THERE is nothing more antithetical to the academic project than table thumping, a common feature of current university life in South Africa, both from the right and from the left of the debate on transformation.
For a decade I have worked at Rhodes University in the field of philosophy, which has received much adverse media attention lately on the grounds that it is untransformed.
It’s hard not to agree with the accusations if one understands the history of our discipline in South Africa and the extent to which the ideological underpinnings of the past form part of our present.
But to properly know what transformation is, we need to understand what the point of universities is and how it is that universities, Rhodes included, are not living up to what they could and should be.
Transformative efforts cannot stop with, for instance, name changes. Few people will defend the idea that we should be celebrating the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes. But changing the name of Rhodes University is surely not enough and, if this were all we did, we would be accused of advocating cosmetic change only.
Others, admittedly very few, seem to think universities such as mine should be razed for there is nothing redeemable about them. I disagree with this camp, but rather than engaging them in argument, I think it’s incumbent on the academic community of South Africa to creatively and vigorously lead the way in constructive and open debate.
So, how should we think about transformation? Universities generally are not, and should not be, NGOs, organs of the state, bootcamps for revolutionaries or, for that matter, counter-revolutionaries.
And universities should not be degree-bestowing factories for students whose interest in understanding is merely incidental. That they are increasingly becoming this in South Africa and elsewhere is, in part, due to the lack of differentiation in the post-school sector, a problem to be tackled on another occasion. It’s also due to a global culture that snuffs out curiosity that turns subjects into consumers guided by advertisement-induced hypnosis.
It is still the case today that if you want to earn a decent living, you almost certainly need a university degree. This puts pressure on universities to become what they are not meant to be. To make things worse, the worsening underfunding of universities compels them to become social mobility catalysts rather than places where understanding is fostered.
Universities should not be the homes of understanding for the sake of economic growth. This view places the cart before the horse. It is because universities have been spaces where largely disinterested inquiry can run wild that deep theorising about economic growth could arise in the first place.
People yearn to understand, yearn to make sense of it all. This is the dimension of our being that universities ought to cater for in the first instance. Universities are the ideal place where this yearning can take place in an unimpaired way. This is the ideal, but are we living up to it? I don’t think so.
To address this question adequately brings us to the problem of transformation. To claim that universities must just transform is to claim that universities should be doing what they ought to be doing at their best, to be doing what is distinctive to them, what it is that we should ultimately want them to do.
So, what ought universities to be doing? I’ve already partly answered this question above: they are there to cater for the dimension of our lives that yearns to understand self, other and reality more generally. Understanding is the aim of universities. Other things, such as the practical utility derived from thinking deeply about how economic systems ought to work, are incidental, offshoots of the thirst for inquiry that is at the heart of university life.
So, if we are to move forward in our transformative efforts, we’d better make sure we possess sophisticated understandings of what understanding is. And we ought to make sure we don’t assume we fully understand what it is to understand, thus leaving wiggle room for competing versions that will inform transformation.
Dogmatism, after all, is one of the principal impediments to understanding. There is nothing more antithetical to the academic project than table thumping.
Here is a picture of the understanding subject, the ideal academic, that I think we need to reject: the solitary disembodied inquirer who has no race, gender, class or history. This picture presupposes the idea that understanding is pure (whatever that means) and must, paradoxically, be protected from the actual contingencies that define life today. It is only in this manner, the thinking goes, that it can achieve the ideal of grasping universal truths.
This, I think, is a flawed picture and it’s a picture that informs recalcitrant patterns that subtle Fallists seem to recognise. The problem with the disembodied solitary inquirer is that it’s blind to ideology, that is, to largely implicit understandings of reality floating in the air of the times.
Ideologies, as I understand them here, are passively and largely subconsciously absorbed by individuals. These ideological frameworks mould people’s lives and allow us to explain why, say, 21st century ways of being in South Africa are very different from ways of being in other times and places. Ideologies are unavoidable insofar as we are social creatures whose lives are driven by ideas.
Let me illustrate with a personal note: I was born in a sexist, racist and classist world, in Chile to be precise. Before I could even think straight, I acquired these prejudices. It took me many years to come to grasp these underpinnings and a significant proportion of my intellectual energies have been dedicated to struggling against these forces, these guiding pre-judgements that form the ideological framework within which my life was formed.
Ideology affects different disciplines in different ways and at different levels. But I would be surprised if there were any disciplines that were not informed by pre-judgments, by ways of seeing that we have absorbed before we could develop the critical capacities to resist them.
• Tabensky works at the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes University. He is editor, with Sally Matthews, of Being at Home: Race, Institutional Culture and Transformation in South African Higher Education Institutions (Durban: UKZN Press, 2015).
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