The Crisis of the Red Square

The present crisis is the result of a long fermentation of a set of complex and multiple ideas.  These are derived from the inter- connection of the life-experiences of two generations – over a period of almost twenty years – with the death of the welfare state and the neoliberalization of the education industry.

The once almost “free” education that benefited students at all levels of university education during the1970’s has been reformed many times – most importantly in 1966, 2002 and most recently.  University fees have continually raised the level of student debt, debt that now amounts to $25000 for a BA, $35000 for a Masters and $55000 for a PhD.  Interest rates range between 4% and 12%.

The professional and working class population of Quebec – the largest portion of those who vote –  is in majority composed of baby-boomers [sic], a generation of a sealed-off mentality and a paternalistic attitude, condescending towards those younger, and self-sufficient in its social and cultural undertakings.  In general, the baby-boomers did not undertake post-graduate work and easily acquired jobs that became permanent and were filled with social advantages.  They continue to occupy these positions today, positions that are abolished when they retire.  This is probably one of the reasons that this working generation is in conflict with present-day demonstrators.

Today’s youth gains an education at extraordinarily high cost, all the while knowing that its chances of employment and for a career are continually lessening.

The last ten years have seen a progressive increase in the tension between on the one hand the various student groups and, on the other, the various governments, whatever the political position of the latter might have been. This winter, university and pre-graduate students were hit by — or rather had imposed on them — a substantial increase in fees, this without any consultation of warning.

“Enough” – this was the reply of the most important student associations. “We categorically refuse to accept this increase.” It was considered to be a totalitarian decree, especially as the government imposed increase was of 75%.

In light of these governmental acts, acts we considered totalitarian, we engaged in discussions, consultations and meetings both inside and outside the universities.  Motivated in particular by an urgent need to conserve and validate our fundamental rights and liberty, we were pushed to elect – not without consequence and not without compromise — to undertake a general and unlimited strike at all levels of post-secondary education and to engage in demonstrations and necessary means to make ourselves heard, respected, and allow us to set forth our intentions.

A certain part (let us say a little more than half) of the population does not support this strike; it questions the legitimacy of the refusal to accept the increase in university fees and blindly accepts the arguments fabricated by the State.  Here there is the outline of an intergenerational conflict that lies outside the contours of the present crisis and in the fundamental values and beliefs of each group.

On the other hand, that 250000 students have gone on strike also arouses the admiration of many free-thinking citizens; powerful and varied expressions of support have caused the issue to spill over the boundaries of a purely educational issue.  Indeed, unions of professors, of artists, of certain service unions as well as those groups that support freedom of thought, social justice and so forth, have transformed the educational crisis into a crisis of liberty, of justice, and of equity.  The Red Square movement is now spread across innumerable sectors of society.

In these last weeks, all of these outsiders [sic] have collectively extended the strike movement, which on its 96th consecutive day had imposed on it a special law (Bill78) forbidding all manner of demonstration, requiring students and professors to return to class in order to begin catching up for the lost weeks of strike.  It also foresees the imposition of severe fines.

This cavalier and totalitarian misstep deepens even more the pit that separates the thin hope for mediation between the two principle parties.

Yesterday evening I once again participated in one of the innumerable spontaneous demonstrations.  One feels there the urgent necessity for change that goes beyond politics and education.  One feels nauseous.

(note: Striking students identify themselves by wearing a red square)

Pawel Krol teaches at the Department of Nursing at the university of Laval, Québec. He is completing his doctorate on the evolution of values in nursing in the light of the Nietzschean critique of values and his research emphasizes the condition of nursing in modernity. 

Thanks to Babette Babich, Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, for sending this on. You can find Babette’s website here. Thanks To Tracy Strong, Professor of Political Science at UC San Diego, for kindly translating from the original French. Likewise thanks to Bettina Bergo, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montreal, for completing this long chain of mediation.

Categories: Higher Education

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