What is the connection, if any, between social movements and educational spaces like colleges and universities in South Asia? Stuti Roy discusses two events — in Bangladesh in 2007 and India in the late 1960s — and how the increasing corporatisation of Higher Education institutions has not altered this symbiotic relationship.
In The Pedagogy of Hope (1992) Paolo Freire claims that ‘hope is an ontological need’. What happens when we consider not only the power of this hope within traditional educational spaces but also the centrality of education to social movements?
Social movements can encompass a wide disaggregation of aims and practices. The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements (2013) says that it is difficult to ‘map the range of empirical phenomena’ to neatly define social movements. I will focus on the site of the university, and the following examples tease out the nuances of the Education–Movement nexus: the Naxalite Movement in India and its origins via student politics, and the University of Dhaka protests of 2007 and the intersection of social movements, education and violence. I argue that the relationship between social movements and education is symbiotic, albeit internally complex. Alternative knowledges of movement spaces are produced in opposition to the formal institution of the university while also paradoxically being facilitated by it.
Thinking through the relationship between knowledge production, learning and social movements seeking to create change, the questions that arise include: how can knowledge transform the existing social order? To what extent is ‘the relationship between education and differential power’ (Apple 2007) enabled and mediated through social movements? To clarify, to say that social movements are sites of the production of ‘social movement knowledges’ is distinct from saying that educational practices themselves are inherently transformational, especially in the case of formal schooling.
Social Movements are Educational, and Education is Contentious
There is an emergent literature on the educational imperative within movements. Very little is studied on this with regard to South Asia, even though it is rife with the intersection of educational practices and movement politics, particularly at the university level.
Focusing on social movement knowledges challenges conventional wisdom on the relationship between ‘educational regimes’ and power, both from the perspective of Sociology of Education and Anthropology of Education. For example, a Bourdieusian perspective would emphasise that one’s movement through the institution of the university would facilitate social and cultural reproduction. Bourdieu (1990) writes that the institution perpetuates ‘patterns of thought which organise reality by directing and organising thinking about reality and makes what he thinks thinkable for him as such and in the particular form in which it is’. The study of education and social movements emphasises that it is this very shaping of what is ‘thinkable’ that can be stretched in a collective setting like the university.
South Asia challenges the passivity present in the Bourdieusian perspective which might see students as individuals who unquestioningly reproduce the power structure of the status quo. The examples of India and Bangladesh show students as agents capable of escaping, to some degree, the trappings of formal education as what Althusser (1970) deemed ‘the ideological apparatus of the state’.
That South Asian university spaces are still highly politicised is significant given the neoliberalisation and corporatisation of the university at a global level. Achille Mbembe (2016) argues that education is increasingly viewed as a consumer commodity, which means that ostensibly knowledge-producing institutions are now based on ‘the deepening of functional linkages between higher education and knowledge capitalism’, that this ‘political economy of higher education’ means that university spaces are de-radicalised as students see themselves as mere market actors.
While this is certainly true, careful consideration of the nature of South Asian movements via university spaces challenges this understanding both historically and presently. In ‘the university: last words’ (2013), Harney & Moten characterise the university as a ‘fortress [with] various appearances — refuge and refugee camp, writer’s colony and colony’ but that there is still room for hope: ‘[f]aculty and students and staff have the means of intellectual production. Now, all we have to do is want what we have.’ This ‘want’-ing is what makes room for university spaces to breed social movements that aim to produce real world change, both because, and in spite, of the university.
Social Movement Knowledges: Does Knowledge Have No Ideology?
That social movements can emerge from formal institutions to then both form and collaborate with situated, alternative spaces is the contention of this piece. In the Naxalite Movement of West Bengal (India) in the late 1960s, we see that mobilisation facilitated by the educational institutions fostered solidarities and complex bonds between the urban and rural; thus, praxis-based approaches can spread to spaces beyond the university and coalesce with and create unique movement histories that emphasise interconnectedness.
The ideological roots of the movement originated from an urban-rural intermingling where universities acted as key spaces. This turned into the Naxalbari ‘uprising’ where peasants revolted against their landlords in collaboration with disillusioned students who left their bourgeois lives to join the agrarian struggle. Although severely morphed, the Naxalite Movement persists to this day and it is often surprising to note its intellectual and pedagogical roots. A clear fracture on what constitutes knowledge then is this ostensible separation between ‘knowledge’ and ‘ideology’.
The potential reasons behind education and knowledge production is something that is often obscured within the transformational context of movements. In Marxism and Educational Theory (2019), Cole writes that ideology and education coexist, and Marxism has very clear pedagogical implications:
Marx noted that the bourgeoisie fail to offer real education, and instead, they use education to spread bourgeois moral principles. Marx and Engels also argued, however, that workers are educated very much by their experiences of labour under capitalism, and Marx, in fact, believed that, from the age of nine, education in schools should be combined with labour.
In this sense, what makes ‘social movement knowledge’ distinct from ‘knowledge’ alone are the grooves of power that decide what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate knowing. In the example of Naxalbari above, the knowledge produced by the urban Bengali intellectuals may be seen as more legitimate than the rural Naxalites. If the knowledge produced in Adivasi and rural spaces was considered legitimate, then it would not have been subject to military counterinsurgency.
Movement spaces disrupt, and are thus considered by the mainstream to be ideological instead of legitimate sites of knowledge production. This distancing between movements seeking change and the layperson’s understanding of what it means to be an ‘educated person’ has to do with assumptions based on ideological cleavages. Whose language and practices are considered neutral and purely educational? The Marxist tradition, as seen in the Naxalite example, is useful here because Marxism is explicitly ideological — largely because it has always been oppositional — but also because it has always been explicitly educational.
Student Politics at University of Dhaka
Does the incidence of violence cancel out learning? The protests at the University of Dhaka in 2007 demonstrate how violence cannot be understood as the product of situated learning or social movement knowledge but rather as reactionary repression to praxis and change-based mobilisation. In his study of the Dhaka University protests, Ruud argues that a systematised violence takes place wherever students mobilised. He applies Brass’s Institutionalised Riot System (IRS) theory of communal violence dynamics to find that student protests suffer from an institutionally generated violent repertoire via the government and police forces that end up making student mobilisation regularly violent. In this case, the very process of mobilising despite the threat of imminent violence may be viewed as a complicated form of learning, one that hinges on higher stakes than simply sitting in a classroom or taking part in harmless activities.
Considering praxis to be educational conceptually opens up room for large scale change via movements like the ones discussed ones. While the mutually constitutive nature of education and social movements has been argued for in this post, it is important to recognise that not all alternative forms of knowledge are necessarily inspirational. As noted by Apple (2007), ‘many of the fastest growing and most powerful social movements are retrogressive not progressive’.
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