by Andy Davies, University of Liverpool
Antipode’s editorial team recently posted about comments made by Clive Barnett, who was speaking about an article by James Ferguson in the journal’s 40th anniversary special issue, The point is to change it. The issue was a thorny one – the purpose of radical scholarship. Is it purely ‘explanatory-diagnostic’ – all about expressing indignation and denouncing the powerful – or is it also ‘anticipatory-utopian’ – is there also space for discussion of alternatives, for debating what we want and how to get it? What type of alternatives to the current situation do we offer, and are we better at complaining about the very clear disparities in the world than we are at suggesting alternatives? This is clearly an important issue, and I want to use this piece to question what it means for what I consider to be a crucial part of scholarship – and that is the ability to teach.
A few months ago, I was asking a group of undergraduate students whether they thought that, on balance, the economic reforms of India that started in the early 1990s have been of benefit to the country – a relatively standard “Neoliberalism: is it good or bad?” question. One student immediately said “That’s not the point though, is it? We can’t know how things would have been [if the reforms hadn’t happened], but the point is to make life better for more people in the future.” Whilst I was delighted with this engaged and intelligent response (and the resulting discussion with other students that followed), the issues underlying it nagged away, and I often think about how effective I am in my teaching about radical ideas and encouraging students to engage meaningfully with them in a way that shapes their thinking beyond the classroom. Of course, I’m not saying that when I teach I want every student to immediately embrace radical ideas, but as part of a balanced curriculum, I think that students should at least be exposed to them and then decide whether they agree with them or not, and as a result can come up with a reasoned and critical analysis of contemporary events. One of the strengths of geography in this respect is our tradition of fieldwork – the ability to take students out of their comfort zone and show them some of the ways in which inequality manifests itself (and the innovative responses people have to the problems they face) is one of the great strengths of the discipline. Having said that, I remember a conversation a few years ago with a recent graduate in development studies who said he finished his degree and felt dispirited as it had taught him that there was no way to change the world…
I am also struck by the fact that, whilst writing this, I have been ducking in and out of one of our university open days for potential students. Given the current climate in the UK (where it seems likely that there will be reduced numbers of undergraduate applications for the next academic year as a result of tuition fee increases), the market for students willing and able to fill places is probably going to be increasingly competitive. So, whilst teaching about radical ideas, I have also been learning the latest Unique Selling Points (or ‘USPs’) that our university and school offer in order to try and fill places on the degrees available. This leads on to a bigger question about how appropriate a university is to teach radical ideas (given their elitist nature as institutions which educate only the ‘finest minds’) and what an academic qualification should be valued as. Are traditional universities the best places to learn about contesting and resisting inequality, or are more ‘open’ spaces, such as those like the Tent City University and the (recently evicted) Bank of Ideas at Occupy LSX, better ways to encourage people to learn while ‘doing’ radical democracy? A different type of institution just around the corner from me as I write is the Free University of Liverpool which is supported by geographers like David Harvey and Doreen Massey. The rise in UK tuition fees highlights some of the ‘big’ issues faced by higher education, but also helps to expose the many other ways of learning that are available. Of course, all this offers no answers, but I think it is worthwhile to constantly question our positions as academic writers and teachers.