By Derek Bouse
Special to the LAU Tribune
Recently the city of New York revealed its lack of sophistication when it played host to a gathering convened to discuss a topic for which we have no time here in Lebanon: wildlife films (http://www.92y.org/Tribeca/Event/Recognizing-the-Animal.aspx). On hand was an academic with a book on the subject (a book?), an expert on “crittercam” (cameras attached to animals to film from their perspective), and actress Isabella Rossellini. In conjunction, the New York Times ran a detailed background discussion of the wildlife film genre (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/movies/animals-continue-to-fascinate-humans-films-prove-it.html). There is even now a burgeoning academic field in the U.S. called “animal studies.” Those zany Americans. Who else would bother with such nonsense? We here in Lebanon are far too busy with our. . . well, whatever it is we do here.
My students at LAU have mostly turned up their noses at the idea of wildlife and natural history films, as well as just about anything involving the natural world, with which they seem to feel no connection.
Our program here doesn’t dirty its hands with such topics. Film here is an Art. When movies were young, the Hollywood Production Code established the rules by which they would be produced, and the terms in which they were to be understood. Movies were considered “very important as Art,” but were also “to be regarded as entertainment,” and thus to provide recreation for those “exhausted with the realities of life.”
That was in 1933, but the basic contours (distraction from reality, rather than engagement with it) seem largely still in place in our communication arts program, at least if my conversations with students are any indication. In truth, I haven’t seen many of their films, but it does seem that their artistic vision is inward rather than outward looking. Film production pedagogy further emphasizes individual vision over social engagement and responsibility.
As my commitment to LAU deepens, I’d like to be proven wrong in my perception of pervasive apathy and collective narcissism among our students. I see a lot of expensive cars and cool sunglasses, but I see none of the idealism once associated with being a university student. In an inspiring talk in January by Ziad Abichaker on innovative methods for alleviating the chronic waste disposal problems that affect us all here in Lebanon (depressingly outlined here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8426091.stm), only a handful of people bothered to attend, and only half of them were students (http://eventscal.lau.edu.lb/2011/12/21/lecture-a-case-study-in-recyclin.php).
The university has failed to set an example of environmental responsibility by the very design of the Byblos campus. Nevermind that the deep scars it has gauged like a strip-mine into the side of the mountain are a radical form of environmental destruction. That goes completely unquestioned (critical thinking, anyone?).
The university abdicated the role of leader in the community when it decided that the new buildings in Byblos need not be examples of progressive, energy efficient architecture. What we got instead were more of the same uninspired institutional structures of which Lebanon already has an extravagant surplus. It was a clear decision not to do what universities should do in their communities: lead by example.
By the prevailing logic of capitulation, if the students want to drive cars then we build more parking. Simple. And exactly wrong. We don’t need more parking at Byblos; we need less. In its place we need creative, forward-thinking, intelligent transportation solutions that will use less energy and set an example for the community. This would make clear LAU’s leadership role and innovative spirit. What we don’t need is more thinking in which a world of limitless resources is simply, blithely presumed, and in which environmental indifference is institutionalized. We can do better.
Unlike ‘technical institutes’ that merely train the workforce, liberal arts universities exist to instill in students, among other things, an appreciation for the complexity (and in some cases the fragility) of the world around them, as well as a spirit of questioning the prevailing order of things. It is time we looked in the mirror and decided who we are.
Derek Bouse, PhD, is the assistant chair at the communication arts department in Byblos.
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