What are universities for?

Salle Wagram, credit: wikimedia commons


Over the summer I was reading police reports detailing the harassment of André Mandouze, an outspoken critic of colonialism in Algeria and professor of Latin philology at the University of Algiers during the first part of the Algerian War. Like others who held explicitly anti-colonial positions (e.g. Robert Barrat), Mandouze was targeted by right-wing activists.

What follows is a brief account of one particular incident. I’ve reconstructed it as best I can from Mandouze’s autobiography and these reports.

In late January 1956 Mandouze had given a speech at the salle Wagram in Paris. He had, he said, arrived in Paris from a war that had come to fill the space of Algiers. He pointed out that the struggle in Algeria would either degenerate into an all-out (à outrance) conflict or there would be a negotiated peace and independence. The international community and the mainland (la métropole) would never countenance such a war, and so a negotiated peace was inevitable. Indeed, if the government wished it, negotiations could begin immediately.

News of this “explosive” address had already reached Algiers when Mandouze and his family returned there at the end of February. On the afternoon of 6 March 1956, he returned to the University of Algiers to teach a class on Latin philology, arriving early to avoid a blockade of “European” students at the front door of the Faculty of Letters. As he began to teach, his classroom was invaded by students, many of whom he knew. These students were angered by Mandouze’s anti-war position and his close association with Algerian Muslims. Police reports say that there were roughly 500 students at the Faculty and that they threw oranges and other fruit. Amid the ensuing melée, Mandouze fled through a door behind his lectern to avoid being assaulted. His course was suspended by the Rector and the Muslim students in his class were escorted back to their accommodation.

The job of historians is to imagine the past and to make that past present. As I’ve been learning about Mandouze and his colleagues during the Algerian War I’ve become conscious that, as much as they studied the past, it was the future that worried them. Like other French historians working in Algeria, Mandouze was acutely aware that the university is a political space and that teaching is an act which calls a particular politics into being.  For Mandouze, a philology lecture focussed around a Latin text could make present a future Algeria. The classroom in the warzone could become an image of the peace to come: two peoples united in a common nationality.

Today I was reminded of Mandouze, his students, and the power of the university to make space for the future. In the below post the university is for the future. The question of what future, and whose, is one that we have to decide.

Educated Optimism

A few weeks ago I found myself on a sunny Wednesday afternoon sitting on a river bank in Uppsala, Sweden, with a group of students and staff from the CEMUS centre, discussing how they might creatively use a new space they have been offered in the centre of the city. Such an opportunity raises hundreds of questions – should this new space be a platform for student work, could it act as a resource for community knowledge building, can research be conducted here, who should govern it?

These questions, and myriad others, keep coming up everywhere I go recently. A couple of days later, I found myself talking to the head of strategy and innovation for a Stockholm municipality, who wants to attract universities to the region. The problem, she says, is finding institutions who want to think creatively about what they are for. A few weeks before that I…

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