BBC News dated 8 October 2019 informed that students across Bangladesh are protesting after an undergraduate, named Abrar Fahad was beaten to death at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) in the capital, Dhaka.
The reason for such act, so far understood, is that he wrote a post on social media criticising the government over a water sharing deal with India. Several members of the student wing of the governing Awami League have been detained in connection with the death. The government has promised to bring those responsible for death to justice. However, this event has raised several questions.
Do we need student wing of any national political parties inside an academic institution? How extremist views and ideologies should be challenged? What is the role of a university teacher or a Vice Chancellor regarding such matters? Are teachers instigating violence through their silence or 'I'? Should a university provide freedom of space and nourish freedom of speech.
According to United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), an educational institution is defined as entities that provide instructional services to individuals or education related services to individuals and other institutions. Control of the instructional services lies with teachers, who are involved in curriculum delivery on a daily basis. Research suggests that when teachers deliver curriculum they also try to impose their own values.
This subjective value can be identified as 'I' in education. It is very difficult to detach 'I' completely from teaching. But what should be the primary role of 'I'? In teaching and learning environment teachers make their position clear in relation to a particular aspect of curriculum and also we might challenge any idea if there is a legitimate ground to do so.
However in higher education, whatever our subjective judgement is- on the one hand we commit to freedom of speech and on the other hand we commit to the rationality. Question is-how should teachers position their 'I' within the context of freedom of speech and rationality? In order to develop an answer for it, first I would like to address some issues surrounding the concept of freedom of speech and rationality.
John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher, political economist and civil servant is one of the most influential thinkers in the history of liberalism. Mill's conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. However Mill raised some important issue surrounding liberty. In his book On Liberty Mill seeks to differentiate the freedom of thought and freedom of expression by using the harm principle.
Mill maintains that freedom of thought and freedom of expression are distinct, because while thought is self- regarding, expression of one's thoughts clearly has consequences for other people. Mill argues that freedom of expression "being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself and resting in great part on the same reasons."
This means that these two notions of freedom are practically inseparable. Mill also maintains that the freedom of thought and expression contribute to "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being." For Mill, to discover and know what is true and the manner in which we believe what is true are both important.
In his book On Liberty Mill wrote, "the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race…if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error." While freedom of speech is important in higher educational institution, one should consider Mill's harm principle and principle of revelation of truth after collision with error, which can only occur in a challenging environment.
Rationality, as cited in Oxford dictionary, is the quality of being able to think sensibly or logically. Rationality implies "the conformity of one's belief with one's reason to believe, or of one's actions with one's reasons for action."
The study of rationality and rationality in action are central to western intellectual culture. John Rogers Searle, an American philosopher, in his book Rationality in Action describes the Classical Model of rationality and put forward an alternative theory of the role of rationality in thought and action. I would Searle's argument about intentionality and rationality which I find pertinent in defining the state of mind of a person engages in a violent act.
While defining intentionality Searle states that "..it is the power of minds to be about, to represent or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs in the world." The nature of intentionality is an important issue as it relates to social reality. Searle believes that it is the collective intentionality which is not simply reducible to individual intentionality, can create a social reality.
If such reality is a kind of act of violence, then I would argue that it is the collective intentionality that might trigger such act. Searle argues that only irrational actions are directly caused by beliefs and desires. Searle, while interpreting the concept of rationality, argues that reason do not cause one to do anything, because sufficient reason generate intention but do not force one to do thing.
So, there is a gap between the motivating desire and the actual decision making. According to Searle, all rational activities presuppose free will. Rationality is possible only where one has a choice among various rational as well as irrational options.
Therefore I would argue that in addition to freedom of speech higher educational institution should provide freedom of space where rational and irrational views can be tested and challenged without any fear. If Abrar hold any views that differ from the view of the general student population, then this should be challenged and tested using argument and not by force.
In his book, The Faith of the Faithless, Simon Critchley attempts to triangulate the present around the terms of politics, religion and violence. He states that "religiously justified violence is increasingly employed as the means to a political end." So, politics cannot and should not be ignored as well for this "systematic violence" which Philosopher Slavoj Zizek compared something "like the notorious dark matter of physics".
However government should be careful about their reaction and action. Any action should not jeopardize the culture of freedom of speech and rational or irrational discussion within higher educational institution. Tom Bingham, one of the eminent judges in Britain, in his essay on "Terrorism and the Rule of Law" referred a statement from the Director of Public Prosecution that "the fight against terrorism on the streets of Britain is not a war.
It is the prevention of crime….a culture of legislative restraint in the area of terrorist crime is central to the existence of an efficient and human rights compatible process." One may notice that there is a fundamental difference between UK and US approach to tackle terrorist crime because United States declared this as "War on Terror" but UK considered that the process should be human right compatible.
Considering Searle's position of intentionality and rationality in action and Mill's concept of liberty, I am of the opinion that a higher educational institution should act within the ambit of the principle of freedom of speech and rationality.
In order to comply with such principle one powerful act is that we should challenge extremist views and ideologies using word instead of weapon. We as a teacher should position our 'I' to facilitate such challenge. Current statistics suggest that comparatively young people are committing terror related offences or other form of violent act.
Statistics also suggest that some student may arrive at higher educational institution already committed to terrorism, some may become radicalised whilst attending a higher education institution and others may be radicalised whilst they are at an institution but because of activities mainly taking place off campus.
In an educational institution policy and procedure should be in place in order to deal with any extremist view head on and also to prevent developing such view. Obviously this has to be proportionate and risk based. Student should be aware at the beginning of the academic year that they are learner not a politician.
Students come to the university with full energy. They hold desire to do something in addition to their day to day study. This energy should be managed by the institution itself. There should be a non political student union inside the university, who can organise many events that can develop student's organisational skill, public speaking abilities and other soft skill.
My observation suggests that inside the campus student in fact follows a benefit driven path of politics instead of principle driven path of politics. This path leads to Searle's collective intentionality that might leads to a violence act against an individual.
Above all, higher educational institution should challenge extremist views and ideologies. Such act should have due regards to freedom of speech and freedom of thought. On the one hand educational institutions should not provide a platform for encouragement of terrorism or violence.
On the other hand government action should not create any hindrance to critical thinking and academic freedom. If any view is extremist in nature, then environment should be such that an opposing view should be presented in the same event without any fear. So, providing a platform for freedom of speech and freedom of space, higher educational institution can play a vital role for flourishing rational thinking and non violence. Mill argues that a truth should produce by collision with error.
We should find out the truth behind any violent act in the university concern and develop an atmosphere for rational thinking. From the perspective of an educational psychologist, students act on their emotion means letting their feelings be the main input to a decision, as opposed to analyzing it rationally. They also feel that they are the current leader or working hard for their leader, whoever the leader might be.
This sort of psychological paradigm has to be addressed through a rational thinking. In order to do so teachers and educational administrators should act themselves as a rational thinker first. They should feel for it and create a healthy environment for freedom of speech and provide freedom of space for their student to flourish. However, this requires a cultural shift in education through a collective action.The writer is a UK based academic, environmentalist, columnist and author
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