Imagine that you are just a year ago, in 2014, and a young man is saying that Europe is so engulfed in corruption that even the most important German carmaker is cheating its customers, poisons the environment and is deeply engaged in criminal practices that will most probably cause soon a monumental scandal. Impossible to believe it, isn’t it? German engineering is a certificate of quality on itself and a company like Volkswagen cannot be suspected of fraud and investors can only laugh at the idea that this company will ever recall up to 11 million faulty cars. Even more absurd is the idea that German and European regulators know about this criminal activity and have no problem to secretly tolerate it. How can we believe that Europe became a space where corruption and plunder go mostly unchallenged. This is just laughable! The problem is that it is 2015 and it is all true!
It is also true that José Manuel Barroso, the former president of European Commission for an entire decade, had a curious choice for his private holidays and friends. The most famous was that holiday spent in 2005 on a yacht owned by Spiros Latsis, a Greek shipping tycoon that was involved in a competition case with the European Commission. Of course, this may be a simple coincidence. The truth is that Barosso’s legacy is marked by regular accusations of corruption and dishonest dealings. Holidaying with Greek tycoons may be a personal choice, but history works against you when you look at what happened with Greece and the EU years later. This choice definitely doesn’t look well for over half of youth who stays unemployed in Greece today.
Now, the new European Commissioner is Jean-Claude Juncker. He was Luxembourg’s prime minister for almost two decades before his current post. In this position it seems that Mr. Junker was not far from creating the mechanisms that turned Luxembourg into space for big business tax evasion in Europe. Allegations against him are so serious that EU MPs are currently considering whether to extend its mandate beyond November.
It is fair to assume that the great tradition of European public intellectuals that gathered in universities to start revolutions now plays again an important role to rebalance the system. The truth is that most European universities are numb and mostly mediocre, sliding with serenity over reality with a stubborn refusal to accept any serious critique and change for their own good. Old slogans serve as Potemkin screens, in a complex web of power, fear, guilt and promises that are trapping thinking and imagination. No new Dadaism is creatively squished together in a university cafe, and no new original and subversive idea is worrying any Volkswagenisers of the system.
Sedated rationale, numbed emotions
A recent editorial by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times probably explains how it was possible to reach this point in Europe. In The Most Important Thing, and It’s Almost a Secret, we find the preferred rhetoric of many politicians and international organisations. The mentioned ‘secret’ is too often presented in public speeches, reports, papers and articles. Most recently, President Obama mentioned this ‘secret’ in a public speech at the UN, underlining that “this is the best time in human history to be born”. This is the enlightening secret unveiled by Nicholas Kristof, and he notes that we have in the world today “a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease […] More kids than ever are becoming educated, especially girls. In the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; now, 80 percent do”. The message is “Be positive, it is all going well… we live wonderful times!“
The first problem is that this type of discourse is intentionally confusing with an audacious manipulation of the obvious. We can play the same game and shock the author of those enthusiastic lines with other facts that can ‘prove’ that we live ‘the best time in human history”: the number of guillotines in Paris is reduced now to zero, the number of people dying of cholera, plague and typhus across the world record a stunning decline, the expansion of electricity is unprecedented and so on. The point is that we live in 2015! This is a natural result of progress, that should not be presented as an extraordinary achievement. On the other hand, the so-called “decline in poverty” is extremely relative. Inequality is much more important to evaluate in this sense than ‘poverty’ (e.g. in some parts of the world one can live with $100/month while this income is impossible for survival in a developed country).
This brings the second point: the manipulation of data. There is solid research to prove that the increasing number of ‘educated children’ in the developing world is severely affected by corruption and poor quality of education. There is no doubt that in the 21st century there are more educated children than we had in the 19th century, but we may have some seriously inflated figures as a basis for our optimism. Many countries record that across entire regions students cannot read and write even at level 5 or 6 of secondary school. In many countries schools are simply invented just to pocket the money. For example, in Pakistan, a country that filled the author of the editorial with enthusiasm, thousands of schools are recorded and funded, but do not exist! Transparency International reports that in one project “...more than 8,000 of them are ghost schools, including several located in the federal capital. In July 2012, the funding of the project had been stopped for the fiscal year after the Planning Commission said it wanted to check for irregularities and corruption”. Imagine now how many children are becoming educated in 8,000 schools, especially if they are just on paper.
There are also too many reasons to consider that we do not live the greatest times in history, not even in some developed economies. Mr. Kristof should read The New York Times, because just weeks ago we find there Education Gap Between Rich and Poor Is Growing Wider. In this article we find that “…the achievement gaps between more affluent and less privileged children is wider than ever, notes Sean Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford. Racial disparities are still a stain on American society, but they are no longer the main divider. Today the biggest threat to the American dream is class.”
Probably looking at the world through a NY Times lens or a 5-star hotel window makes very hard to understand why this is not really a great time to be born if not in a rich family. It is definitely a time when common sense is squashed if it goes against profit.
Current challenges and ignored histories
The constant manipulation from media, cynicism and misinformation probably led to this sad state of facts, where Europe cannot find resources for a revolution of thinking. Instead, there is a terrifying resurgence of various fascisms. Despite this, universities take little notice and continue a serene conversation about the same old slogans of the 90s, like nothing changed across the old continent. Probably for the academic leading there the world looks great and it is a wonderful time to be born. Nevertheless, graduates find a very different reality: underemployment and unemployment hit hard European youth, including those who hold a degree.
Not that there are other major challenges for Europe’s intellectuals. Youth marginalisation, worrying rates of unemployment and underemployment, a constant rise of extremist political parties, an increasing intolerance for difference, a refugee crisis that reveals how abysmal is the amnesia across Europe about what happened there in the last 80 years… Trains with desperate people, prison camps surrounded by guards, barbed wire fences where children, women and men are sprayed by soldiers with irritating gas or the image of a scared man carrying a child intentionally tripped by a local women (a journalist) left European citizens passive, even when the prime minister of Hungary publicly said that his government is defending the European Christianity against the Muslim threat. The disturbing rhetoric and imagery is doubled by real evolutions: Austrian election resulted in a swing to the extreme right and across the EU is currently recorded a spike in anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic incidents and violence (even if there is evidence of massive under-reporting). There are just too many worrying developments, but nothing is shaking the halls, or the old structures preserved by respected academic pillars of salt (always well cited).
Looking for solutions
Slowly, some European universities react. Some say that it is commendable to see scholarships offered by some institutions of higher education to some refugees. In ‘We want to be part of the solution’: universities reach out to refugees we find that a number of British universities “have announced scholarships for refugee students”, and London School of Economics will offer “three scholarships per year for undergraduate asylum seekers from 2016, along with 10 postgraduate awards”. It is important to note that The Independent observes that only Germany will take 1.5 million refugees only this year.
This is not only ignoring the heart of the matter, and is an example of astonishing hypocrisy that can serve as a case study. This impressive coalition of universities plays the ‘scholarship donation’ game while the prime minister of the UK (and so many others) continue to use a xenophobic discourse. Just months ago, British PM David Cameron was publicly describing refugees as a ‘swarm’ invading Great Britain. No word from academia, no coalition of universities (or academics) to react against a dangerous slide of public discourse towards extremism and intolerance. These universities may now be accused that their initiative is just a 13 scholarships PR stunt when hundreds of thousands are in need. Or that a small number of scholarships are used simply to tick that box of “social responsibility”, just to increase departmental chances to access EU funds for research. Ultimately, in the same vein, Washington Post reports that Some refugees in Germany get Zumba classes, but others sleep on the streets.
The courage to address xenophobia and racism, intolerance to the idea of diversity and the ‘other’ is much more important than ten scholarships for a lottery in a twisted form of real-life ‘hunger games’. Speaking truth to power (especially when you have the leverage of some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as The London School of Economics or The University of York), presenting the risk and possible effects of political demagoguery, taking courageous stands, bringing new ideas in a genuine empathetic dialogue may help more those who fled death and destruction, in search for some peace and a chance to start a new and decent life.
Not even the most pessimistic scenarios imagined in 1990s a united Europe where extremist parties become part of the elite political leadership, where some governments openly adopt politics of hate and all new European democracies place themselves on the wrong side of history. When the UK will look at the European Union as a former member, extremist parties will lead EU parliaments and institutions, and Donald Trump will be the President of the US, some may regret that 2015 was lost again. We can only hope that most universities in Europe will not endlessly use the same echo chambers to hear how wonderful they are.