Let me start you off with a story. We shall call it that even though the events are real.
It’s evening around the building of the faculty. Inside, however, the atmosphere is as lively as it can be on a cold November the 7th. The students are choosing their representatives through an exercise of democratic procedure. This exercise would make the father of the minimalist theory of democracy, Joseph Schumpeter, extremely proud, as all the elements are in place – there are secret ballots, equal votes and a peaceful change in leadership.
Our hero – although only episodically present – is an average student. Occupied with studying (presumably) or even working, he doesn’t have the time to check what’s going on around him all the time. As such, he had no idea that elections were taking place. In truth, he isn’t very sure what the elections are about and at this point he’s too shy to ask. The question of who is running and for what position lingers in his mind for a second, but then disappears. He would, however, like to vote. He likes doing so in “real world” situations – sometimes even getting inflamed with political enthusiasm – so why wouldn’t he do it in a safe environment such as the University?
With his mind firmly made about the act of voting itself, he inches closer to the polls – in actuality, these are two white cardboard boxes with writing on them, one saying “COUNCIL” and the other “SENATE”. Simple enough, our hero thinks. The first ballot, meant to elect the representative for his section, has only one name. No worry there. Soon enough, however, he is faced with the ballot for the “SENATE”. This one presents two names. Whom should he vote for, seeing as he doesn’t know either of the candidates or what they stand for?
Visibly concerned, the hero stares at the white paper with the two names. A light tap on his arm breaks his train of thought. When he looks to see the origin of the tap, his eyes are met by the youthful smile of a pretty girl, the one that was manning the voting station. “I like this one”, she says innocently, pointing to one of the names. Baffled by the burst of attention he was receiving from the stranger, who accidentally happened to be a pretty girl, our hero smiles awkwardly and fills out the space next to one of the names. It’s all the same for him so why should he go against her advice? Next, he reaches out his arm and puts the ballot in the box.
Another day, another win for democracy.
With a simple smile and pointing of the hand, that polling station girl wiped away any difference between an exercise done by students of a political science faculty and the practices of some of the most corrupted and authoritarian real-world parties.
You’re thinking “okay, but what relevance does this have? What you’re talking about can be just an isolated incident, not to mention partially innocent”.
But it holds all the relevance in the world.
With a simple smile and pointing of the hand, that polling station girl wiped away any difference between an exercise done by students of a political science faculty and the practices of some of the most corrupted and authoritarian real-world parties. This had not served as an insult to the institution that educated her and all the others like her – and will continue to, sadly – but as an insult to her fellow students, herself, and the democratic process itself. It proved that she had not only failed to understand anything during the time spent in the classrooms, but that she had refused any form of socialization that was aimed at her.
This means only one thing: that there are some students – which oddly enough seem to find one another and band together out of a deeply gregarious nature.
A bit of history
Student involvement in university decision-making has its origins during the 1960s and ‘70s, when democratization reached the secluded environments of Anglo-Saxon and West European universities. As Thierry Luescher puts it, “in democratic societies, the purpose of public higher education is typically not limited to preparing students for specific roles in the labor market. Over and above that, public higher education is also meant to provide students with generic skills, opportunities for personal growth and development, and capacity. First, students need to learn how democracy works – through participation in student organizations and university decision-making bodies, and by developing a conceptual understanding of democracy. Second, they need to learn that democracy works by experiencing that they can influence events and their own living conditions through participation.”
How can we hope to achieve that, when we are taught one thing, and then go right ahead and do another?
Klemencic adds more to the history of student representation: “in medieval Bologna University students were organized into ‘nations’ which initially offered them mutual welfare, protection and collective security against the local authorities, following the example of the guilds already common in Italian cities.”
Citing Haskins, Klemencic details the two scenarios that ensued after students became represented. One was the Bologna scenario, where students, associated in nations, effectively controlled the university. The other, much more popular scenario, was that of Paris, where the guild of professors – the masters – shared control over the university with a student rector – a young master – elected by the students.
And here we are today. I remember three years ago when I was entering the halls of the university for the first time and I was handed two pieces of paper simultaneously – one was the registration form for becoming a student and one was a registration form for becoming a member of ASSP. We have imported a Western institution, imbuing it with our own Balkan “flavor” – just as the Romanian state has for so many years now. How are we better?
“Come on”, you will say. “You’re dramatizing the entire situation.” We all know, however, that under the mantle of student representation, the organization that I’m referring to does little for students. Between club parties and “leadership courses” with its former leaders or even minor bureaucrats, the organization’s call for true involvement is as empty as politician’s promise to enrich Romania.
The afflictions that plague this student association of ours range from organizational negligence and inefficiency to group bullying.
What is put in place through party-like mobilization is a group identity that offers protection from the painful anonymity and loneliness of college life. What this brings about, however, is the desire to protect the group from outside critique through personal attacks, outright insults and a vocabulary that is anything but worthy of students. The afflictions that plague this student association of ours range from organizational negligence and inefficiency to group bullying.
How do the worst of us become our representatives? For an answer, we have to turn to one of the best minds that tackled the problem of collectivism and individualism – Friedrich Hayek. In his words, “the higher the level of intelligence and education of individuals, the more their tastes and opinions are more distinct. If a large group, strong enough to impose upon everyone else its views on the values of life, is necessary, it will never be made up of those with extremely differentiated and evolved tastes, but of those who form the “mass” in the pejorative sense of term.”
We set out as would-be reformers, but ended up being represented by the worst among us. Again. How did this happen? We should all be ashamed twice-over – once for the politicians of Romania, and once for ASSP, once for the real world, and once for the world that we have created immediately around us.
Thierry M. Luescher-Mamashela, Student representation in university decision-making: good reasons, a new lens?, in Studies in Higher Education, vol. 38, 2013, pp. 1442-1456
Manja Klemencic, “Student representation in Western Europe: introduction to the special issue”, in the European Journal of Higher Education, vol. 2, 2012, pp. 2-19
F.A. Hayek – The Road to Serfdom, first pubished 1994 by George Routledge & Sons, Humanitas 1991, 2014
Haskins, C.H. 1923. The rise of universities, New York: Henry Holt and co.