Monday, September 26, 2022

Pedro Monaville's "Students of the World"

Pedro Monaville is Assistant Professor of History at New York University Abu Dhabi.

He applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Students of the World: Global 1968 and Decolonization in the Congo, reported the following:
From page 99:
Soon after the tenth anniversary, Benoît Verhaegen, a professor of political science at the university, gave a very well-attended talk on campus. To him, Lovanium was not African, not democratic, and also not a real university. Although his talk detailed this critique of the institution, it also argued that students were similarly part of the problem: years of conditioning in Catholic boarding schools had meant that they entered the university “totally sterilized culturally and intellectually, and therefore totally aseptic to revolutionary ideas.”

Verhaegen himself was a man of paradoxes. A self-proclaimed Catholic Marxist, he had volunteered as a young man to fight with the Belgian army in the Korean War. Yet, he seemed to find no excuses for the contradictions he saw at play between the students’ rhetorical radicality and their continuous abidance to the ethos of the defunct Belgian-Congolese community. Known for his sharp tongue, Verhaegen did not disappoint when he concluded that “Lovanium students are not even denied their freedom of expression, since they have nothing authentic left to express.” This was a harsh judgment, but many students in the audience took it as a call for action. A few weeks after the talk, in March 1964, during an extraordinary general assembly, AGEL’s new president, Hubert Makanda, declared that students were past the point of polite discussions with the academic authorities, and “the time of resistance and violence starts now.”

The same Makanda launched the first successful strike at Lovanium. It was organized as a military operation, with designated “generals” who swore an oath to the student revolution and coordinated a campus blockade, marches, and occupations of administrative buildings. On the morning of the strike’s first day, Father Edouard Liétard, the head of student dorms and restaurants, saw that students had blocked all entry points to the campus. Puzzled, he went to Gillon’s office to share the news. “The rector immediately sensed that it was serious. I remember very well how struck I felt by the gravity of his reaction,” he told me when we met in 2010. While Lietard and Gillon were discussing, a group of students was standing on the other side of the door, planning to take over the rector’s office. Pierre Lenoir, Gillon’s assistant, physically interposed himself. Tensions quickly mounted and “the whole thing nearly boiled over,” as Yvon Bongoy, one of AGEL’s leaders recalled during an interview.
Page 99 in Students of the World narrates the first hours of a dramatic student strike at Lovanium University (today the University of Kinshasa) in 1964. Students protested against the fact that, while Congo had been independent for nearly four years, its higher education system still needed to be decolonized. This was particularly true on their campus, where Belgians made up the overwhelming majority of the staff and faculty, including the university’s rector Luc Gillon. Ten years earlier, Lovanium had been the first university allowed to open its doors in Congo, as the African branch of Belgium’s oldest university, Louvain. Students wanted to end this relation of dependency with Belgian academia. They demanded more Congolese professors and courses relevant to their own context. The General Association of Lovanium’s Students (AGEL) had pushed for these demands for months, but to no avail. This is the context in which students decided to occupy the campus until full satisfaction of their platform.

One key argument in my book is that conflicts over inadequate university structures radicalized and emboldened students. Discontent about the unfinished decolonization of higher education led a generation of young Congolese to embrace revolutionary political projects that challenged the status quo well beyond university campuses. The 1964 strike at Lovanium was one of the critical protests that accelerated this left turn in students’ political imagination.

Does it mean that my book fully validates the Page 99 Test? Yes and no. The description of the strike actually only begins halfway through the page. The first half reflects on a previous event, a talk by a Belgian professor named Benoît Verhaegen. Verhaegen was a towering figure at Lovanium, as a very rare outspoken faculty who did not hesitate to confront the powers that be. Each time student protests erupted at Lovanium, the university leadership accused Verhaegen to be their secret mastermind. This implied that students were being manipulated by a shrewd provocateur, but my research shows that rector Gillon and other university leaders blew Verhaegen’s influence of on the student movement out of proportion. As a result, I only mention Verhaegen briefly in the book, and my main focus is on the students themselves. Yet, at some occasions, Verhaegen shaped conversations on campus in ways that directly impacted student activism. This was the case in 1964 and it explains his cameo appearance on page 99.
Follow Pedro Monaville on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue