Breaking the ivory tower

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By Arnold Alamon

Wrapped in Grey

Friday, December 6, 2013


IT used to be that universities or academic institutions occupied a pedestaled position in society. Emanating from the ivory tower of the academic world, are arcane, sublime, but ultimately useless ideas. There is a parallel shift, however, especially in recent times when universities have become uncomfortably utilitarian. Discarded is the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake, and in its place, a view of education as skill, ready to serve the demands of the market.

In today's context, the decline of the university and its pedastaled position has brought challenges to the idea of the social sciences. Since it straddles the twin compulsions of philosophy and application, where would the social sciences find relevance? Must it continue the pursuit of investigating the various contours of the human condition or must it seek to not just interpret the world but also change it, as a great sage once said?

As things stand, there are proponents of both camps doing separate work along their decided intellectual paths. It is usually the case that one ignores the other since they essentially belong to different cultural circles within the University. The intellectuals inhabit the coffee shops and drinking joints within and outside campus and represent a mixed-bag of bohemian characters with colorful personalities. While those working on funded researches are usually found ensconced in air-conditioned offices commanding an army of field researchers armed with survey questionnaires and voice recorders. The twain do not usually meet.

But these two camps do not have to be dichotomized since they are doing different facets of the same kind of work. The best philosophers are those who remain sensitive to the current of the times. The best researchers are those who are capable of relating raw data to the big questions regarding the human condition. Both compulsions are enriched by engaging with the communities outside the four walls of the university.

When Sendong ravaged the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, two academic institutions played an important role in the immediate response after the floods. While LGUs, which are usually underfunded and understaffed to appropriately respond to disasters failed to manage the complex needs generated in the post-event condition, the academic institutions stepped in to fill the important gap. Xavier University set up a command operations center where all the relief was centralized and distributed. Mindanao State University -Iligan Institute of Technology likewise established the biggest evacuation in the city despite having been flooded in the first hours of the event.

As a result of these events, there is a shift in the understanding of the role of universities in the context of the momentary failure or, if you may, problematic nature of our political and social institutions. The horrors of the floods' aftermath awakened many academics about the need to understand the causes of vulnerability of communities to natural hazards. This include the interest in investigating not just the micro causes regarding the failure of response but also the structural causes of vulnerability of particular sectors.

Beyond just filling the gap and what used to be ivory towers or the market-driven orientation of education, universities can now be part of the process of engagement in fulfillment of its important role as a catalyst for social change, not just as a fodder for the maintenance of the status quo.

(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on December 06, 2013.

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