Old news and no news
It seems eons ago since Mark Antony Falzon brought to the attention of the readers of this newspaper’s Sunday sister the availability to University students of a new series of lectures on “the importance of the family in contemporary society” as part of the Degree Plus Programme (*). And, yet, it was only March 6. Perhaps it feels like ages ago because there are moments in our life when so much is happening around us that an hour seems like a week and when a day brings with it so much momentous news it might well be a year. Indeed, with all hell let loose only 45 minutes south of us, we are living one such historical moment and a very long moment it is.
Perhaps it feels like ages ago also because it was old news in the sense of déjà vu. It is not news that we do not live in a modern secular society free from state imposition of any religious belief. It is not news that, whereas some of us adopt post-modern poses, we continue to live in a culture that has so incompletely digested the enlightenment that we may well be justified in calling it pre-modern or, better, lumpen-modern.
At the last election, a slim majority of us (but a majority nevertheless) voted in a Prime Minister who is, no doubt, proud he will leave behind a pharaonic post-modernist national monument signed by one of my favourite architects, Renzo Piano. It is not news, however, that Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has no intention of letting go of those features of our culture that make of us, frankly, Europe’s backward backwater. This is not news. Why should it be news, therefore, that the (state) University of Malta is offering an officially recognised but clearly confessional programme (confession understood as a public declaration of a faith)? It would have been news had many more of Dr Falzon’s colleagues raised their voice to query the propriety of the initiative.
It is encouraging to see that Dominic Fenech, dean of Dr Falzon’s faculty, posted an online comment declaring he is “with Mark Anthony on this all the way”. He also reminded us that “the object of Degree Plus is to open new horizons for students, not to close them”. It is discouraging to observe that Prof. Fenech’s declaration was not immediately followed by statements by all of his colleagues.
Dr Falzon went further. He asked how appropriate it is for this to happen so close to the divorce referendum, especially since some of the scheduled speakers have already taken a clear position against divorce. They are not just any speakers. They are speakers with a very loud voice. The identity of the organisers and the sales pitch are such as to leave no shadow of doubt that this lecture programme is perceived as a strong nudge to vote in a particular way.
I also agree with Dr Falzon all the way but I think we should distinguish between the evident slant of the lecture series and the issue of its official recognition by the University as a course within the Degree Plus Programme. Would the University have accepted to incorporate into the Degree Plus Programme a lecture course with the opposite slant? If the answer is not a clear and unequivocal “yes” then we have a serious problem. Actually, we have two problems, the second one being that, apparently, only a few of Dr Falzon’s colleagues are ready to state openly that they too perceive it as a problem. That they do not is a problem. But then, that’s hardly news, is it?
On December 15 of last year, Dr Gonzi spoke at the official opening of the University’s Centre for Family Studies. Among the centre’s aims, its own site lists the following: to “organise, encourage and promote research on all aspects of family life with particular reference to the Maltese cultural context”, “to offer certificate, degree and postgraduate courses including professional courses in the field of family studies” and services in the field of family-related matters to institutions assisting families, governmental and non-governmental agencies.”
How appropriate was it for Dr Gonzi to speak about the divorce issue precisely on this occasion? Did this singularly inappropriate intervention (we’ll discuss its content on another occasion) help to profile the centre as body dedicated to objective research and critical analysis in a field that indeed requires objective research and critical analysis? I think not.
More recently, Dr Gonzi was quoted as telling MPs he expected the centre to carry out an impact study on the introduction of divorce in Malta. Another newspaper titled its report Gonzi Favours May 28 Because He Wants Studies To Confirm The Negative Impact Of Divorce. I was not there and so I cannot say for certain the Prime Minister actually said “confirm the negative impact of divorce”. But I would have at least expected the University to issue a statement correcting the impression that the Centre for Family Studies was there to “confirm” anyone’s article of faith. The very thought should make any academic who values research and academic freedom wince with pain.
(*) Read Dr Mark Anthony Falzon’s article at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110306/opinion/university-can-do-without-pathetic-campaigning
This article appeared on Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on March 14, 2011. You can access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110314/opinion/old-news-and-no-news