Let’s re­solve the im­passe

Ac­tivism and throw­ing money into uni­ver­si­ties are only part of the so­lu­tion. We need to re-eval­u­ate the pur­pose of higher learn­ing, writes Bar­ney Pityana

CityPress - - Voices -

Over the past two years, stu­dent protests at cam­puses coun­try­wide have placed the spot­light on higher ed­u­ca­tion in un­fore­seen ways. Those of us who were stu­dent lead­ers in cam­pus protests a few gen­er­a­tions back, as well as those of us who were ac­tive in the lib­er­a­tion move­ment, have been as­tounded by the re­silience of the cur­rent protest move­ment.

The irony is that, as the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of our time on cam­puses or in com­bat for the lib­er­a­tion of our coun­try, for­tune has thrust upon us the re­spon­si­bil­ity to su­per­in­tend the for­tunes of to­day’s young minds and steer the na­tion into a deeper sense of it­self and its well­be­ing.

To this end, the re­cent state of the na­tion ad­dress marked yet an­other lost op­por­tu­nity – one of many that have be­come char­ac­ter­is­tic of Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s lead­er­ship. In his lack­lus­tre speech, Zuma failed to lift the na­tion’s hopes about higher ed­u­ca­tion.

How­ever, it must be said that the im­por­tance of set­ting out what govern­ment has done to ad­dress stu­dents’ con­cerns must be ac­knowl­edged – and Zuma did this. In this re­gard, much has been done.

But what our pres­i­dent failed to do was give the na­tion a vi­sion and a new, higher vi­sion for the in­trin­sic value of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

The mean­ing of higher ed­u­ca­tion is more than the num­bers and the ma­te­rial ben­e­fits that univer­sity stud­ies are sup­posed to as­sure. From the time for­mer pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela took of­fice, the na­tion has pre­sented the case for ed­u­ca­tion and its value with re­gard to jobs and so­cial se­cu­rity.

Ex­pec­ta­tions are there, and they are high. The truth, how­ever, is that we have failed to de­liver on such prom­ises.

Too many young peo­ple drop out of school, while many who are priv­i­leged to at­tend uni­ver­si­ties fail to com­plete their stud­ies in the al­lot­ted time for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons.

Even more alarm­ing, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber fail to find jobs once they grad­u­ate. Is it not time we changed the mes­sage about ed­u­ca­tion – in par­tic­u­lar, higher ed­u­ca­tion?

Maybe we should start by as­sert­ing that ed­u­ca­tion is es­sen­tial for the achieve­ment of our true hu­man­ity. At its core, ed­u­ca­tion is about hu­man de­vel­op­ment, un­der­stand­ing the world and one­self in it, and cul­ti­vat­ing the skills and in­tel­li­gence nec­es­sary to em­power peo­ple to be­come fully hu­man.

The worlds of science and tech­nol­ogy, of cul­ture and his­tory, of so­ci­ety and its peo­ple, are best un­locked by stretch­ing hu­man in­tel­li­gence and cu­rios­ity. This, in turn, leads to the joy and sat­is­fac­tion of ac­com­plish­ment.

Ed­u­ca­tion is life. Ed­u­ca­tion feeds the hu­man de­sire to know, and then to know more.

Ed­u­ca­tion oc­cu­pies pride of place in our na­tional bud­get. This has been the case since 1994. And yet in­equal­i­ties pre­vail, as do in­ad­e­quate fa­cil­i­ties and pro­vi­sion. As a re­sult, re­sent­ment, anger and lack of ful­fil­ment have be­come part of the na­tional psy­che. It goes some way to­wards ex­plain­ing why protesters de­stroy ed­u­ca­tional fa­cil­i­ties and why chil­dren are kept out of school when­ever we have beef about ser­vice de­liv­ery.

From li­braries to lab­o­ra­to­ries to school trans­port, all go up in smoke if our de­mands are not met. This sug­gests that South Africa is not emo­tion­ally at­tached to the ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions the state has pro­vided.

WEB Du Bois, the African-Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tion­ist and philoso­pher, wrote in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, that higher ed­u­ca­tion should cul­ti­vate a pro­found sense of val­ues, of re­fine­ment of char­ac­ter, of ser­vice to oth­ers and of the cul­ti­va­tion of the mind. Through ed­u­ca­tion we learn em­pa­thy – and out­rage when things go wrong.

Yet we also value at­tributes such as joy, love, aes­thet­ics, crit­i­cal judge­ment and the sub­lime.

Higher ed­u­ca­tion should trans­form char­ac­ter and shape moral lead­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als. As Du Bois says, the func­tion of a univer­sity is “to be the or­gan of that fine ad­just­ment be­tween real life and the grow­ing knowl­edge of life, an ad­just­ment which forms the se­cret of civil­i­sa­tion”.

When we do that, we will be able to dis­tin­guish things of value from mere trivia. We will em­ploy strate­gies to ac­com­plish our ob­jec­tives and un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence be­tween what is es­sen­tial for sur­vival and what is nec­es­sary for hu­man hap­pi­ness and the joy of ac­com­plish­ment.

Our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, in par­tic­u­lar, should seek to achieve that which is stated in the pre­am­ble to the Con­sti­tu­tion: (to) “im­prove the qual­ity of life of all cit­i­zens and free the po­ten­tial of each per­son”.

The pre­vail­ing im­passe in higher ed­u­ca­tion may not be re­solved by com­mis­sions of in­quiry, by throw­ing more money into the pock­ets of stu­dents or into the cof­fers of in­sti­tu­tions, by the use of ex­ces­sive force at univer­sity cam­puses, by the im­pris­on­ment of stu­dent ac­tivists, or by iso­lat­ing stu­dent lead­ers.

We do not ad­dress the mat­ters un­der con­tention sim­ply by de­cry­ing the po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual lack of ma­tu­rity or so­phis­ti­ca­tion dis­played by many stu­dent ac­tivists. Nei­ther do we achieve much by com­par­ing this gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents to ours 40 years ago and be­fore. We would do well to cre­ate at our cam­puses fo­rums for de­bate and di­a­logue, even as we need to recog­nise that ed­u­ca­tion has a sub­ver­sive el­e­ment. It seeks change and seeks to im­prove life. Ed­u­ca­tion has a trans­for­ma­tive char­ac­ter.

To ef­fect change, we need to re­think many of our prin­ci­ples and prac­tices in higher ed­u­ca­tion. One hopes that there could be a na­tional con­sen­sus about the idea of a univer­sity. To this end, we need to look be­yond mo­men­tary slo­gans, po­lit­i­cal rhetoric and ma­te­rial ben­e­fits. Per­haps we should recog­nise what kind of so­ci­ety we can be­come and ac­knowl­edge the role that higher ed­u­ca­tion can play in its ac­com­plish­ment.

Our coun­try needs to re­cover its ide­al­ism as well as the con­vic­tion that it is pos­si­ble to achieve that which is best.

We ought to know that we can­not con­tinue as we are. Vi­o­lence and shout­ing do not solve prob­lems; use of force and power are point­less un­less used smartly.

The an­tics in Par­lia­ment show us that the cul­ture of ir­ra­tional be­hav­iour is not con­fined to cam­pus pol­i­tics. The pal­pa­ble lack of moral con­scious­ness in pub­lic life sup­ports the idea that one does not have to work for what one gets – in­trigue, lies and the fail­ure to recog­nise that it is not just the let­ter of the Con­sti­tu­tion that we must sat­isfy, but also its spirit, ap­pear to dom­i­nate. This spirit is not ac­cessed by rules and force, but by cul­ti­vat­ing con­fi­dence, trust and pride among those who govern and those who are gov­erned.

Some­how lead­er­ship must un­der­stand the value of “hon­est and earnest crit­i­cism”, as Du Bois puts it. Crit­i­cism by those whose in­ter­ests are af­fected is, in his view, “the soul of democ­racy and the safe­guard of modern so­ci­ety”.

In 1995, the Com­mis­sion on Higher Ed­u­ca­tion steered us on a new course. The com­mis­sion’s re­port has served the pol­icy land­scape for higher ed­u­ca­tion for 21 years. It is time to re­visit those prin­ci­ples so we can recog­nise where that re­port fell short or is fail­ing to take us be­yond the anti-apartheid mind-set.

What the stu­dents seem to have done is com­pel the na­tion to in­ter­ro­gate the bour­geois and even ne­olib­eral as­sump­tions that form the bedrock of our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

It must be ac­knowl­edged that how­ever much South Africa pro­vides free or pro­gres­sively freer ed­u­ca­tion, there will re­main un­ease about the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem it­self. In other words, the clam­our could well be free ed­u­ca­tion in an in­tel­lec­tual ghetto.

That dilemma is not re­solved by the slo­gan “free, de­colonised and qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion”. Ed­u­ca­tion is a process. We need to agree on the first steps nec­es­sary to ac­com­plish our goals.

For­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki will be in­stalled as the chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of SA to­mor­row. One hopes that he will take the op­por­tu­nity to rally the na­tion and the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor into de­vel­op­ing a re­newed vi­sion for higher ed­u­ca­tion, and call us all to a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its po­ten­tial to do good.

Pityana is pro­gramme ad­viser to the Thabo Mbeki Foun­da­tion

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AS­PI­RA­TIONS UP IN SMOKE KwaZulu-Natal last year A stu­dent con­tem­plates the dam­age af­ter a fire gut­ted part of the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg Wil­liam O'Brien exam hall at the Univer­sity of

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