By Anne Marte Johnsen
Since matariki, the New Year for the Māori people of New Zealand, was welcomed only last week, I have been reflecting on the Matariki workshop I attended earlier this spring in Uppsala.
Not only is matariki the word for the Māori New Year, it is also the Māori name of the Pleiades star cluster, the seven sisters. Durham University is one of these academic ‘stars’, one of the seven sister universities in the Matariki Network. This network is meant to ‘partner for a better world’—great intentions, yet the network and its motto prompted serious debate for me and other participants.
What could I, we, do to partner for a ‘better world’? Why should we? How should we?
All the partnering institutions are from Western countries, the majority from English-speaking countries, some having a history of perpetuating privilege and elitism. ‘Global citizenship’ is described as seeking a more just and sustainable world, yet the concept is also criticised, namely, for being Eurocentric and elitist—a world for some, on someone else’s premises. Moreover, if global citizenship becomes a buzzword used by ‘everyone’, which no one can disagree with, it may become devoid of content.
The last week in April, students, staff, and academics from the Matariki Network met in Uppsala to discuss how to understand the complexities of global citizenship, as well as what the partners can do to concretely engage with the concept.
It was an eye-opening, inspiring, and thought-provoking workshop, full of interesting and engaged participants. The workshop, led by the student-initiated and transdisciplinary CEMUS (a centre for environment and development studies) and Active Student Participation, was a unique experience. Never have I ever been so challenged academically and personally in such a setting; the boundaries between academics and students were blurred, and highly intellectual and engaged conversations were taking place.
Following Māori traditions, our discussions concluded that global citizenship should be about the responsibility to show manaakitanga (care for people) and kaitiakitanga (care for the environment).
Yet the other end of the global citizenship spectrum focuses on the individual, and their employability. When universities are stressing career and personal development, what is the priority for care for humanity and the planet? When Western universities such as Durham charge high tuition fees and thus limit access to higher education, what kind of global citizenship is being promoted and what kind of global citizens are being fostered?
All these challenging questions buzzed around my head during the workshop, together with issues such as climate change, the migration crisis, wars, and terrorism. I felt overwhelmed.
Later that evening I would feel even more uncomfortable. Back in my comfortable hotel room, I read an article in a Norwegian newspaper about the assimilation policy in Norway. For a long time until just few decades ago, my own country attempted the Norwegianisation of the indigenous Sámi people. Through the education system, the state tried to eradicate the Sámi people’s culture, language, religion, and rights. Children were sent to boarding schools and abused disgracefully.
This was not an abstract example for me. The article was about my uncle, and told the history of my very close family. Reading it I felt unwell. I was shaking. We are many generations of Sámi, and many people were harmed in different ways, including loss of language and identity.
This experience is not unique to Norway. These ideas of a ‘superior’ culture and language, and the following implementation of educational policy, were common to all the countries of the Matariki Network universities as well, in different ways. Granted, there has been a tremendous change since then with regard to policy and practice.
But, what specifically are the universities doing today to challenge the type of thinking that stems from the dominance of one specific language and one way of living? How critical are they of English as a world language, and themselves as homes of ‘superior’ Western ideas, with men disproportionately represented in leadership? Troublesome. How are the universities encouraging diversity, critical thinking, and action?
I do not believe that global citizenship and globalisation are as polarised as it might seem. I believe that universities can promote both employability and social justice. But only when getting a degree and getting a job are considered as tools to be used in creating a better world: any degree, any job, whether in finance, science, or academia.
This thinking will be uncomfortable; any digging into complex and multi-layered issues is. ‘Partnering for a better world’ is problematic. Why? For whom? How? That is what makes academia so unique and important—the space to critically inquire into such contested beliefs.
Then too, talking about global citizenship, change and a better future is naïve, right?
We do need a framework to discuss how to engage with our world, with overconsumption and climate change, racism and migration crises, obesity and hunger, ideologies of dominance and terrorism. Not to be idealistic, but to be realistic about what we face. We have to share the facts and what we have learned about these inequalities, how they are affecting people and the environment. This needs to be done on a local, national, and global level; in our communities, our countries, and in the world.
In our universities, especially.
Today a friend, one coming from a country very different from my own, who sometimes uncomfortably but always importantly makes me question my own thoughts and actions, said to me ‘Do your PhD, become a professor—use your voice and challenge the world. Promise?’
But I could not promise that, despite the fact that I truly see the university as one of the most important actors for ‘a better world’. However, I was thinking about what the purpose of education is and why universities are being internationalised. To me, there are simple answers to those questions: care for people and care for the environment.
What is being promoted might be said to be something quite different: limited access due to high tuition fees, higher education profit-making, and a strict focus on CV-building, enhanced by a bit of charity. Yes, within academia, there are enormous efforts being made, but there is a greater potential in linking academic knowledge to real-life practice. For manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga. Care for people and environment.
Here at the end and beginning of the Māori year, through my seven New Year’s resolutions, I am trying to summarise what I learnt from the Matariki workshop:
- To critically engage with the ‘global citizenship’ framework
- To always question one’s own worldviews and actions
- To seek to be called both an idealist and realist
- To acknowledge privilege and challenge it
- To set people and the environment first, not ‘me’
- To encourage dialogue and diversity in ways that prevent reproducing the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’
- To do and not just be
New Year’s resolutions are often very ambitious. Inner commitment, strong arguments, and a good plan are important. I wish myself good luck, and I wish the Matariki Network the best luck in committing to, having strong arguments about, and making a good plan to implement critical global citizenship projects at our different universities.