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Blog - Blogue

  • Academic Freedom and its Current Challenges

    Wednesday, December 23, 2015
    Iva Apostolova

    The institution of the university, as we know it today, originates in the High Scholasticism period of the Middle Ages. The best way to describe universitas is as a scholarly corporation. In other words, at its root, university is an organization whose goal is to provide and produce learning and knowledge. The first universities grew out of monastic schools associated and attached to various religious establishments. As feudal wars across Europe subsided, and cities prospered, universities became more commonplace. As a result, they gained their independence and turned into self-sufficient scholarly communities. It is this self-sufficiency, combined with the communal spirit, that is still the university’s most prized possession to date.

    Universities are spaces, literally and figuratively (hence, the need today for university campuses), where one goes to learn. But learn to what end? Sapere Aude! is one of the oldest mottos used by university establishments. Dare to Know! or Dare to be Wise! (in literal translation from Latin), the phrase also carries the connotation of ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’. Upon reflection, isn’t this what academic freedom is ultimately about – having unrestrained access to information while, at the same time, critically evaluating it in a way that produces new knowledge which can, in turn, be freely distributed and accessed by anyone?

    In this sense, however, universities are odd organizations. Unlike any other organization, where loyalty to the institutional body is a key element to its success, in universities, the only loyalty expected of the ‘magistri’ is to knowledge itself.

    Are universities still places of free exchange of knowledge? Everyone who works in academia would certainly like to think so. However, we can’t ignore the challenges we face today. Apart from the petty and not so petty faction wars that every academic unit faces, I can single out two snags that pose a threat to the university spirit. The ubiquitous electronic media extends the space of learning well beyond the boundaries of the university campus. While this is often perceived as a positive thing, it sometimes leads to blurring of the lines between private and public, which, without proper critical evaluation, can threaten the integrity of the academic dialogue. Should a comment on a facebook page reflect on the academic reputation of a professor? What about a student? Should the university care?

    Despite their communal origin, universities function in the public space as legal and economic bodies. The high price of post-secondary education, particularly in North America, inevitably imposes the business model where education is just another type of service provided by the professors and consumed by the clients (the students). While this model allows universities to co-exist and interact with other public and private institutions, it poses problems for the integrity of the scholarly community as well as the shift of the common goal from knowledge to profit.  

    Will the university manage to protect its spirit? Let’s hope so.

  • What is Feminism?

    Friday, October 23, 2015
    Iva Apostolova

    What is Feminism?

    What kind of an animal is feminism? Has feminism become obsolete? Was it ever effective or necessary? Is it all about gender power? These are but a small fraction of the myriad of questions the very mention of ‘feminism’ inadvertently triggers.  

    Feminism, like any other –ism, has as many definitions as it has uses. What makes feminism even more excruciatingly difficult to pin down is its non-homogeneous history and content. Feminism is a political and social movement, as well as a philosophical temperament. It is a way of life as well as a moral stance. There are as many feminisms as there are women and men speaking out on issues concerning gender inequalities and social injustices. The great Greer Knox once said she understands feminism as ‘women helping women’. Today, feminist philosophers such as Karen Warren and Lorraine Code link feminism to ecological thinking where care for one’s surroundings (including, but not limited to, the natural environment) is part of the feminist agenda.

    Traditionally, feminism has been divided into three waves (although not all historians agree with this categorization!). The roots of the first wave are placed either with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman published in 1792, or the Seneca Fall Convention in 1848 where around 300 women and men gathered to sign a Declaration, prepared by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, proclaiming gender equality. The Seneca Fall Convention is very important for feminism since it early on links it to two other movements that were crucial for the period: the suffrage and the abolitionist movements.

    The second wave of feminism is often associated with the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1949. It bears the marks of Marxism and Radical Feminism.

    The third wave begins, roughly, in the mid-90s of the 20th century. It is characterized, like everything else in the intellectual history of the period, with post-colonialism, post-structuralism, and post-modernism.

    Where are we now? I think the best way to describe our situation today is with the, somewhat vague but still useful, term ‘post-feminism’. It is ‘post-‘ in the sense that many of the political and social struggles of 20th century feminism have born fruit: women are legal persons; they can not only vote, but also run for political office, have access to education and paid work, the list goes on. But feminism is still very much relevant today.  

    Due to its inborn theoretical and practical flexibility, it has expanded to incorporate the struggles of all underprivileged, vulnerable, and underrepresented groups, be it human or non-human. To use Karen Warren’s words: feminism is to address all types of discrimination. Let’s not forget that since its first baby steps, feminism has targeted not only specific injustices but more importantly, the very logic of domination, which generates power-based social structures where competitiveness and ‘winner takes all’ are not only encouraged but dearly rewarded.

    To me, feminism is an embodied philosophy which ‘forces’ us to regard the world, including ourselves, with care, and concern, but not without critical assessment. Being a feminist is the most adequate way for me to keep alive the memory of the generations of brave women (and men) who fought against slavery, poverty, and all other forms of gender, social, political, and moral oppression, for reproductive rights, and equal access to opportunities in life; it is carrying on the legacy of all mothers (and fathers), including my own.  

    But there is still so much work to be done all around the world, as well as here, in the west. So, feminists, roll up your sleeves and let the fun begin!

    *This blog is dedicated to my mom, Katya.