Sunday 24 June 2012

The Promethean Politics of Education

Prometheus Chained in Sheffield yesterday
Last night in the open-air Greek theatre looming over the railway station in Sheffield, the historic heart of the British steel industry, Prometheus was chained to his crag as a punishment for supporting the advancement of the human race and daring to speak truth to Zeus, the self-appointed new Dictator of the Universe. 

The production of Henry Stead's beautiful new version of the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound was mounted by citizens of Sheffield and current and former Classics PhDs at London, Oxford and the Open Universities, led by my own PhD students Lottie Parkyn and Matt Shipton. Lottie graduated from Birmingham University (see below) and Matt, who comes from Sheffield himself, is studying the suppression of the authentic voices of young people in Athenian drama. The production was an inspiring example of what such young people can do for culture and community in the 21st century if given even half a chance.

Abolitionist Prometheus & Heracles (1807)
This great play was adopted in the late 18th and 19th centuries as the manifesto of the campaign to abolish slavery. It  forces its audiences to think about the potential of humans to create the world they deserve as well as their eternal vulnerability to sabotage by self-interested ploutocrats, politicians, careerists and "managers".

The parallels between the crisis in the play and those afflicting international Higher Education are striking. At the University of Virginia, a heroic President has been ousted for supporting the life of the mind, the culture of the State of Virginia, teachers and students against her finance-fixated executive board. At Birmingham in England, a cabal of middle-aged white men (and they are all men)--the Vice-Chancellor David Eastwood, the Pro Vice-Chancellor and Ancient History Professor Michael Whitby, and a couple of other senior academics--proposes to carve up the available power, salaries and pensions between themselves, while threatening their juniors with destitution. 
Teresa Sullivan, ousted by ploutocrats

The new gods of the Birmingham Olympus have not yet exiled their victims to aeons of torture in the Caucasus, but they have made it clear that if these terrified young staff break their "Confidentiality Agreements" they will only worsen their own plight. Just like the whole jobless, impoverished international generation born since about 1975, the lecturers are being brutally excluded from any opportunity to participate fully in the institutional dimension of the human project.

But Prometheus knew that Zeus was not invulnerable. His gift of fire enabled humans to arm themselves against poverty, ignorance, joylessness and oppression. The technology of the Internet has now given the world powerful new ways in which to unite in support of a fairer and more humane future, as the use of social networks in major revolutions has resoundingly shown.

David Oyelowo in Aquila Theatre's Prometheus
So did  the very much smaller case of the FaceBook group Save Classics at Royal Holloway, which is to close next Thursday (June 28th 2012) exactly a year after it opened, having achieved its specific goals. It is being replaced by the new group ClassicsInternational (join if you haven't already: non-Classicists are hugely welcome). Prometheus knows things that Zeus does not, and can communicate via the Internet with allies. So tyrants of the academic world--you have been notified!

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