I am on strike. Employees at a large number of British universities are on strike over broken promises regarding pensions. However, we are striking over much more than pensions: we are striking over the ever-increasing casualisation of the workforce and the commodification of education.
I don’t find striking easy. I don’t find depriving students of education easy. I don’t find withdrawing my labour easy. I’m passionate about my field of research and communicating it to students, and I can’t simply stop being that way. Unfortunately, university management knows this only too well: passionate academics are easy to exploit. As a form of ‘teach out’, I turn to this blog. I will write a short post for everyday I am on strike.
Last week, as part of my work as union caseworker (for I do happen to be a union caseworker in addition to my ‘day job’ as a lecturer), I visited the Cardiff University engineering building, the Queen’s building. For the first time, I paid attention to the doorway of that building, which I had often seen from afar. The British Listed Buildings website describes it as follows:
The ground-floor openings are recessed behind a 3-bay entrance portal composed of elliptical arches with blind ogee gables and carved diamond finials, and 2 freestanding round columns which have capitals with Greek relief inscriptions and carry statues of Hippocrates and Asclepius in canopied niches, while the outer responds are polygonal with foliage capitals. Above the arches are sculpted busts of C19 physicians (Pasteur, Lister, Hunter, Jenner) in the outer bays and heraldic shields to the centre.
The statue of Hippocrates (interestingly depicted as bald – see Helen King’s thoughts on the matter) carries in its hands a scroll with a Greek inscription: bios brachus, techne makre. This is the famous first Hippocratic Aphorism: ‘Life is short; the art is long’. Quite naturally, much ink has been spilt over the interpretation of this aphorism, and the Wikipedia page captures some of this.
To me, the aphorism is a warning against the hybristic belief that one can ever fully master one’s art (mine being history rather than medicine), that one can know everything. Our only certainty is that our life is short, and that our art (whatever it might be) is extremely long.
Perhaps strangely, I find the first aphorism reassuring. As a child, I remember wanting to know everything, to read everything, to see everything. I cannot recall when exactly I finally realised this was not possible. Perhaps the realisation came slowly and quite late, when I started studying ancient philosophy in secondary school. I will not lie and say that acceptance came easily. In fact, I still struggle and wish that there were more hours in the day, more energy to get to know everything. I wish I read more languages; I wish I could travel without feeling exhaustion; I wish I could write faster. But I cannot, since my life will always be short, and the art will always be long – and impossible fully to commodify.