Ever since my first week at university, I’ve never understood the relationship between theory and practice. International Relations is peppered with competing and contradictory paradigms and ways of looking at the world. But they seem to force reality onto ideas rather than attach ideas onto events in reality. The difference between what we say in the classroom to what we see play out in real time confounds me. In organised, hourly chunks, we discuss and debate abstract ideas and how they relate to what others have said. We write structured essays and are merited accordingly. At the end of three years we leave and those ideas are neatly left in the musty classroom behind us for the next generation.
In my Critical Security Studies module, we watched a film about the effects of the Iraq War on a working class British veteran. It was short but touched upon a range of issues from PTSD to notions of masculinity. My tutor asked us to write the director a letter. As an Iraqi who has suffered directly from the war it really affected me. Whilst reading the letter out in class, I felt my voice shake. Out of nowhere my eyes teared up and by the end of the letter, tears cascaded onto the table. If I was in an American series, they’d have referred to it as a meltdown. I certainly felt all the stress and upset that my family had been through emanate outwards. All those fears I hadn’t told my friends about, the discrepancies between TV and reality, between ISIS and quotidian Baghdadi life, they all culminated in the reading of that letter.
I was really ashamed, I’ve always hated crying, especially crying in public. It felt dramatic, indulgent even. But as I looked around I saw others tearing up and, at the end of the somewhat sorrowful class, my friend and classmate said, ‘why don’t we cry in seminars more often?’ It spun round my head for the rest of the afternoon. Why don’t we cry more in class? History, politics, sociology et al are all peppered with trauma and tragedy, it is our role to preserve those narratives and critique them. It means confronting some dark corners of humanity. We need to be able to connect with them, not just read them clinically. We should be psychologically affected by those cataclysmic episodes of human history that mould our society, only then can we hope to transcend from understanding to empathy. We pay over £27,000 over three years to put knowledge into our heads. If we leave university without the ability to afford those who suffered minimal amounts of empathy then we have made a poor investment. The others in that classroom are the highest echelon of society: we study at a Russell Group university: we have an abundance of food, water and almost-guaranteed security. The least we can do with our privilege is feel for those who were – and are – deprived it. What happened in that classroom was what we should all expect from an academic journey – not something we should be ashamed of. It was the first time I had ever felt the sanguine world of theory transgress into the practical and painful realm of humanity.
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