Promoting respect for the common good is something that looks easy enough to do in theory, but when it comes to actually advocating for it through your work and by action, the obstacles become steeper. Social justice advocate Prof. Ronald Sultana, Education Studies Professor and Director of the Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Education Research, thinks this respect is not just a choice but a duty, especially of the academic community whose responsibility is to make sure the individuals being educated can flourish irrespective of where they come from.
Upon hearing that Prof. Sultana was conferred an Honorary Doctorate in Counselling by Université Laval in Québec, which strengthens his reputation of being “inspiring figure in educational and career guidance research”, Newspoint chatted with him about his track record, projects, and his ideals.
You believe in opening the doors of opportunity for everyone. Do you still uphold that ideal in an increasingly divided world?
We’re living in this world where gaps between the haves and have-nots increased exponentially, and for millions of individuals across the world, precariousness, insecurity and indigence are the order of the day. The social contract between the state and its citizens has been dramatically strained – and the mass mobilisation of protest movements internationally are a sign of this.
The issues we experience are many a times considered, by ourselves, as personal failures rather than oppressive practices that serve in the interests of a few. As scholars, we have a duty to help in decoding what is happening around us and why. We also have a duty to recognise we don’t operate outside a system of power.
Like any other social practice, education can either merely serve to reinforce injustice, or, in a more positive manner, to promote ways of being human in the world, such that individuals can flourish. I choose to believe and do my best to practise the latter.
Having co-authored a practical guide for the development of guidance policies, can you walk us through what an effective education policy includes?
A major issue regarding any policy is to ask how the problem is represented to be. The way we define a problem leads to specific strategies and solutions. Far too often, policies are misguided because they fail to problematise the question they are expected to give an answer to. Oftentimes, individuals and groups are represented as having deficits, when the problem lies elsewhere.
What has been an important lesson taught by those who you’ve mentored?
It would be that everyone has their story, and everybody’s story is both incredibly rich and worthy of respect. There is a phrase by philosopher Levinas that has had a deep impact on me. He argues we should “tremble in awe in front of the face of the other”. This is not to say I always tremble in awe, but that perhaps I should!
Having founded the Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Educational Research in 2003, what has been the recipe for its successful growth?
Trust by those above me, and finding a formula to avoid the alarming process of deskilling, that is turning educational leaders into technocratic managers..
How has the Centre adapted to remote teaching when COVID-19 hit?
As from October 2020, our Masters in Comparative Education will be offered fully online. Much of the Masters in Lifelong Career Guidance and Development, which we offer with the Centre for Labour Studies, will also be offered online.
I meet my students online constantly and regularly. I miss the face-to-face, but I must admit we are getting a lot of work done thanks to digital platforms. The challenge is to develop ways of teaching that are pedagogically sound, where the medium and the message work together well. We learn by doing.
In your extremely prolific research career, what has been your most fruitful collaborative piece of research so far?
I tend to be very selective when it comes to working with others – I need to feel they add value and push me beyond my limits, and I look for very specific personal qualities that go beyond intellect and more to do with wisdom, and a particular way of being in the world.
A person who fits this bill perfectly is Professor André Elias Mazawi, a Palestinian at the University of British Colombia, with whom I’ve been collaborating for many years now, and with whom I co-edited the Routledge World Yearbook on education in the Arab world, as well as a book on private tutoring in the Mediterranean region. André is an affiliate professor with EMCER, and has been extremely generous to the community of education researchers here in Malta.
What is in the near future of EMCER and Prof. Sultana?
We are preparing a special issue of an international journal focusing on the integration of refugees into the labour market, and also planning an international conference on the subject, COVID-19 permitting.
As for myself, I am discovering the joy of grand-parenting, and often concluding that things are best at their beginning!