By Sameul Ferrard
Watching the opening ceremony live on Youtube last Monday 21st of September, I caught myself peering into the face of our rector, trying to discern from it hints of what he must have gone through these last few months… The ceremony gave the official start to the new academic year and took place in the Peter de Somer auditorium. The usual public of professors and guests was much reduced, with many empty seats between each attendee. Everyone wore a mask and the small podium for the speaker was disinfected after every person. As the rector was preparing to speak, my thoughts went out to him and to what his experience has been these past few months... Not only has he had to manage the university going through COVID-19, but he is facing one of the darkest pages of university history in the form of the Reuzegom affair and the tragic death of Sanda Dia in 2018.
Nevertheless, it seems the rector managed to deliver a strong, articulate and self-aware speech. Both parts of the speech were centred around the sustained necessity for an ever more inclusive, safe and respectful KUL. He expounds on these three axioms of security, inclusivity and respect as well as the importance of facing difficult and challenging questions. He put emphasis on the ever-present necessity for updating the course that the university has set for itself, while also harking back when necessary to how our university is already involved for the better in our society and rooted in a positive and beneficial mission. He stressed the importance of debate; the three presented axioms are to be discussed and debated, "to be given life and further growth through our conversations".
At some point in the ceremony, I had some cynical thoughts: "it’s not enough” I thought to myself, or "it’s all talk". This and other words of disenchantment towards something, perhaps the university, cropped up here and there in my mind. I realize however, that I’m in one of those tricky situations, where the truth is found in multiple, seemingly contradictory facts. Yes, the university is not doing enough. True, we should do better, and we can do better. In the words of the rector, “plus est en vous et plus est en nous” (French for "more is in you and more is in us”). This call for the potential not yet fully realized to bring itself forward resonates with me. I start thinking of other things when he mentions that our university is rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview. What I make of this is that we need to do better because we are rooted in values and ideals from which the care of the most vulnerable in society usually stems, the ongoing endeavor to bring value to our society and those in need, and to reduce suffering. The university and the culture it’s nested in are indeed undergirded by the stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in these there exists the central idea which claims that every individual possesses a divine spark of God within them. To honor and respect that to the full, we need to do better work and better sacrifices. We need to continue being open to the world and serving others. These profound and deeply nested values that serve as our guides call us to better action, to take on even more responsibility for our role in the world.
One part of that responsibility that the rector invites everyone in the community to take upon themselves with is to face the difficult and unsettling questions he presents us with. One of these is how to maintain a human connection with individuals who are on trial for involuntary manslaughter. This means, for me, to refuse to see any one person, even if they are on trial for a terrible act, in a dichotomous, black-and-white way. Another grave difficulty would be my own tendency towards cynicism regarding the attempts of a big institution like ours to keep improving. There are many other difficult, disquieting and sometimes truly frightening questions and thoughts here. However, one rule that is present in our ancient stories and that is useful to know here is that given the nature of the world, we are always faced with the necessity to update our structures, be them personal, familial or societal.
"Indeed, a structure is but a static behemoth which is ever more corrupt and calcified if not for the attentive actions of those who carefully and with some respect strive to update and better it."
The difficulty lies in what is being asked of me: to parse out the complex and nuanced reality facing me, to find out what must be kept and what must be changed. Take those three axioms of safety, inclusivity and respect, for example. Although the idea of safety has a feeling of being obvious, it is often tough to make a code of conduct that is worth defending. Safety can come to mean coddling and shielding from anything that perturbs, disrupts or upturns a particular framework of interpretation of the world. However, this is exactly what a bustling and lively university experience includes plenty of: the chance to be challenged, sometimes even to be shocked and pushed beyond the boundaries of what one was already thinking and assuming. This can oftentimes feel unsafe, and indeed, if we take education and values seriously, which I believe to be obviously the adult thing to do, then one cannot expect to feel safe and valued all the time.
It is inevitable that I will have to change my views and ideas along the way. This is perhaps less glamorous and more effortful than the quick and seemingly simple solutions of ideology-driven programs. But for those who know the complexity and difficulty involved in applying change, even if that be to oneself, then one knows that thinking these things out is of the uttermost importance. And although sometimes it is true that one can get stuck in endless discussion without much action, this is for me a false dichotomy. From my own experience, talking and thinking are very often synonymous, and it is in discussing these issues that I come to understand what I’m thinking (and in doing so my actions) and can thus update myself in real time! Mistakes are going to be made, you can be sure of that, that’s how thinking develops! But with truth as our guide, with the values that undergird us as support and direction, and with the right time, effort and sacrifice, it is possible that the difficulty of the task before us at times becomes incredibly meaningful and worthwhile.
"I think it's everyone’s responsibility and duty to vehemently maintain that yes, our university, as well as all of the other human institutions, is imperfect. Our university is, as always is the case, in dire need of attention and care."
Yet we must at the same time be able to hold in our sights that solid foundation of divine values which lies at the core and are awaiting to be even more fleshed out and fully lived in the world. One of these truths deep in our culture is that each human is made in the image of God and possesses a divine spark within them. To honor and respect this entails that each individual is imparted with the right and responsibility to vote, to debate and speak as freely as possible. To be protected by and from the state, with such principles as the presumption of innocence, and to live with dignity. Another fundamental idea at the basis of our culture which one can find in the Old Testament is that the speech-process which confronts and makes the chaos into a better order, the Logos, is the highest value in the hierarchy of values, is in itself the mechanism by which the structure itself is updated, and as such is associated with God and with the hero journey of many different myths and stories.
The approach we have today towards this structure (and all very complex entities, including ourselves) must be capable of the nuance mentioned above. It must thus in my eyes contain a certain sense of respect and humbleness in regard to the intricate workings and complexity of this university, and as the rector recommends, a specific careful and balanced understanding of pride for what it already does so well and what it stands for. These are necessary ingredients to balance out the critical part of me, and I believe with these in the pocket we are the most well equipped to undertake the hard work that, inevitably, lies ahead. The events of this past year mean that I was especially ready and eager to hear solemn words about the values we hold dear; realistic and down-to-earth encouragements to keep the university innovative and reinventing itself; and it was a breath of fresh air to get this very unique start to the academic year.
Some of the underlying ideas and ways of looking at the world in this text are the result of being fortunate enough to glean some of the hard-earned wisdom and ways of understanding the world of psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson, biologist Eric Weinstein and writer Douglas Murray, amongst others. Many of them have written books l strongly recommend.
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