Mamdani on US universities and US students
July 17, 2013 § Leave a comment
BS: What are your general opinions on American universities and American students?
MM: What a privileged place is an American university. What amazing resources. My god! I am so acutely aware of the poverty of resources in African universities, just having spent some years writing about Makerere in Kampala. Outside of the war-related industries, this is the only industry where the US has an edge – in education. I don’t see it dominating any other economy in the world market. My sense of Indian and Chinese higher education is that it’s so single-mindedly focused on the instrumental – the engineering, the science, the medical – and the place of the humanities and social sciences is so marginal, whereas in American universities you can do away with medical school and engineering school and the university will still be there. But if you do away with the faculties of arts and sciences, there is no university. So this liberal education is very much a driving force for ongoing confrontation with the world, and at least sustains those who question that.
About students – Columbia is a privileged place from which to get a sense of American students. I think, quite often, if you take top 20 percent of Columbia undergrads, they are smarter than half the grad students at Columbia. The downside of American students is this thing which runs through – seems to run through – the Western experience, but seems particularly crystallized in the American case, which is this notion that you can save the world. And this determination to save the world. This conviction that they know what’s good for the world, and they know what’s good for you, better than you know. So it’s almost like the medieval Christians who burnt people to save their souls.
They can be like the modern counterpart of the missionaries. They are not particularly interested in the problem: They are there to give you the solution. By the time they leave the university, they are imbued with the sense of what should be the solution. I always tell them that, before you get unleashed upon the world, let me have a chance to talk to you. Get them to realize that the real question is not, “What’s the solution?” – it’s “What’s the problem?” And the elements of any sustainable solution have to be found inside the problem. Surely, [these students] are not the solution, and can’t be the solution.
That’s the dangerous thing. Somehow, ways have to be found to impart some degree of modesty to this new generation of Americans.
BS: In relation to that, I wonder about self-censorship. Do you think that American students suffer from self-censorship? For example, when I once added a Cold War and the University component to a literary theory class, it seemed that no one wanted to deal with this. It was treated like a conspiracy theory, but this information is everywhere. Yet, it seems, one does not want to know. What’s this self-censorship? Do you find this theme too?
MM: Yeah. One of the most damning words in the American academy is to be described as controversial. What should be the essence of scholarship has become a critique of scholarship, which is bizarre to me. Completely. The student experience is a tough one. You are judged constantly by the very people who teach you, and these are the very people who tell you that you should learn to think for yourself and think free of consequences. Yet the consequences are right there – there is the exam, and marking, and there are the risks you must take if you deviate from what the professor thinks, whether it’s a right-wing professor, a left-wing professor or a centrist professor. There is a cost of deviation. So between the language, the rhetoric and the reality there is a huge gulf. And the student knows it better than anybody else. In a way, the student is being made to to conform – to not say that which he or she thinks if it deviates from the norm. So we’re turning out kind of a group of mercenaries. It’s always a question for me: How do you deal with this catch-22? How do you say to the student, “Write what you think,” and yet you know that the student knows that you will be grading that student?