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Return to critical scholarship

Date Released: Tue, 15 April 2008 10:30 +0200

Intellectuals, public officials, business and civil-society leaders and political commentators have complained about South African universities' lack of "visibility". For some, universities have not addressed the myriad economic and social-development challenges the country faces.

Can universities transform society? Societal transformation demands political will, the force of a developmental state and interventions in all areas of society. Faced with this, universities can contribute only to social transformation.

Forcing universities to serve purely utilitarian ends reduces them to instruments of the economy. The responsiveness of universities must be of a wider intellectual and social character. But are they engaging sufficiently and critically with vital social questions?

Prior to 1994 some universities were sites of critical scholarship, often connected with the national liberation movements, mass organisations, workers and rural poor. Such work was not officially encouraged and some scholars suffered for it.

Today things are different. Our Bill of Rights protects free speech. And yet there is a dearth of critical scholarship. The truth is this: if we are to protect our freedoms and so deepen our democracy, scholars must return to their past practice. Rigorous scholarship (whether it identifies wholly or in part with the social goals of the government, the state, political parties or other key social actors) must freely interrogate the thinking, priorities and policies of all these actors.

Critical scholarship must investigate the theoretical foundations and the empirical analyses that define the country's direction.

There is no shortage of vital issues that should be investigated: the dynamics and character of South Africa's transition; the emerging economic and social structure; the changing dynamics of relations of race, class and gender and their implications for poverty, unemployment and other inequalities; the character of the emerging black bourgeoisie, its relations to business and the state and economic and political trajectories; and conceptions of "development" and "democracy".

Beyond these, university-based scholars are well placed to address the salience of race, culture, identity, diversity, citizenship, morality and ethics, language, sustainable development, environmental degradation and global climate change.

Such scholarship could also enhance the "visibility" of our universities within our intellectual discourse and cultural life. Why, then, their relative obscurity?

This list is suggestive, a probably incomplete set of answers. Policy-oriented research is seen as the only "relevant" research and has drawn funding away from critical inquiry. The result is a lack of theoretical adventure. Critical scholars have migrated from universities to think-tanks and into consultancy. The increase in teaching loads and contract research has also meant a decline in critical scholarship.

There are other concerns too, some embedded in our troubled past. White scholars, who continue to predominate at universities, are often fearful of publicly articulating critical views for fear of being labelled racist or reactionary.

Many new academics are fearful of writing in the public domain. There are claims also that government and the ANC are opposed to critical intellectual debate. Some academics fear internal sanctions, given the extent to which universities now rely on contract income from government, business and other sources.

So, to use Lenin's famous phrase: "What is to be done?"

We need to celebrate rigorous, critical scholarship and public intellectual debate. The ANC must show its openness to such scholarship and debate.

Universities need creative strategies to facilitate critical scholarship. Scholars should be supported to develop their scholarship into other forms of public writing and to participate in public debate. The National Research Foundation must actively fund rigorous, critical scholarship and the Human Sciences Research Council should consider research programmes on critical social issues, in partnership with universities.

The national public broadcasters and the mass media should commit to promoting critical intellectual debate on key social, economic and political issues. The SABC's Roundtable, sponsored by the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust, was a good beginning. Many more such programmes are needed.

Finally, it is time to rethink the ministry of science and technology's "national system of innovation", which has reduced the idea of science to the natural and biological sciences. More investment is needed in the arts, social sciences and humanities to undertake critical scholarship and publishing and to foster public debate.

To do all this will require both the candour and the responsibility our Constitution has given the country's universities. It is for them to show how engaged and critical scholarship can be the handmaiden of our common future.

Saleem Badat is vice-chancellor of Rhodes University. He writes in his personal capacity

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