Last month my youngest son left home to begin undergraduate life. Wafted, or should that be rafted, out of the house on a flood of tears from his mother and grandmother, he began the two-hour drive to his university. Had his destination been Antarctica, his mother could not have been more distraught.
Asians parents are a weird lot. So concerned are we about our children that we seldom let them go - anywhere. A fact clearly beyond John Reid's ken! My youngest is a rebellious soul; unlike his siblings, he was determined not to settle for a university in London. So he tormented his mother for well over a year until, reluctantly, she agreed to his educational sojourn in a foreign country called Kent. During his first week away, she rang every day - or was it every hour? - to check he had not succumbed in this alien environment. Parcels of food were despatched, changes of clothing were shipped. And I was constantly and harshly disparaged for ignoring my son and not looking after his welfare.
But all this was as nothing compared to the aggravation I faced about his field of study. His mother wanted him to opt for a pukka subject such as law, like his sister; or engineering, like his brother. His grandmother wanted him to serve humanity: and that could only mean medicine. But the student in question had other ideas. He wanted to study something that would help him "subvert and dethrone the dominant system". Well, he is my son, after all.
Unfortunately, there is no such subject. Our universities offer a plethora of disciplines: hard sciences such as physics; social sciences such as sociology; fashionable subjects such as media studies. But none, despite some fancy packaging, actually teaches you to rebel against the dominant consensus. On the contrary, they teach you to accept the world as it is and glorify it.
There are a few disciplines that regard themselves as subversive. So we toyed with cultural studies. But, to be honest, I would never allow my son to study a subject devoted largely to deconstructing western cultural nonsense. We thought of subjects with a longer pedigree, such as development studies. Development folk certainly think they are improving the world. In reality, the discipline is not just a spectacular failure, it has multiplied the injustices in the world. Politics? Euphemism for western international relations. Media studies? All illusory surface and no depth. Post-colonial studies? It has to be a little more "post" before any genuine subversive can take it seriously.
There was nothing for it but to explain to my son that academic disciplines are not made in heaven: they are manufactured, just like burgers and Coke. There is no "reality" out there in a neat little box called physics, nor a separate reality in another box called chemistry. Subject areas emerge from a cultural milieu and reflect the view of that culture. That is why when we study our own society we call it sociology, the function of which is to keep the working classes in their place; but when we study other societies we call it anthropology, the function of which is to control and dominate other cultures.
You can, however, study almost anything that is the object of oppression. Hence, we have third world studies, black studies, women's studies, Asian studies, environmental studies. The one thing you cannot study is the object that is doing all the oppressing. White studies has yet to be invented. The world is shaped in the image of the white man and everything is studied from his perspective. In a sense, everything is white studies - but the invisible force that sustains all disciplines is never itself subject to scrutiny.
Ward Churchill, the Native American radical and professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, has for almost two decades been arguing that what passes for higher education across most of the world is anchored in a narrow set of intellectual assumptions that put the white man at the apex of human evolution. True subversion means demolishing this infrastructure.
In the end, my son decided philosophy came nearest to what he wanted to do. So I gave him a copy of Acts of Rebellion, an anthology of Ward Churchill's articles, and packed him off.
His grandmother nearly had a fit. Philosophy, she wailed, is not going to give him meaning, or make him happy, or help him find gainful employment. "Look at Socrates. Apart from mis leading young men and committing suicide what did he achieve?" I fear she has a point.
"Acts of Rebellion: the Ward Churchill reader" is published by Routledge (£18.99)