Universities are places for education, not political protests that ultimately fail to change anything
Anson Au says the university’s primary role is the delivery of education. While free speech is an integral part of learning, it should not hinder the provision of education itself
Pro-democracy camps have leveraged these cases to suggest a broader oppression from the mainland, whereas pro-Beijing groups have responded by blaming them on a larger youth culture set on breaking the law. But a fundamental part of the picture has been overlooked: what is the purpose of the university itself? To what extent is it a place for free speech?
My years of conducting research, teaching and studying at universities around the world, including Harvard, the London School of Economics, University of Toronto and Baptist University, show that there’s a need for free speech in the university – but with boundaries.
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Free speech must be granted for ideas. Since Plato’s academy in ancient Athens, the university has been rightfully seen as a place for the free exchange of ideas without repercussions. After all, only the freedom to express can nurture the creativity to think, innovate and improve.
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The university is a place for education, not governmental politics. Making the university a site of protest for governmental politics is absurd. Whether publicly or privately funded, it does not belong to the individuals who study or work in its halls. It is first and foremost an institution for education.
Modern history has witnessed social movements attempting to convert the university into an overtly political space – and their inevitable failures. In France, universities nationwide were occupied by protests in May 1968 to resist capitalism, consumerism and American imperialism. None of these were overturned, and the very government the students protested against was empowered by the chaos, obtaining an even stronger electoral base than before.
Disruptive ideas are acceptable in universities, but not disruptive practices for external issues. Setting up camp at the university to push for a political movement or party is useless, impractical and does little more than disrupt for its own sake. More importantly, it invites attention of the unwanted political kind that not only distracts, but threatens other students.
Protests can be an important vehicle for social change. But so is education. We cannot endanger one in pursuit of the other. Keep radicalism for the exchange of ideas in the classroom.
Anson Au is a visiting researcher in the Department of Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University