eyes on the U.S.

Why Harvard Is Ruining Our Youth

Op-Ed: French Philosophy Professor Emmanuel Jaffelin tells us why we shouldn't be "Harvardizing" the world's universities, and reminds us that knowledge is not about securing a return on student debt.

Living the Harvard dream (Will Hart)
Living the Harvard dream (Will Hart)
Emmanuel Jaffelin

PARIS - The boundless admiration that some have for the diploma machine that is Harvard worries me by its lack of hindsight. Of course, this private university - the richest in the world - does not lack laurels, but do not forget that laurels grow well on manure.

Our French universities are as poor as church mice and any professor who crosses the Atlantic comes back depressed by what he has seen: investment in research, well-equipped facilities, high-tech amphitheaters and libraries, and salaries a soon-to-retire French university professor can only dream of. America is a young country that invests in its youth and in knowledge! This production of gray matter is the reason behind its technological lead and the source of its hyper-power. The American dream! How could you not be tempted!

In Isabelle Rey-Lefebvre's recent article (see Le Monde from May 16), we learn that "44 Nobel Prizes, 46 Pulitzer Prizes and 8 United States presidents hail from its ranks." Sacrebleu! Based on sociologist Stéphanie Grousset-Charrière's book The Hidden Side of Harvard, the article showcases the advantages and inconveniences of the university's unique education. The latter are logical counterparts to the former: teachers are never absent even when they're sick; they interact directly with their students; tests and assessments aren't used to punish students; positive feedback is deemed more "constructive."

Teachers As Employees, Students As Clients

From afar, this method of teaching is both interesting and innovative, and it is true that thoughtfulness is better than contempt or humiliation. But Harvard did not invent this motivational method: it flourished in Europe after Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile. What is worrying about this student-teacher relation has nothing to do with the fact that it is constructive and attentive. It is worrying because it is about pandering to the students. Because tuition is so high, they expect their professors to be knowledgeable, competent and efficient, but also submissive. The client is always right.

This pandering is why students get to evaluate their teachers; those who weren't deemed "convincing" enough are fired, thrown out like an old piece of furniture! In the country where the doer trumps the thinker, the payer evicts the payee. This is nothing new: Nero's preceptor Seneca complained in On Benefits that human relations in Rome were based on debt. He wanted to replace this commercial relationship by a more benevolent relationship, like the one between Gods and men.

Letting your children start their adult life with so much debt should be illegal. There is nothing wrong with dismissing bad professors, as long as the student-teacher relation is intellectual and not commercial. At Harvard, the educational is linked to the economic, and the intellectual is linked to the clientele.

Knowledge v. Earning Power

Debt means debtors. American students aren't as interested in knowledge as they are in income, if only to pay back their debt! It isn't easy to motivate children to learn; is it necessary to saddle them with debt to transform their meager scholarly appetite into a hyper-motivation for university? Free market economists say debt fosters motivation. Psychoanalysts tell their patients the same: pay to know yourself. One can clearly see how masochistic the system is!

Max Weber acutely described this logic in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism - John Harvard was a young Puritan pastor of the early 17th century. But is debt the only way for knowledge to blossom and flourish? Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook not through economic masochism but through another, more joyful impulse! Neither Marie Curie nor Albert Schweizer nor Bergson nor Camus nor Sartre got into debt to create their work.

Even though we know that French professors aren't paid as well as their German or British colleagues, is it necessary, in order to reassert the value of knowledge, to decide that the only way they'll get a raise is if they "Harvardize" their teaching methods? That is to say by abandoning free, selfless teaching methods for a tempting yet childish client-employee system? Some already think and act this way.

But at a time when students in Quebec are protesting against university tuition hikes and when American student debt has passed the $1 trillion threshold, it may be time to invent cheaper and less castrating solutions than "Harvardizing." Let us start with the following premise: knowledge is immaterial, abundant, communicable and not automatically mercantile. Remember that in Greek, school ("Skholè") doesn't" mean client or debt, but "leisure."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Will Hart

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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