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Davis, California

Monday, May 27, 2024

Column: The new Pangaea

There’s a new spirit of unity in the air, wafting through our hallowed halls, making its way out to the quad where discontented students mingle, meandering among us and through us, winding itself around the patterns of our thoughts as we collaborate to create new patterns and new causes.

What is the cause of the current age? We seek unity while recognizing the beauty of diversity, and also cultural affirmation while embracing a pluralistic social scheme.

Can there be unity in diversity? Columbus brought together two “worlds,” with all the dysfunction that came with that collision. What would things look like today had those two worlds coalesced instead of collided? Perhaps Columbus Day should be declared a day for philosophical reflection and renamed: “Seeking the Big Picture Day.”

Cultural geographers tell us that in ancient times warfare was the common method of obtaining and retaining living space and resources. Some neoliberals might say we’ve transitioned from physical warfare to a type of economic warfare that benefits all in the long run. But what are we “competing” for in a dog-eat-dog world where prosperity is measured solely in monetary units and social responsibility is thrown out in favor of “let the buyer beware?”

No one has all the answers, but one thing’s for sure. Our current political system is corrupt in its morals and dysfunctional in its effects. It cannot continue the way it is.

Something big is in the works. Students are protesting all over the world, and the status quo is slowly crumbling. The Internet is truly living up to its name, enabling the entire world to slowly come together in spirit – a burgeoning spirit of unity.

Call it perhaps a “New Pangaea,” but the new supercontinent will exist in the combined intellectual, moral and political realm of the intangible, even while we recognize the importance of actual physical space and the necessity of living in the here and now on the physical continents.

Sunday was “10/10/10” on the calendar and the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco declared it to be “Powers of Ten Day” in honor of Charles and Ray Eames, who produced the famous Powers of Ten film. The film starts by showing a man taking a nap on a picnic blanket, then zooms out according to scale factors of 10 to show our place in the universe.

If the filmmakers had been able to zoom out horizontally instead of vertically to show the interwoven complexity of life on earth in visual form, maybe it would be easier for the Earth’s people to appreciate the nature of the physical-mental space that we all inhabit together.

As de Tocqueville explained, we are all free within the “circles” we draw around ourselves, but outside the circle we are neither entirely independent nor entirely free. Everything we do in interaction with others or the environment has consequences for the world and everyone in it. When unintended consequences pile up and threaten to disrupt our evolving and changing forms of social homeostasis, then corrective adjustments can only be made by democratic consensus on the part of those who are at or near the scene.

And so it makes sense when protesting students in Europe call for “Basisdemokratie,” which means: democracy from the base on up. It’s a political framework within which social institutions of all types can become interpenetrated by varying degrees of internal democratic processes, with everything being embedded in an interconnected frame of justice and equity. In terms of its application to universities specifically, it’s a concept which goes above and beyond the concept of shared governance.

Shared governance is a unique concept that applies in the special case of higher education, which recognizes that professors should be allowed to govern themselves in terms of the academic nature of their work, since only they can judge such things properly and effectively. Regrettably, the question of how students should fit within the concept of the shared governance of the university as a whole has been more or less put on the back burner for the past few decades.

In a public university, students are not only constituents of the university, but we are also citizens of our encompassing democratic society, and so we are engaged in a dual capacity. And when we march in unity around the campus, it’s important to see that Big Picture. Such marches represent the erupting magma of the ongoing intellectual and political plate tectonic shifts of our times and cannot be ignored. Caveat administrator!

BRIAN RILEY wants to know: Are you surfing the seismic waves of today’s social tectonic paradigm shifts, or just sunbathing within the circle of your own intellectual backyard? Let him know at bkriley@ucdavis.edu.



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