‘Yes we Lacan’: a revolt of philosophy students

Patrick Hayes talks to the Middlesex students who have occupied their university in defence of knowledge for its own sake.

Patrick Hayes

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With planned cuts of £449million in Britain’s higher education sector, many arts and humanities departments deemed to be ‘financially unsustainable’ are under threat. But some are standing up to the threat. An occupation by philosophy students at Middlesex University, protesting against the closure of their department, raises some burning questions about the purpose of education today and what universities are for.

The philosophy department and the world-renowned Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy are to close. Recruitment for new courses has been terminated and all programmes wound down. The centre may have attained the highest results in the university in its most recent Research Assessment Exercise – yet vice-chancellor Michael Driscoll still sent a letter to academic staff informing them that his decision was ‘simply financial’ as staff had been unable to ‘present a credible case for a sustainable future for teaching and research in philosophy’. The philosophy department at King’s College London is also under threat.

However, the Middlesex decision has not been justified to students. A meeting to brief the students about the closure was postponed, says the university, because of pressing coursework deadlines. Perhaps trying to justify the decision to 60 students well versed in the art of logic was too daunting for the university authorities. According to second-year philosophy undergraduate Johann Hoiby, it was this ‘complete lack of respect’ shown by the dean of arts (Professor Edward Esche) and the university management which ‘fired up’ the students who decided spontaneously to take a stand, occupying the meeting room of the grand ‘Mansion’ building at Trent Park on the university’s leafy campus in north London.

Within a day, the occupation by the philosophy students had spread to the entire mansion. White banners draping from the windows declared in red paint: ‘Those who lack imagination can’t imagine what is lacking’, ‘Not for sale’, ‘The university is a factory. Strike! Occupy!’, ‘Free thinking, not fee thinking’ and ‘Yes we Lacan!’. In the early stages of the occupation, the police arrived, but decided that there were few grounds to evict the students for trespassing.

Over the past week the philosophy students have bedded down inside the mansion, waiting for a constructive dialogue to begin with the university administration. They have turned the mansion into a hive of philosophical debate and discussion. Hoiby, who came from Norway to study at the department because of its reputation for research in Continental Philosophy, has found that the occupation has enriched his studies. ‘We’ve got everything in here’, he said. ‘We’re all living on top of each other and we’ve been having some really positive exchanges of ideas. We spend our time doing a bit of everything: discussing essays, doing close-text readings and staying up all night arguing philosophy. This is what university is supposed to be: a place for learning.’


The occupation at Middlesex
University. See Facebook

The students are determined to make full use of the occupied mansion, transforming it into what they describe as an ‘open hub of culture, politics, thought and creativity’. Inside, the walls have been covered with slogans such as ‘Make time stand still’ and ‘Revolt’. The students have been holding daily events and weekend workshops, open to the public, which they have dubbed ‘Transversal Spaces’ where ‘the boundaries between disciplines and the relations between students and teachers are blurred’. Events so far have included lectures on the history of calculus, panel workshops discussing the nature of voting, reading groups discussing Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and poetry readings.

The ongoing occupation is rapidly becoming a cause célèbre, attracting support from leading thinkers and academics from across the world. Almost 15,000 people have signed a petition demanding the reversal of the decision to close the philosophy department. Linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky has come out firmly against the cuts, and last week 30 world-renowned philosophers, including Etienne Balibar, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Ranciere and Antonio Negri, sent an open letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement condemning the closure of the department as ‘a startling stage in the impoverishment of Philosophy provision in the UK’. The occupation has prompted London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) to stage a debate – Who’s afraid of philosophy? – to discuss the importance of philosophy in contemporary society.

Hoiby reports that the show of support by thinkers who are ‘read and studied at Middlesex’ has given a huge boost to the morale of the occupying students. He hopes that it will make a difference, raise debate and help to persuade the university’s administration of the importance of courses that may not bring in large amounts of funding or be directly relevant to students’ careers after university but which are important nonetheless: ‘Philosophy is of enormous importance. Education is not just about what society needs in order to function, it should also be about exploring what you’re interested in. There must be a place for that in society.’

In his seminal work on higher education, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom characterised a student’s time at university as ‘the only chance civilisation has to get to him… the charmed years when he can, if he so chooses, become anything he wishes and when he has the opportunity to survey his alternatives, not merely those current in his time or provided by his careers, but those available to him as a human being.’

Bloom would doubtless have been horrified to hear the occupying students’ warning that through ‘a slew of cuts and redundancies… our universities are in danger of becoming vocational training centres that churn out a highly skilled, yet intellectually and culturally impoverished workforce’.

One of the students has characterised waiting for a meeting with Professor Esche as being like ‘waiting for Godot’, but they are determined to occupy the mansion until their demands to reverse the closure of the department are met. The university seems to prefer hiding behind managerial rhetoric about financial sustainability. It is a sad state of affairs when universities make decisions about courses that are ‘simply financial’ rather than being based on how best to expand knowledge.

Socrates famously argued that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’: evidently for Professor Esche and the administration at Middlesex University, a life worth living is now an unsustainable luxury. The students’ resistance, and the transformation of the administration building into a lively hub of debate and discussion, is an important salvo in the defence of knowledge for its own sake in the face of impending cutbacks.

Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi looked in detail at the treatment of education as a material, rather than mental, good. Tim Black criticised the marketisation of higher education. Brendan O’Neill considered the internal Labour Party clash over tuition fees a feeble excuse for politics. Jennie Bristow looked at Mary Evans’ critique of the ‘death of the university’. Having accepted the marketisation of higher education, James Panton argued, critics of top-up fees lost the argument. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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