resolved. This has enabled both a revival of the tourist industry and a re-opening of access to sacred places that are vital to the spiritual identity of many Sri Lankans. The imprimatur of UNESCO is evident across the ruins of this extraordinary landscape. Archaeology, art history and the scholarly interpretations of texts are presented as authoritative and definitive. There is no place here for the long-persistent counter-narrative that shows how the separate historical lineages of Sinhalese and Tamil were a function of nineteenth century colonial typologies and a contemporary, language-based nationalism.

The Sinhalese nationalist version of Sri Lanka’s past has also served to shape research inside the Cultural Triangle in the years following UNESCO endorsement. Excavation, conservation and restoration has prioritized Buddhist Theravada sites with monumental structures, royal parks and sculptured art. Monuments belonging to ‘heterodox’ Buddhist sects, as well as Hindu monuments, have not been accorded the same degree of importance, contributing further to writing more complex, alternative, histories out of Sri Lanka’s prevalent heritage narrative.

The resurgence of Sinhalese nationalism in campaigning for this week’s parliamentary elections raised the specter of new violence based on this long and divisive misappropriation of Sri Lanka’s rich and sophistication record of art, architecture and literature. The decisive defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa offers instead hope for reconciliation. Here, as in many other parts of the world, cultural heritage remains a visceral part of belief and identity that that is inseparable from power and politics. Violence is always immanent. To engage with world heritage in ways that fail to appreciate these complex interrelationships is to risk exacerbating deadly conflicts.


Barstow, David 18 August 2015. “Sri Lankans Reject Ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Election, and Prosecution May Follow”. New York Times

Guardian 19 August 2015. “Isis beheads elderly chief of antiquities in ancient Syrian city, official says”.

Guneratne, A. (2002). What’s in a name? Aryans and Dravidians in the making of Sri Lankan identities. The Hybrid Island. Culture Crossings and the Invention of Identity in Sri Lanka. N. Silva. London, Zed Books: 20-40.

Mayor, F. (1990). Address by Mr Federico Mayor Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) at the Ceremonial Session to mark the Tenth Anniversary of The International Campaign for the Safeguarding of The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka Colombo, UNESCO.

Rajasingham-Senanayake, D. (2002). Identity on the borderline: modernity, new ethnicities, and the unmaking of multiculturalism in Sri Lanka. The Hybrid Island. Culture Crossings and the Invention of Identity in Sri Lanka. N. Silva. London, Zed Books: 41-70.

Seneviratne, S. (1996). ‘Peripheral regions’ and ‘marginal communities’: towards an alternative explanation of Early Iron Age material and social formations in Sri Lanka. Tradition, Dissent and Ideology. Essays in honour of Romila Thapar. R. Champakalakshmi and S. Gopal. Delhi, Oxford University Press: 264-312.

Seneviratne, S. (2007). Situating World Heritage Sites in a multicultural society: the ideology of presentation at the sacred city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique. M. Liebmann and U. Z. Rizvi. New York, Altamira Press: 177-195.

Silva, R. (1993). The Cultural Triangle. International safeguarding campaign. The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. Paris, UNESCO Publishing: 176-193.

Sri Lanka Government (2011). Report of the commission of inquiry on lessons learnt and reconciliation. Colombo, Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.

Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (2013). “Welcome to Sri Lanka, Wonder of Asia.” Retrieved 31 October, 2013, from

United Nations (2011). Report of the Secretary-General’s panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka. New York, United Nations.

Weiss, G. (2011). The Cage. London, Bodley Head.

Can ‘Good Knowledge’ be measured?

In her excoriating response to the audit culture of the contemporary university, Marina Warner turns to Dante’s Purgatory and his vision of Earthly Paradise. Here, the pilgrim finds the river Eünoè, the “good mind”. Warner asks whether the real value of education can ever be measured. For her and many others, Purgatory is the audit culture of performance indicators, the superimposition of “the imagery of the market on the idea of a university – through ‘targets’, ‘benchmarks’, time-charts, league tables, ‘vision statements’, ‘content providers’”. So is there any hope for a reasonable consensus about learning analytics, for a way forward that respects the individuality and breadth of the individual’s needs and gains and that also aggregates such information to make an informed and persuasive case for a progressive future for higher education?

A friend reminded me of Warner’s essay, first published in March, while I was reading about the apparent collapse of the OECD’s Ahelo project, long in the making, which has set out to produce a universal measure of the value that students get from universities. Warner was writing before Britain’s May election, when the Teaching Excellence Framework was a throwaway line in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. The TEF has since become a reality and, presumably, the elixir of the River Eünoè still further away. Is it inevitable that common ground is impossible, that we cannot find a way of measuring the core value of education without siding with the sinners and wandering for ever in Purgatory?

Warner writes that “something has gone wrong with the way the universities are being run. Above all, I have learned that not everything that is valuable can be measured”. In contrast, the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (Ahelo) project set out to measure of what students across the world “know and can do” at graduation. The ultimate goal of Ahelo has much in common with Warner’s commitment to widening fair access to education as a public good. Ahelo’s objective is to “transform the established hierarchy in world higher education” through a set of measurements of learning gain that cancel out the distorting effects of previous advantage. The idea is that every prospective student should know the real value that a university can offer them before making a choice and committing considerable resources to the educational journey ahead.

But despite earlier enthusiasm, significant interest groups seem to be backing off. Despite earlier endorsement by the UK’s minister responsible for universities, Britain has declined to be part of Ahelo and the American Council on Education and Universities Canada have both expressed “grave reservations”. Ahelo’s advocates have decried this opposition as that of an “established oligopoly”, “ legacy providers, who are very dominant in the research space, trying to prevent new information about education coming to light.” But is this really a conspiracy of the privileged to defend their territory, or are there flaws in the Ahelo approach?

In these kinds of debates, two separate issues tend to get conflated.

One is the question of fairness. In an unequal world, that is becoming more differentiated by wealth and access to prior education opportunities, higher ranked universities enrol a disproportionate number of students from better-off backgrounds who as a result have improved opportunities in life, perpetuating and accelerating the cycle of economic differentiation. Looked at from this angle, Ahelo is the Robin Hood of Higher Education, standing against the elite and their interests.

The second issue is that of measurement. Ahelo is sometimes presented as if it has set out to measure all aspects of university life. But its feasibility study – and its case for future commitment – is based on two disciplines, Engineering and Economics. This, coupled with the well-known difficulties in defining and measuring “generic skills”, make exercises like Ahelo seem superficial and reductionist. Marina Warner’s point is that the real value of education must be much more than this. Seen from this angle, she is the champion of truly transformative education.

Would Marina Warner sit down with the OECD to design a revised approach to measuring the real value of the university experience? This seems improbable, although they have more in common than either may realize. Here is Warner’s clear and unequivocal vision for a future world: “I believe education at every age and level is an unqualified good, unassailably beneficial to the individual and to society and the world. I believe it is as important an indicator of a society’s state of health as nutrition and housing”. Ahelo’s advocates must surely agree.

So where do the differences start? For Warner, and fellow critics of the audit culture of contemporary university, the true gains from a university education are in what could be called the interiority of the student – in their perception and understanding of the world, in the sense and application of their own abilities. The multitude of such individual gains comprises the aggregate social good. But for the OECD and the auditors, the social and economic benefits are only evident at the aggregate level, once the “noise” of class, nationality, culture and personality has been discarded. Individuality is stripped away and the student is reduced to a data point and a string of associated parameters.

Does this matter? Are these not two ends of the same telescope? Yes, it does. The problem for Ahelo is not a conspiracy by the oligarchy, although there are certainly vested interests that would not want to see the consequences of universal fairness in access to university. The deeper problem is in the assumption of comparability.

Engineering and Economics are just two of many disciplines. Their curricula are constantly changing, as they should do. Trying to find a common denominator across nations, languages, political preferences and university systems is to risk a race to the bottom and to superficial rendering of the richness of any educational experience. If our learning analytics of the future are like this they will contribute little, if anything, to claiming back higher education as a progressive public good.

Here is Warner on the experience of learning:

You can feel the whirr and hum of thought: it feels woven of reciprocity, willing, ambition, the impulse to translate fugitive thoughts into communication with others. The same can happen with an audience at a concert, with readers in a library, or with visitors looking at pictures in a gallery.

This is for Creative Writing. But it could equally be for the excitement of a Physics laboratory, or for teaching Nursing, or History or – indeed – for inducing a passion for Accounting.

Building an understanding of the value of education from the individual outwards does not, though, cancel out the obligation for transparency. Students and their families are making a huge investment in going to a university today. Transparency is required to get beyond the sham of elitism – the claim that a university must be good because it claims to be. And here, the Ahelo pilot project has a lot to offer. For example, its “Value Added Analysis”, calibrates students’ results by taking into account both differences in the contexts in which universities operate and differences in their students’ prior academic achievements. These adjusted results, appropriately aggregated, are a much better measure of what a particular universities gives than the conventional grades that are fed into newspaper league tables.

What’s the way forward for Ahelo and for similar projects concerned with learning analytics. Firstly, abandon conspiracy theories. Universities at the top of the league tables are too busy competing with one another to organize an oligarchy. Secondly, don’t start by trying to change the world; with attempts to define universal systems of measurement that have a negligible chance of achieving consensus. Rather start with the rich experience of small cohorts of students, building these up into well-informed profiles of natural groups within and across clusters of institutions.

Approached in this way, learning analytics can both deepen our understanding of the value that education brings and retain the poetics of knowledge, the sort of inspiration that Marina Warner finds in Dante:

I choose to understand this elixir, Eünoè, as good, active knowledge, not only retrospective memory; the kind of knowledge that education passes on and cultivates, that grounds further learning, develops the ability to do something well, to think clearly and freely. Doing something well requires attentiveness – the attention of others who are helping you, teaching you – from doing up your shoelaces when you first go to school to identifying and fostering your aptitudes later. Good knowledge requires inquiry on your part, your absorbed attention – and to be attentive to the point of self-forgetfulness also lightens discontents. So curiosity must be met by responsiveness – by listening, not silence. Good knowledge is also good enough knowledge: the endless insistence on excellence and competitiveness drives individual disappointment. Above all, Eünoè – good knowledge – flows from the heart of education, and will add to the sum of pleasure and mutual illumination in the world.


AHELO “Feasibility Study. Volume 3. Further Insights”. 2013.

John Morgan “World’s university ‘oligopoly’ accused of blocking OECD bid to judge learning quality”. Times Higher Education 6 August 2015.

OECD “Testing student and university performance globally: OECD’s AHELO”.

Marina Warner   “Learning my lesson”. London Review of Books 19 March 2015


The last executions took place in Britain fifty-one years ago this month, when Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged simultaneously in Liverpool and Manchester. The death penalty was abolished five years later in 1969 but about 45% of people would like to see it reintroduced. The newly-elected government appears to be softening its position on capital punishment in line with its manifesto policy to review commitments to Europe-wide principles of human rights.

Is it unthinkable that British judges could again be allowed to sentence people to death?

There are long-running and substantial debates about the death penalty: its ethical and legal basis; its effectiveness as a deterrent. My interest here is a little different. Assuming that the almost one in every two people who say that they want the death penalty reinstated are, for the most part, non-violent in their everyday lives, how do they incorporate this endorsement of the destruction of another person into their worldview?

Another way of asking this question is in terms of the margins of error. In the United States between 1973 and the present, 155 people have been subsequently exonerated after having been sentenced to death. These exonerations have been across 26 different state judicial systems with the most (25) in Florida.

How, then, do those who believe that that a life should be taken accommodate the fact that no judicial system is perfect and that a proportion of those killed by the state will have been innocent? Would they accept as justifiable collateral damage someone close to them, and innocent, being executed while innocent?

Here, the work of political and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek provides a perceptive insight. Žižek shows how violence is inherent in the normal state of things, and the standard against which normality is defined. For a country with capital punishment, the extreme violence of the execution chamber is encapsulated in bureaucratic processes and technical language. Here, as an example, is an extract from the official report on the execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29 2014 at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester:

Director Patton received approval from the Governor’s Office to proceed with the execution. He then approved Warden Trammell to proceed. The blinds between the viewing room and execution chamber were raised and Lockett was asked if he wished to make a statement. He refused and Warden Trammell announced that the execution was to begin. The full dose of midazolam and an appropriate saline flush were administered. A DOC employee began to keep time on a stopwatch.

6:30 p.m. The signal was given that five minutes had elapsed and the physician determined Lockett was conscious. DOC personnel began to keep additional time on a stopwatch.
6:33 p.m. The signal was given that two minutes had elapsed and the physician determined Lockett was unconscious. Warden Trammel signalled for the execution to continue. The full dose of vecuronium bromide, an appropriate saline flush and a majority of the potassium chloride were administered.
6:33-6:42 p.m. Lockett began to move and make sounds on the execution table. It should be noted that the interview statements of the witnesses regarding Lockett’s movements and sounds were inconsistent. The physician inspected the IV insertion site and determined there was an issue, which was relayed to Warden Trammell.
6:42 p.m. At the direction of Warden Trammell, the blinds were lowered. The executioner stopped administering the potassium chloride.
6:42-7:06 p.m. It should be noted that the interview statements of the individuals in the execution chamber were inconsistent. However, it was determined the following events did occur inside the execution chamber during this time period.
* The paramedic re-entered the execution chamber to assist the physician.
* The physician attempted IV access into Lockett’s left, femoral vein. However, no access was completed.
* When questioned by Warden Trammell, the physician initially believed that Lockett may not have received enough of the execution drugs to induce death. He also believed there were not enough execution drugs left to continue the execution.
* The physician and paramedic continued to monitor Lockett’s heart rate utilizing an EKG machine. While attempting to gain the IV access, it was observed that Lockett’s heart rate continued to decrease.
* The physician made the observation that the drugs appeared to be absorbing into Lockett’s tissue.
* The physician and paramedic concluded that Lockett’s heart rate had entered a state of bradycardia and eventually slowed to an observed six beats per minute.
* There were three different recollections of Lockett’s movements during this period. Four reported that Lockett did not move, one reported he moved slightly and the last recalled a more aggressive movement.
The following events occurred outside the viewing room door in the
H-Unit hallway.
* Director Patton, OAG representatives Tom Bates and John Hadden and Secretary Thompson removed themselves from the viewing room and discussed with the Governor’s Office about how to proceed.
6:56 p.m. Director Patton halted/stopped the execution, which was relayed to the execution chamber.
6:57-7:06 p.m. Witnesses were escorted out of the viewing room.
7:06 p.m. The physician pronounced Lockett deceased.

This is Žižek’s objective violence, the rituals of normality, the way in which violence is incorporated into everyday expectations.

In contrast “subjective violence” is the experience of violation, pain and death outside such frameworks of normality. Clayton Lockett took 36 minutes to die in extreme pain, after repeated attempts to inject lethal drugs into the vein in his groin. If he had been the innocent victim of a kidnap, his death would have headlined as a horrifying assault. Žižek shows how objective and sanctioned forms of violence set the standards of expectation more broadly; the pairing of the continuing use of capital punishment across a broad swathe of states with the prevalence of gun crime and lethal shootings in malls, cinemas and schools.

This is why organizations like Reprieve are watching the signals from the UK government closely. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has reasserted a commitment to the global abolition of the death penalty. Nevertheless, the combination of spending cuts, the removal of the specific policy commitment and the manifesto pledge to repeal existing Human Rights legislation signals a change of heart.

Such shifts in how normality is understood affect, in turn, what is regarded as acceptable and provide a language that disguises the act of violence on a person’s body – the technical and medical language of the Oklahoma report. And, if the 45% of people who want the death penalty back were to increase to 55%, will a future government not be tempted to put it to the vote?

One way of to change the terms of the debate is to make use of Žižek’s distinction between that which we accept as normal and our subjective sense of violence – the ways in which we experience pain or imagine our own deaths.

The best known innocent victim of a judicial execution is Jesus of Nazareth and the crucifix is one of the most common icons celebrating this event. But how often is this formal representation of doctrine linked with our imagined experience of death by crucifixion? Here’s a summary of what this would have been like:

Nails are driven through the wrists so that the bones of the wrist can support the weight of the body, also causing acute pain by severing the median nerve. For a while, the victim can also support their body by tensing their thigh muscles, despite the pain of having both feet nailed to the upright of the cross. But as the legs give way the weight of the body pulling down on the splayed arms makes breathing increasingly difficult. Shoulders, elbows and wrists are gradually pulled from their sockets, stretching the arms by as much as ten centimeters. As the rib cage is forced upwards, the victim is forced into continual, gasping inhalation until the point of suffocation. Unless there is heart failure, the process of dying can be expected to take more than twenty hours.

In our world, the gurney takes the place of the cross; instead of nails we use intravenous injections. And there are still unjustified executions that follow from failures in the judicial process or are the consequence of unjust laws. This is why the defence of those gains that have been made in the protection of human rights is important.

Anyone who advocates for the return of the death penalty should ask themselves whether it is reasonable that, as the inevitable result of fallible processes, an innocent person should be killed like Clayton Lockett.


Owen Bowcott: “Foreign Office drops references to its campaign to abolish death penalty”. Guardian, August 2 2015.

Reprive: “UK Government to scrap Death Penalty Strategy”. August 3 2015.

Death Penalty Information Center:

Will Dahlgreen. August 13 2014: “50 years on, Capital punishment still favoured”.

Slavoj Žižek (2008). Violence. London, Profile Books.

Oklahoma Department of Public Safety: The Execution of Clayton D. Lockett Case Number 14-0189SI.