13978234376_149ab04d90_z
Type
Polemic
Category
Class
Education

Reclaiming ‘provincialism’ – and the regional university

I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country

full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.

– Judith Wright, ‘South of my days’

Some months ago, news of the federal freeze on base funding to universities sent waves of worry and discontent across regional campuses around Australia. As the ABC reported, regional universities would be hit harder than the happy sandstone few – a sobering realisation that sparked an immediate response by the Regional University Network (RUN), whose motto is ‘Regional Strength. National Success’. In the press release, Professor Greg Hill, who chairs the Network, explained that the freeze ‘disproportionately affected regional universities as the institutions are more dependent on government funding than larger, metropolitan universities.’

Here, I want to discuss some of my fears regarding the social and cultural risks that policies such as this might entail. In doing so, I would also like to advocate for the crucial cultural, social, and political importance of locality, if we want to reach genuine multiculturalism, respect for diversity and social inclusion.

Before I start, indulge me in a literary digression. Although in this piece I am sharing my personal views, I should declare that for the last two years, I have been employed by a regional university and that my research is all about shedding light on the cultural value of locality, via the study of regional poetry in nineteenth-century France and Italy.

I am originally from a small provincial town in northern Italy, and one my generation’s last native speakers of a fast-disappearing language, Bresciano, a non-standard variety of Italo-Romance. I am a fierce defender of minority languages and of state-funded schooling, for which I am forever grateful. (Note, I also enjoy spending time in big cities, live between Sydney and Armidale, have lived in Paris, write and talk in one of the current dominant global languages most of the time, and been lucky enough to study and work at well-known European universities.)

Even we defenders of locality, Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote, are no longer innocent … no longer just parishioners of the local. We go to Paris at Easter instead of rolling eggs on the hill at the gable … yet those primary laws of our nature are still operative. We are dwellers, we are namers, we are lovers, we make homes and search for our histories.’

In other words, no matter how cosmopolitan, well-travelled, or multilingual, our histories are always, in one way or another, rooted in the local.

English novelist Graham Swift observed that, ‘Writers are always trying to touch, to grasp the universal.’

And the way not to do this, it seems to me, is to write the avowedly universal, global, cosmopolitan book – the sort of book that ought to be written in Esperanto. The key to the universal is always the local, if only because it’s a universal truth that all experience is and must be local, all experience is placed.

Because of its disproportionately negative impact on regional universities, the funding freeze is a threat to the wellbeing of locality; indeed, such policies might have unforeseeable side effects beyond the cultural sphere, which spill out onto the social fabric of a country.

Let me name just a few risks, in no particular order. This move might fuel resentment in local communities, which might perceive that the government is endorsing the creation of poles of privilege in metropolitan areas. Widening the urban-regional gulf, this ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy might have social and political effects that have the potential to influence election results for decades to come. The unexpected election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the divisive Brexit referendum results in the UK should have taught us some lessons, showing the perils of the detachment of the so-called ‘elite’ (urban, educated, wealthier citizens) from the disenfranchised ‘real’ people in regional and rural areas.

Moves such as this might also end up in a detrimental form of cultural centralisation, with its annexed flattening homogenisation. Silencing locality – the diversity within – is also a threat to genuine multiculturalism and pluralism.

It is thus time we really started to understand the valuable contribution of regional universities. In this case, being equitable means understanding the particular needs, challenges and contexts that each regional educational institution faces. It’s enough to think that, in some regional areas, the livelihood of towns rely on the livelihood of their university. Underfunding the university thus ends up in a chain reaction of negative consequences on the local community, much more so than in large metropolitan areas, which have a more diversified income. A funding freeze of this kind might end up in a decline in student numbers, a rental and property market stall and bankruptcy of local businesses.

But such economic consequences are not even the real problem.

For someone who has never experienced the life of a regional university, it is perhaps difficult to grasp the cultural and social role that these institutions play in their surrounding community. Disadvantaged by the politics of world university rankings, these regional institutions are often highly international, diverse, inclusive and innovative thinking hubs, cultivating and promoting a dynamic critical mass of adaptable, outward-looking, global thinkers, many of whom decide to start businesses, teach, live and otherwise contribute to regional life. As Professor Greg Hill notes in his press release, ‘Seven out of 10 graduates from RUN universities work in the regions, compared to 2 out of 10 nationally.’

But my main point is rooted much deeper, beyond the strategic, beyond the need to encourage regional growth in order to boost the national economy, beyond the need to assure social and political cohesion. It is rooted in the very fabric of this country’s cultural identity. It is time we really started to understand and value the contributions of regional universities in promoting an empowering idea of locality. The government – any government – must avoid fuelling a pernicious and, quite frankly, dated divide between central and peripheral cultures (even if unwitting). We should all move beyond this false dichotomy and start to advocate for a more nuanced understanding of ‘provincialism’, one stripped of negative undertones.

‘How to define “provincialism?”’, Milan Kundera once asked. ‘As the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context.’

But the word provincial is not always negative. It actually depends on the lens through which we approach it. Take, for instance, the poetry in the lesser spoken provincial languages of Italy. As colleague Paul Howard and I argue in a forthcoming article:

For the dialect poets of Italy, writing in their own local language is often a way of establishing a wider transregional dialogue with other regions. In a sense, their very linguistic locality and rootedness (or performance thereof) allows them their own space to situate themselves within the ‘large context’, even beyond the borders of the nation state, as can be seen in their exchange and translation of poetry from other lesser-spoken languages of Europe.

Quite the opposite of Kundera’s idea of provincialism.

Take a more topical example: the Anaiwan Language Revival Program, involving research students at the University of New England and members of the local Anaiwan community who are in the process of rediscovering, decolonising, reviving, speaking, and teaching their own original native language, thus ‘relating with kin and country in a healthy and proper way’. Once again, these local efforts are precisely the opposite of the ‘inability to see one’s own culture in the large context’. Indeed, they are an integral part of this large context. This program offers an empowering example, which is likely to spark networks of solidarity and thinking, encouraging others to rediscover, revive, reclaim.

In short, we should be wary of policies that concentrate on strengthening a centre-periphery model. Instead, we should advocate for a ‘pluriversal’ perspective, one encouraging the diversity within in its own rooted, yet universal, uniqueness.

It is precisely for this reason that we should support and value regional universities: as catalysts for diversity, equality and social inclusion.

 

References

Eggan, Taylor A. (2016), ‘Regionalizing the Planet: Horizons of the Introverted Novel at World Literature’s End’, PMLA, vol. 131.5, 1299–1315.

Gosetti, Valentina and Paul Howard (2018), ‘Poetry and Literary Language Barriers in Nineteenth-Century Italy: The Case of Three ‘Dialect Poets’’, Multilingualism in Nineteenth-Century European Literature, ed. by Olga Anokhina, Till Dembeck, and Dirk Weissmann, Berlin-Münster-Wien-Zürich-London, Lit-Verlang. (Forthcoming)

Heaney, Seamus (1980), ‘The sense of place’, Preoccupations. Selected Prose 1968–1978, London, Boston, Faber & Faber, 131–149.

Kundera, Milan (2006), ‘The Provincialism of Small Nations’, in The Curtain. An Essay in Seven Parts, trans. Linda Asher, New York, Harper Collins Publishers.

Tomaney, John (2012), ‘Parochialism – a defence’, Progress in Human Geography, vol. 37.5, 658–672.

 

Image: Federation University / Paul Carmona

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Comments

  1. Well put! Australia is a big country. Its cultural vitality must rest on a polycentric plan, with no monopolies or oligarchies. Making regional universities poorer will in the end destroy important seedbeds of ideas and research, leaving room for resentment, indeed, as Valentina argues, and for spiritual declina.

    • Many thanks for your comment, Nicola. Indeed, the polycentric plan is fundamental. I think Italy (and Europe too), with all its faults and downsides – which would need much more space to be discussed – can provide interesting & inspiring examples of polycentric approaches to education.

  2. It is a strategy of conservative politics to use a perception of division and difference as a weapon to control . Inclusion of minoroties, cultural or linguistic, leaves them powerless. And let’s face it, it is a question of power.

  3. Very well argued Valentina. I totally agree and – coming from the “provincial” university of Cagliari in the island of Sardinia – deeply understand the importance of “locality”. As for another interesting topic of the article, the richness and diversity of Italian dialects should be under UNESCO protection! I am just thinking now of the Sardinian language , so long neglected in the past … how many people know that not only major Italian literary works such as La Divina Commedia by Dante , but even Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot have been translated in the language of Sardinia?

  4. Dear Livio,
    Thanks for your comment. I’d really love the chance to discuss these translations into Sardinian further. I knew about Dante but had no idea that T.S. Eliot had been translated too. Wonderful!
    Best wishes,
    VG

  5. Excellent piece Valentina. You or your readers might be interested to know that, in line with your opening quote from Judith Wright, there is a book entitled: “High lean country – Land, people and memory in New England” edited by Atkinson et.al. 2006 (mainly UNE authors) canvassing diverse topics such as the environment, first peoples, newcomers and representations of the region. Karin (also from UNE)

  6. A very eloquent and timely piece! A ‘pluriversal’ perspective such as Valentina describes, finding the universal in the local, is absolutely essential, even more so now. As someone who has benefited greatly from this, both as an undergraduate and postgraduate student at a regional university(UNE itself) but also as someone who has made not only a national but international career as a writer based in a regional area,I know from experience how a regional university can help to foster an intellectual and creative climate that regional creativity has to overcome certain challenges in order to thrive, but conversely, that living and working in a regional area can encourage and provide opportunities for creators in ways that may in some instances be more accessible,flexible and innovative than in the cities. Regional universities such as UNE have a big part to play in the fostering of that climate of creative opportunity and diversity–and UNE has certainly played its part, with strong links to local arts organisations such as the New England Writers’ Centre, which has partnered with UNE on several events, including, most recently, the highly successful and unique Pitch Independent program, which saw 14 small and independent book publishers and literary magazine editors come to Armidale from all over Australia to take part in a major symposium on independent publishing, and to hear pitches from dozens of regional writers in all genres, and illustrators, including a sizeable indigenous participation. This pitch program is the first ever to focus entirely on small and independent publishers, and with its focus on regional creators as well, and the strong support of UNE, was a perfect example of how a regional community and a regional university can work together to produce an outcome which not only produces invaluable opportunities but also breaks entirely new ground: factors which saw the program widely reported nationally as well as regionally.

  7. Sorry, just realised there’s an important bit missing in my post above–
    From ‘how a regional university can help to foster an intellectual and creative climate that regional creativity’
    it should go on to ‘can thrive in’ and then it should have a full stop, and continue: ‘Regional creators have to overcome certain challenges in order to thrive, but conversely, living and working in a regional area can encourage and provide opportunities for creators in ways that may in some instances be more accessible,flexible and innovative than in the cities.’
    Apologies for the broken text!

    • Many thanks for sharing this hugely important initiative with all of us, Sophie! Regional Writing Centres and Associations play a crucial role in promoting an empowering idea of locality and are indeed *fundamental* to the dynamic cultural exchange in the regions (and indeed beyond).

  8. This is such an compelling argument, Valentina.

    I have been teaching Australian fiction for a while now (and, of course, themes of regional decline are often reiterated there!), but since I moved from Sydney to UNE in early 2018, I’ve felt invested in these questions in new ways! Your argument pushes back against so many fraught assumptions in a manner that is both politically timely both globally and locally. In my own research, I’m interested in urban growth as an environmental problem and, increasingly, the related assumption that the regions are in terminal decline (that idea the urban is the “future” and the region the “past”). I wonder on a daily basis if this trajectory holds true today or if it is even materially possible in a time of climate change.

    I look forward to thinking more on this question in relation to your specific argument here.

    Thanks!

    – Jennifer

  9. Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. I am very enthused by the possibility of discussing further the point you make here “that idea the urban is the “future” and the region the “past”’. We should try to find counter examples. For instance, could guerrilla gardening be one, in a weird sense? Could the idea of “district” within a given city, sort of small towns within a big metropolis, provide an interesting example? And all the focus on eating local, zero-km food, urban farms, urban vertical gardens, could all these be counter tendencies? Truly fascinating topic.

  10. A very important peice Valentina. We are asking for a regional answer for the growing populating and for our immaigrants but it seems we don’t believe we have to support that regional push with the ongoing opportunity of education. Lets take the power back, I’m in. Thank you

    • Many thanks for you comment, Amanda! Let’s make our regions more and more open, diverse, multilingual & welcoming.

  11. Thank you for this very interesting and though-provoking piece Valentina! I work myself on regional literatures vis-à-vis the national state framework of the Nineteenth century (Flanders and Provence). The issue of the universal in the local and the historical value of the local (in its various dimensions of ‘in situ’, the material ‘lieu’ and the toponymical etc) are to me pertinent to a number of the socio-cultural challenges that emerged in and even constituted modernity, hence also their contemporary importance, as you also very well argue. Moreover, the study of the local in this sense, seems also very much intertwined with the existence of a regional academic landscape, that in my opinion may exist in a fertile dialogue with institutionally more encompassing frameworks or the more global, international academic community.

    • You are spot on, Dominique! Thanks for sharing these important insights. In my new research I’m focusing on ‘transregional’ networks to shed light on the regions’ mutual cultural, social, political enrichment. There are very fruitful historical examples of this- we should wish for more in the present days. Dialogue and exchange of ideas is key. So is the awareness of the ‘large context’.

  12. I love the inspiring vision of provincialism that you paint in this piece Valentina – certainly life in a small country town in the New England would be much less interesting without the University presence. Beyond the threats that the urban/rural dichotomy brings to regional autonomy, I feel there is a contest underway between the benefits the regional university brings and the dominance of the conservative power elites in the region itself. This really jumped out at me during the last town council election as candidates voiced distrust and hostility to the University and the ‘types’ that reside there. Perhaps they don’t value the contribution of diversity and innovation? Or perhaps they are unaware that by devaluing the University, they feed exactly the dynamic of urban domainance and service withdrawal that result in weaker regional policy settings? This seems symptomatic of Kundera’s vision of provincialism – a parochialism that undermines regional vitality. Thanks for your energetic defence of the regional and reminding us that we all have a role to play in pushing against the parochial.

    • Many thanks, Tanya, for your insightful comment. You are indeed touching a crucial question that is still unresolved in my brain, why/how is “locality” often appropriated by extreme conservatives these days? This can be the case with defence of local languages too, strangely. There are, in fact, contrastive tendencies. Northern Italian dialects, for instance, are fiercely defended by the North League (populist, extreme right party), while, Catalan independence movements (including linguistic independence) have usually been vehemently supported & endorsed by the revolutionary left. What can we do to bridge the gap and avoid the current total incommunicability between the “us” and the “them”? Jennifer Hamilton directed me to a very interesting article about political representation in regional Australia. It touches on what you are referring to. I’d like to know what you think. Link here: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/sep/03/rusted-off-the-divide-between-canberra-and-the-neglected-class

  13. Hi Valentina. Interesting piece. I write from a different perspective to you as a regional historian concerned with the broader new state New England, the tablelands and the surrounding river valleys on the north, south, east and west.You will find some of my material on Scribd (https://www.scribd.com/user/30419713/Jim-Belshaw), some on my history blog (http://newenglandhistory.blogspot.com}, other stuff on my New England blog (http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com/).

    I argue that one of the difficulties is that regional people do not have adequate access to their own history and culture and that as a consequence they get cut off from their past. I explore institution building including the profound influence of the ATC, NEUC and University of New England. I try to look at the different threads in the past. I also look at the way in which the combination of local parochialism and centralised structures impedes progress and cooperative action.

    If you just browse you may find some of the history useful in providing context. If you look at the Scribd material you will find the New England Writers Centre submission to the Sydney government’s inquiry into cultural policy. This represents a conscious if unsuccessful attempt to get Sydney to focus on locality, region and cross-regional cooperation as a way of reducing its city-centric approach.

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