In every society and in every individual, education can be a transformative experience.
When coming to University, I dreamt of an experience that would change my mind, allow me to create and develop critically; and an atmosphere that would understand I am going to make mistakes. These were the principles I was sold before I got here.
Yet five years after starting my journey through University and in the student movement, I am deeply troubled by the nature at which we conduct our conversations and politics in the student movement. I look to an NUS where volunteers, activists and even national Presidents are constantly vilified for things they and we have said in our distant past.
I am as guilty of that as anyone.
Growing up in a deprived part of inner London; my colleagues and I in school and college would regularly use racist, homophobic and downright anti semitic tropes as part of our everyday vocabulary. Now, we are embarrassed and recoil when we reflect on how some of the terms and ideas were inbuilt in our culture and went without challenge.
It was only at University that they were challenged. It was in the corners of the library and in interacting with classmates that I understood their history and consequence. Make no mistake, I am deeply sorry not just for the words I once thought acceptable, but the ideas I allowed to go unchallenged.
I do, though, sincerely believe we are all better for it. We now understand the terms and phrases that we would never dream of using today; not for fear of condemnation, but because of the privilege of education. It has since inspired me (and many like me) to work tirelessly for years on anti-racism and understand the deep importance of our liberation campaigns in both fighting and educating.
The reality of our current landscape is, both in student politics and the wider national discourse, that every statement you make will be subject to intense scrutiny, will be dissected by every ideologue and interpreted in ways in which you have no control. The culture on our campuses and in our national movement encourages opposition to be combing through every statement for potential error, offence or contradiction that might then be filed away and appear at a political opportune time.
While many will say this is the inevitability of a polarised society and that politics is a full contact sport; I believe students and the public are tired of distortion, of faux outrage and name calling. I believe that when we explain the issues as we felt them, with honesty and decency, made an effort to understand that the education system is built to develop minds and shed prejudice and bad ideas, then people's instincts for understanding would bring them round.
This is not to make excuses and to sidestep accountability for missteps and errors in judgment. But rather to recognise that in an environment where a single ill considered remark can generate more bad publicity than years of bad policies; how long will it be before people simply stop speaking their minds? How long before people don't engage in the process because of their perceived baggage?
I say this because there is nothing extraordinary about an awakening. It is something we all must go through if we are to wake up.
I don't romanticise education. I see it for what it can be:
An experience that obligates me to see the world through the eyes of my peers, no matter how much I disagree with them. That is what education does, it calls us all to see different points of view. The conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless. We are all shaken out of our complacency, we are all forced beyond our limited vision - no one is exempt.
Yet when we price an individual out of education, or we eliminate someone from the conversation for something they said a decade ago, we all suffer for it. Yes the individual misses out on their own intellectual liberation and transformative experience, but our society also slows down. Our political conversation becomes reactionary, polarising and overly simple. We have already seen that in effect. As education becomes further elitist and inaccessible, the likes of Donald Trump and Marine Le Penn gain ground.
These far right groups and individuals across the world have been able to be so successful and win not by widening their base, but vilifying activists and leaders on the other side of the isle, pushing minorities further into the fringes of society and energising its right wing through divisiveness.
The trouble is that there are many that think for us to be as successful and overcome this way of thinking, we have to do the same. That we must abandon subtlety and nuance in the face of passionate intensity. Rigid orthodoxy and predictability stops us finding ways to meet the challenges of our society.
I am under no illusion that opening our education and reversing the marketisation of education and shifting our style of politics and conversation will be easy.
Perhaps all the critics are right. Maybe there is no escaping our trench politics and partisan divide. It's conceivable that its all an endless clash of armies and any attempt to change the rules of the game will be proven futile. I often worry that the trivialisation of politics has reached the point of no return. That its all a sport. Where I paint my face red and yours blue, and we cheer on our sides, and throw mud at theirs; and if it takes a cheap shot, over simplification, or political mercenary to defeat our enemies than so be it - for winning is all that matters.
But I don't think so. I think we can do better.
We are out there - those who have found a way to understand an individual's progression. To know that ideas change, people learn. That it is precisely the point of education to develop your ideas, abandon your ignorance, your prejudice and establish a position. To develop conclusions and taste.
I imagine the white working class boy who goes to University having never seen the benefits of multiculturalism. Who has seen and heard nothing but the "continued encroachment" on his opportunities and his rights by people who have been 'other-ed' to him his whole life.
But his education will teach him better. His conversations and battles with ideas will awaken him to the benefits of globalisation and collectivism. The trouble is our current political climate would punish him forever having held views counter to our accepted norms. It would eliminate him from contributing to a wider public discourse that is so desperate for his contribution because he once held views beyond the scope of what we find acceptable.
I imagine him and I are waiting for a politics that is mature enough to balance idealism and understanding. To distinguish between what can and can't be understood. I am still optimistic. I believe that people, all people, like me still recognise the difference between dogma and common sense.
We are out there, I think, waiting for the rest of the student movement and the political class to catch up with us.Suggest a correction