Neutral Spaces & Political Places: The Erasure of Criticality in Educational Institutions

The idea of neutrality is inherently political.

Lecturers tell me that seminar rooms and lecture halls are meant to be open for discussion, with no clear political agenda influencing the primary understanding of any single piece of knowledge. They are meant to be safe – safe for me to express myself, share thoughts and ideas, and feel as though each voice is levied with equal value and power to everyone else. Meanwhile museum curators tell me their institutions and exhibitions are ‘not meant to be political’; apparently, they are there to share knowledge, with their only agenda to exhibit information and allow visitors to form personal assumptions and understandings, untainted by any ulterior motive on the part of those displaying and presenting that knowledge.

I stand there and wonder what goes through their minds when speaking. I conclude that they’re either hyper-aware and choosing to disassociate from the situation, or just another cog in the wheel. Acting subconsciously – although still with equal responsibility over the consequences of their actions – to hold up the translucent veil of neutrality that encircles these institutions. JSTOR holds a vast archive of academics discussing the politics of education, the politics of museum spaces, the politics of identity. One search and hundreds of pieces of evidence appear before your eyes. But the curtain never falls. Have you ever heard a politics lecturer claiming their lesson was not ‘political’, but just ‘the truth’? Have you been told you will lose marks without including critical analysis of sources and academics, but then been warned of that same criticality in office hours and meetings? The irony is not lost on anyone.

So how are young students of colour meant to exist in these so-called ‘neutral’ spaces, when their very identities have been politicised? How are they supposed to navigate their research methods and dissertation proposals to teachers that tell them to toe the line, be careful, ensure their writing is not explicitly negative in its approach to a topic in order to keep people happy? Play the game. Write just enough to get a tick for that ‘critical methodology’ but not too much to upset anyone. Even if your points are valid, just don’t bother going there. There’s no need – you’ll get a good mark anyway! Subtle hints, framed in a way so the issue is perceived to be about you. Protecting you. Advising you. Supporting you to create the best work possible. When it’s not, it’s about them, and their fear of rocking the boat.

Conscious decisions, & structured approaches – it’s always the same. An incident in a lecture hall. Note who is protected. Stay aware of who teachers reprimand, who head of departments expect an apology from, which students do not reappear in class again, what individual is framed as the ‘victim’, and who are the perpetrators. Can you be critical? To a point. Structural racism exists, Prevent exists, people of colour face a realm of policies and procedures and paperwork before a single problem can be presented to anyone. Yet education is supposed to encourage criticality, and every subject is steeped in politics. Whether it is discussed openly or pushed away is the only difference. & museums? They are clearly political spaces, from the very bricks that house exhibitions, to the object labels and curatorial panels (often lacking any diversity at all) that pluck a moment or event from the past, and decide on the presence and absence of certain information.

But it continues anyway – ‘neutrality’ in education, or rather, the conscious decision to erase any problematic hint of criticality from individuals whose opinions may upset the political agendas that thrive in these institutions. & also: a solid avoidance measure. Neutrality to escape the need for dismantling structures and institutions that need rebuilding. Support equality, diversity & inclusion, slap black and brown faces on university prospectuses, return stolen items that do not belong in your museum, run BAME events, wield ‘decolonisation’ as a shield to defend and distract against claims of apathy or inaction. But if it gets difficult? If a challenge arises? Run away. Be neutral.

by hawwa alam.

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