Science - August 25, 2004

Letter to the Editor

The culture of materialism

It has been almost two months since I arrived in Wageningen to work on the last segment of my PhD. I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time after living for 18 months in a village in western India, followed by an intense time spent in writing up the draft thesis in the semi-metropolitan city of Ahmedabad. Working on a single subject independently for almost 4 years leaves a feeling of isolation from rest of the world. This individualist effort was very different from the interdisciplinary environment of the NGO where I had worked before starting the PhD. The trip to Wageningen generated a feeling of being ‘connected’ to higher intellectual pursuits and understanding my own contribution in the process. However, the stay here so far is leading me to a feeling of despair and helplessness. Let me take a moment to explain - why? In my view, a university is an institution formed around a set of ideas and has a specific political goal in realising them through the students and teachers associated with them. These ideas are translated not only through formal but also informal ways of communication, and together they form the ‘culture’ of an institution. For the last two months, I have been looking for what is called the popular culture of Wageningen University. However, I have been grossly disappointed in more than one way. First, the university does not have a decent collection of literary works. One of the libraries is supposed to have the largest collection of books referring to social science, but Wageningen does not have basic books on literature, philosophy and religion. Call the librarian and you get an answer that it is a university of life sciences and so literature is out of the question! Then you try going to the public library that is restricted through a detailed membership and payment structure. If you are in Wageningen for a shorter stay, you probably will not find the collection worth your hard-earned money. Try visiting some of these libraries after office hours and you will have another shock. They are all open in the usual office hours. Ultimately, you are reduced to asking friends if they have any collection of readings and borrow them on request. What are the conclusions you would make about a place where bars and dancing clubs are open for the longest working hours but where there is no place where knowledge is cultivated, formed and supposed to build a better perspective towards life, nature and one’s own self. Are life sciences only about hard-core ‘science’ books or do they cover a much broader area shaping ideologies and vision of a student’s life? In the two months of my stay, I have never heard any group of students informally organising a book-reading session or discussing problems the world is facing today, never mind the idealism and romanticism of doing their bit of work towards an equitable society. Try gathering information on film clubs and the Dutch language comes your way as a block! The internet website relating them neither mentions the time nor updates information on the kind of movies that are screened. If there is any seminar or talk on larger political issues, that is part of the usual ‘office’ work done during the office hours. If you are supposed to be working on your subject during the day and perusing to gain knowledge outside the usual construction of ‘work’ in the non-official leisure hours, you are left with Hawaii and Striptease parties. Try going to one of them and you would experience the true culture of materialism. The attendance will be the highest when there are special striptease shows – the chief personification of materialist culture. The human body is looked at from the point of view of sex, pleasure, covetousness and lust. The higher goal of the soul is trapped in beer, rum. Whiskey, loud music and smoke with a vigilant search for that night’s bed-partner with pin-up girls and guys. As if that is not enough, the university website lists more than 50 such alphabetically listed, properly mapped ‘accessible’ bars and cafes under the nightlife programme for students! If you hear about them more often than a book or poetry reading sessions, do not ever blame yourself. You are enrolled in the ultimate Wageningen culture!

Anjal Prakash, 1 July 2004.
Ph D Fellow
Irrigation and Water Engineering Group

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