So it is the same everywhere, I said to myself, as I listened to students bemoaning cutbacks in higher education. I had come in April 2015 to the University of Leiden, the oldest in the Netherlands, to hold a number of presentations on the fate of literary studies today.
But the conversation had became more relevant and heated than I could have imagined when I was initially invited five months earlier. Since then students from the University of Amsterdam had occupied two administrative buildings to protest cuts in the Humanities. Some of them had come to my seminar.
I had heard vaguely about this occupation as it wasn’t covered by the mainstream international press apart from the Guardian and a few online sites. Thus I really came to understand its significance only on the afternoon of the seminar.
Participants explained to me what happened. Students in Amsterdam began to protest in November 2014 the draconian budget cuts imposed on Dutch universities. Because the budget model that funds universities is based on student enrollments, the economic tightening adversely affected the Humanities, especially less-frequently taught languages and cultures.
This is exactly the same situation at Ohio State, my home institution. Economic mismanagement at the university and cuts from the State have created the most severe crisis in a generation that undermines the survival of some subjects in the arts and humanities.
I hear the same news from colleagues in Sydney, Toronto, Copenhagen, Athens, Chapel Hill, Madison and other cities. We are in the grips of a neoliberal ideology that puts into doubt the very existence of public education as social good and especially the arts and humanities, often characterized as useless.
But the situation in Amsterdam was different. The students took matters into their own hands. In February, they organized themselves into a movement they called Nieuwe Universiteit (new university) and occupied the Bungehuis, the art deco building in the center of Amsterdam, which serves as the home of the humanities.
The management of the University of Amsterdam initiated a lawsuit that threatened each student occupying the Bungehuis with a fine of 100,000 Euros for each day of protest. This outrageous action inspired an international petition that gathered more than 7,000 signatures, including those of Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, and Saskia Sassen.
The occupation of the Bungehuis was symbolic since the building had just been sold to a private corporation to be converted into a luxury hotel and spa. Incredible as this may seem, it’s not unique.
Ohio State, facing declining state support, leased its parking garages to a private firm for fifty years in exchange for close to 500 million dollars. Other public universities are exploring possibilities of leasing their physical facilities. Gradually the public university is turning private but without the autonomy the latter enjoys.
It is one thing, however, to lease parking and quite another to sell a landmark of the university. After the Bungehuis occupation ended in February 24, on February 25 the students occupied the Maagdenhuis building, the university's administrative center and headquarters of its Board of Directors. (The occupation of the Maagdenhuis was historically symbolic because students had occupied it during the protests of 1969.)
In the events of 2015 the students demanded an end to the privatization of the university along with greater democratization, transparency, protection of temporary teachers, end to restructuring and plans of merging universities together. But one of their main aims was to protect the humanities.
This is what makes the protest fascinating. Students initiated something that professors are normally expected to do and indeed many professors and lecturers -- temporary and tenured - joined the protests in support of the students' demands. Lectures and discussion groups accompanied the protests. French philosopher Jacques Rancière and David Graeber, a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement, came to the Maagdenhuis to talk with the students.
On April 10 however, riot police, some on horseback, moved in and forcibly evicted the students, arresting a number of them. Intimidation against students and faculty preceded and followed this eviction. Many commentators noted that such violence was rare in the Netherlands.
Although the occupation was crushed, its political and cultural meaning has spread out as students in a number of universities in the United Kingdom and Canada have organized against budget cutting and the privatization of the university.
From Peter the Great, who was dazzled by Amsterdam’s modernity, to the hippies of the 1960’s who sought out its liberal climate, this city has always seemed ahead of its time. And now Amsterdam has begun what seems like a worldwide movement for the humanities against asphyxiating restructuring by neoliberal regimes everywhere.
What I found encouraging was the personal accounts of the students in my seminar. They were fighting for the humanities, trying to figure out a way of justifying them, or, even more importantly perhaps, asking university administrators and the government, too, to justify their own choices and measures and their disastrous impact on the humanities.
This was missing in the accounts I read online. Students were claiming something that professors have been loath to do, namely, that the humanities have their own inherent value. Indeed, accustomed to our projects of endless critique and weary of being labeled essentialist or conservative, we, as teachers, are reluctant to argue that there is something socially good about literary study. We play the instrumentalist game of the neoliberal times by arguing that literary study enhances writing skills or sharpens critical thinking.
Of course, literary study can promote more nimble thinking and can teach students to become better writers and readers. But when the crunch time arrives and we have to justify our profession to an indifferent or hostile world, what more do we say? Can we discuss openly and without embarrassment the public worth of literary and, more broadly, the humanistic profession? Can we explain that humanistic work is not an expensive luxury or irrelevant preoccupation as our detractors claim?
The arts have faced this dilemma through the ages because they don’t have practical value. Unfortunately, we live in a time of instrumentalist thinking where things are good only if they make money. But in the face of a university selling a lovely building, should we not argue that there is worth in beauty. We should keep this edifice because it is old and magnificent. And we should study it for these reasons as well.
This was, it seems to me, one of the messages of the Dutch occupations. The students of Amsterdam have drawn a line beyond which they will not be pushed. Their government is listening. And the rest of us, facing similar attempts to create a crisis to cut back on the humanities, should be emboldened.