There is a heated debate in Australia – with some ugly turns – on marriage equality. The kind of reasons offered by those against marriage equality are truly baffling, especially if one cares about injustice, suffering or a better future for all.

There is the religious group saying that this goes against the Bible or other holy texts. There is no wonder that this position is not very specific (talking here only about Christianity) about what part of the Bible is clearly against love, or homosexuality; as this excellent theological analysis shows here, the real reason behind it is that there is no argument to support the hateful rhetoric based on religious texts. It is heartbreaking and frustrating to see Christians missing that crucial part of compassion, understanding, empathy from the Bible and watch how they find themselves marching against those who have a terrible history of discrimination, that is still present and hurtful in explicit or more subtle forms. The reality is that this is not about religion, but a position of intolerance and control. This has nothing to do with the Bible or any other religious book, but quite the opposite!

It is important to note that marriage is not a religious thing anymore (as it is obvious that we we’re not in the 19th century…), but a set of civil rights! For example, I am happily married with a wonderful woman and we did not go to a Church – and we’re very happy about it! We spent many years as a de facto couple and the reason to get officially married – to get the marriage certificate – was only driven by the need to get the set of rights that all get as partners. One can be shocked to learn that in reality de facto heterosexual couples have quite limited rights. I can only imagine how hard and discriminatory is for gay couples to live their life together, get old and deal with all arrangements of a couple engaged in a long term relationship; and cope also with discrimination and the feeling of a second-rate human beings. We were travelling a lot, changing jobs from Europe to North America and South East Asia, so when we arrived in New Zealand we were tired of all the extra-hurdles we experienced as a de-facto couple. Border control and immigration authorities made this a very unpleasant experience for us:  show us that you are a ‘real’ couple, prove it!, we need more evidence and so on. So we changed from a de facto partnership to a marriage recognised by immigration and courts in Auckland. As soon as this certificate was granted all problems went away. So if you never walked in those shoes it would be wonderful to imagine how is to experience this form of ‘soft’ discrimination.. and after that multiply it exponentially.

Another argument against marriage equality is based on one of the worst myths: that there is a so called ‘flown-on’ effect on children raised by gay couples. This is particularly painful, when we think how callous is to exploit children in this debate. However, since this is discussed, it is important to point out that the science is set, as these two articles with numerous links for studies and meta-studies prove: Children raised by samesex parents are at no disadvantage and Same-sex couples and their children: what does the evidence tell us?. We know what is definitely going to have a negative effect on children, and this is lack of love! Violence, abuse, neglect and poverty impact on children for the rest of their lives and it would be great to start caring about real problems, not people’s sexuality. The Church and any religious group can address this with courage and ethical responsibility; there are so many people in education and scientific research that can provide them all the evidence they need to make a strong case for decisive action on this!   

There is time for the NO campaign to look in their hearts and find inspiration in the Christian spirit of kindness and understanding for those who really need it. Australia is a generous country, where those who’re vulnerable can find help, where the ‘little guy’ still finds some help to stand a chance against bullies. This is what made us love this country and stay here and this is why I passionately believe that those against equality should have a second thought and find who is the bully and who needs a fair shake.

Our belief in education for all, equity and the need to fight injustice when you see it made me and my wife voted YES – and we share it proudly!

 

*photo for “supporting marriage equality is taken from the City of Melbourne – with thanks!

ignorance

Any form of Anti-Americanism is a simplistic explanation of complex realities, and a dangerous manifestation of intolerance. Far from this, we have to admit that we are at a point where we need to see what Americanization involves for other countries and cultural entities and for the future of citizens across the world. The main reason is not only that the American popular culture was influential and adopted widely since 1950s, even in countries where anti-Americanism is prevalent (in West or other countries), but most recent developments in the US politics, culture and civic life require a very serious and objective examination.

In this context it should concern us all that the US popular culture, in a unique fabric that is weaving together on Internet and TV, music and movie industries, various corporations and their lobbying strategies and campaigns, lead now to a place where the Brave New World is looking longingly towards a dystopian 1984. Glorified ignorance is widely accepted along with authoritarian solutions; an obsessive focus on superficial and fast results and the invasion of entertainment in all aspects of life. Reality TV is shaping personal behaviours and Jerry Springer Show can only fail to impress in the current landscape of junk ‘journalism’, obsessed to impress and secure audiences at all costs. In effect, last US elections and the triumph of Trump and his neo-Fascist characters that surround him represent just one terrible symptom of diseases that went ignored for a long time. It is also an effect of the ubiquitous effort to see the ‘positive side’ in all, even when this involved overlooking dangerous risks. The paradox is that the American ‘optimism’, fondness for happy endings (even if it screams “artificial”) and tremendous effort to see ‘silver linings’ in every disaster, is a strange feature for a nation so dependent on anti-depressants. Nevertheless, too many are taking American narratives as legitimate and coherent stories.

Resistance against Trump and what he represents stands beyond politics; it is the point of separation between immiscible values. Is the difference between mutual respect and glorified hate, between values of progress and civilisation and glorified ignorance. When Trump stated in a victory speech “I love the poorly educated” he did not shocked the audience. His massive group of followers was not offended to be looked at as a witless herd following someone’s else’s mind. What a failure for education! What a shame for universities and schools to have so many people let to ignore how much they don’t know and think that ignorance is a sign of strength. Nevertheless, American solutions for education are adopted by many countries and key decision-makers.

The American solutions influenced for a long time the rest of the world. The Reagan-Thatcher influence on schools and universities is undeniable, and it all started with what Reagan found good to impose on American universities. The reduction of education to economic arguments is a terrible legacy of this influence, and we can see now that profits may not solve all problems in the world. A good reminder here is that the highly entrepreneurial Nazi regime was doing very well with the economy… for a while! What a terrible lesson to ignore or forget.

The current US Secretary of Education is a religious zealot, with a stunning lack of knowledge on education policies, research or what can lead to an educated mind. Amazingly, in America of 2017 this is a great virtue: media shows that ignorance is fresh and good, knowledge is putrid, elitist and dangerous. The new Secretary of Education believes that guns should be part of school life so we can protect children from “potential grizzlies.” It is also a fanatical believer in the value of profits and neoliberal solutions. We are all warned.

Major trends in education are set for the last 6-7 decades by what was designed in the United States, ideas and values promoted by American scholars and schools (for example  Tyler and Bloom, Taylorism in education and so many others). Today this influence comes in strident forms, such as the obsessive focus on testing or – more subtle – on the constant decline of social status for the teaching profession. OECD studies show that US is the most important country leading in the devaluation of the teaching profession, in the way it is paying teachers and in their working conditions.

At the same time, universities across the world dream (openly or secretly) to be next to Harvard, and this is a strange tendency. Especially now, when is not very clear when looking at current tensions and evolutions what good was for the American society to have the impressive Ivy League universities. It also stands unclear to see what institutions like Harvard make of real social responsibility, civic values and contributions to give graduates a balanced and harmonious life. Maybe that model is flawed. Maybe these widely praised values lead to other bizarre reality TV characters that should remain insignificant in a functional democracy and educated society.

Glorification of ignorance and cult-like solutions are always devastating for the Polis and for every single one of us who are still thinking that we have to defend and promote humanistic values, democratic citizenship, intellectual and technological progress. European universities hold a troubled history on how institutions of higher education and academics supported the rise of fascism and the Nazi ideology. It may seem now extreme to think about that, but we have to stay alert and see if our models are good and healthy; just a year ago it was unthinkable for many to imagine a world where a reality TV character is the US President and his top advisers are people like Steve Bannon, with a worldview that leave sane people speechless. How was it possible to imagine in 2015 or 2016 a world where Breitbart – a relatively obscure far-right website – will be creating news in February 2017. As painful as it is, we have to admit that it is all happening now.

It is still time to consider a radical rethink of current models and possible solutions for our challenges. Maybe the light on the Statue of Liberty is shining somewhere else now. We can be grateful that the guidance came from those shores for a while, but now we live very different days. Ignorance  – as attractive as it may look for many – is always leading to immense suffering and disasters. The americanization of our universities, media, education and future require a solid challenge! Because a society where Trump is President and the Education Secretary is the personification of glorified ignorance and religious obscurantism cannot provide models that can lead to a better future for others. This should make us all think, especially those who are working in universities. It is time to look at other ways, beyond what ‘makes America great again’ – if not for our students and new generations, at least for universities and our own future.

 

*Photo credits: Flickr (Japanexperterna.se); Creative Commons
**DeVos family was ‘generous’ to give $200 million to the US Republican Party, including funding campaigns of 10 of the 12 Republican senators on the committee that vetted her for the position of Education Secretary. We can simply call this crude corruption! 

It is difficult to imagine in 2016 a more offensive candidate than Donald Trump… and now the world expects anxiously to see what the US President Donald Trump will do. No one really knows what this reality TV character plans for the most powerful office, but some things we know for sure: he was preferred by a shockingly high number of American citizens, in a country considered a pillar of democracy. We also know that his racists, discriminatory views were well known, so people were well aware that they elect someone associated with the extreme right ideology, a crude misogynist that is spectacular in his primitive nationalism, racism and bad taste. Famous now for his vulgar notes on mating rituals caveman style, Trump’s 3rd wife is a former ‘model’, famous only for some naked gaudy pictorials; voting proved that this couple is a perfect preference for evangelicals and their “family values”. The ignorance associated with this choice is abysmal. The difference between a reality show and real life will be soon obvious for some, but the majority will just pay attention to the new propaganda, blaming the ‘other’ for all their suffering.

There are too many notes and articles on what happened, and we can only expect the big whitewash in the following months. Trump is now slowly legitimised, considered just another leader with real policies in a world that simply goes ahead. This happened before, and Europe couldn’t stop in 1923 to listen alarmed voices and was deriding those able to see what was really coming. We can only hope that the history cannot repeat such massive mistakes.

One step to prevent this is to look at universities and their role (and place) in the current wave of populism and rise of the extreme right. Because universities are not only the place of nurturing the growth of knowledge, information and ideas, but the space where the brightest minds have the responsibility to take a critical stance when things go wrong. Their academic scepticism is the healthy condition able to unbound curiosity and go beyond appearances, deconstruct deceptive certainties that prop up populism, intolerance and fear, and build better alternatives for individuals and society. This is the place where solutions can be built on universal values and what unites us, against the temptation of simple answers provided by hate and bigotry.

A panglossian blindness

“Pangloss” is the only word able to capture succinctly the blind optimism that obscured the reality of past and future challenges for universities and colleges, students’ lives and their social contexts. The undeniable reality revealed by the election of President Trump should make us look back now and see what happened when the poisonous tension was boiling and universities across the world spent time in awe (and gullible enthusiasm) for the new wave of change represented by… MOOOCs. We have to ask where were the voices warning that a wave of crude nationalism and xenophobia was brewing Brexit? Where is the work of all political sciences schools and experts in sociology and education to show that trumpism was a reality waiting to happen?

Articles, reports and papers on higher education written in 2013 or 2014 reveal the quasi-acceptance of technological solutionism, well promoted by commercial firms with obvious financial interests in the sector. That time was also remarkable for the swift reaction against those saying that tech solutions are good and needed, but are not the ‘wave of change’, nor the solution to the most important problems facing education, students or society. Media and academics fell in love with the new narrative, waiting for the miracle solution of MOOCs. The massive open online courses were presented as the end of the campus, the start of free delivery of higher education to all corners of the world and the massive wave that will change the world. No serious questions were asked about the evidence supporting these claims, no scepticism was allowed in thinking about the real possibility of poor kids taking higher education courses in slums or disadvantaged areas. The hubris was spectacular and the focus was mostly limited to this. The future was great; the optimism was possibly shadowed only by those unable to see the wonderful promise ahead.

‘Big data’ came along to complete the narrative: it is all is under control, we finally cracked the complexity of learning and it is all measurable, predictable, and programmable. The hype about what data analytics can do still stays unmatched in higher education.

But the ‘tsunami of change’ was just a small ripple and the revolution comes in a nightmarish form, from a very different direction. Too many looked in a wrong direction.

A (needed) silver lining

We can hope now that the hype and over-reliance on data and technology in higher education will get now more scrutiny. “Big Data” was wrong in the case of Brexit, and obviously mistaken in Trump’s case. Firms specialised in opinion polls and data analytics simply got it all off target and – as an immediate effect – an astonishing amount of money was lost. We can only guess what will be the cost of this complete trust on data analytics on a long-term. However, universities have to accept the fact that the best in the game are forced now to accept the limits of data analytics and bid data crunches. It is time to take a step back and look at reality as it is, good or bad, beyond well-funded fads. Technology opens now doors that were unseen and closed before for academia, but there are limits and misuses. Academic scepticism is the safety mechanism against costly and dangerous mistakes. It is imperative to get it back.

Also, the fragility of democracy and civilisation is now clearer than it was before these ugly elections. We learned as well that is too dangerous to believe our made-up narratives about a safe and stable world, or to take democracy and civilization for granted. The important lesson for academia is that there are too little antibodies in our universities, reactive mechanisms against groupthink and comfortable fads. We still see too little courage to deal with the unpleasant – but very important to acknowledge – realities. The safe bet of embracing mediocrity and avoid by all means to rock the (sinking) boat should not be the path of action for universities and academics. It is (still) time to get back their narrative of places of learning and solutions for a sustainable and prosperous future for all.

Brexit 2There is no case for nationalism in Europe, a continent where unspeakable atrocities caused in Spain by nationalism should be sufficient to close any discussion on it. The Holocaust and the Second World War have evident and well-documented roots in national exceptionalism, and we all know now what happened when nationalism that went ahead beyond control. The inhumanity, the absurdity, and the immensity of evil should be the unforgivable lesson that nationalism, national exceptionalism, in any corner of the world, should be always avoided. Unfortunately, it seems that Great Britain is not only ignoring these lessons, and the ultimate sacrifice that their own brave men and women made in the past against nationalistic parties that were invading Europe. Now the UK insists to show the world that British exceptionalism is even more alive than ever before. Here comes Brexit, the push to leave the European Union in a post-imperialist dream to join… the Independent Empire of Britishness.

With Brexit, all sorts of right-wingers have now a platform to present the most absurd ideas. We can take just one example: Boris Johnson, the former London Mayor, recently stated that the European Union is pursuing similar goals to Hitler! Because when one looks at the EU’s relentless pursuit of human rights, freedom of movement, democratic citizenship, rights of workers and so many others in the same vein one can only think of the Nazi ideology, right? Of course not! This kind of demagoguery and absurd discourse deserves a special treatment, most probably specialised. But the point remains that these characters have not only a platform but a surprisingly large number of followers! Something is wrong and went wrong for a long time, most probably since kids learned in schools that entire parts of the world map painted in pink represent the Great Empire that we own, ‘oh, aren’t WE the best?’…

At this point, it is the best to see the UK leave. The EU is a dazed and rickety structure, with too many pockets of corruption, not limited to the usual suspects (Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.) To this point, the EU – with its quasi-incapable and aloof-OLAF – was unable to bring these groups and cliques to order, and those too-corrupt countries back to reality. Is also impotent in dealing with an increasingly aggressive and irrational Russia, at a time when a united front is vital. It is acting less than a family or a political union that is following the model of US – or a federation – but more of a hybrid looking for identity. In the current political and economic context, this cannot work. Brexit can be the best thing that can happen to the European Union: a wakeup call! This is what happens if you don’t get your act together. The impact on the UK will be so devastating that EU countries will learn and important lesson. Local nationalists in various EU countries, who currently beat the drums with equally absurd and idiotic arguments like those played now by the Brexit campaign, will lose fast followers. UK universities, agriculture, research, innovation, finance, tourism etc. will lose so much and so fast that any European voter will think twice when the sirens of nationalistic demagoguery will rise again.

Of course, there are no sound economic or national security arguments for the UK to leave the European Union! Nonetheless, when was nationalism associated with reason? The effect will be devastating and this may be the best thing for the UK and for the EU, as this is the best antidote on both for segregation, exceptionalism and nationalism. The UK will suffer – and this is their own citizens’ choice – but the EU family will finally look at the real chance to forge new and realistic solutions for a united future.

It is the time for Brexit!