If we want to reconstitute the humanities and social sciences, we first have to critique them
When you travel and meet colleagues on our continent, you will often hear them talk with both animated nostalgia and quiet regret about being scholars in the humanities and social sciences in the post-independence period.
On the one hand, their faces light up when the talk is about the debates and ideas that animated this period—when the prospect of independence meant effervescent optimism and imagining anew what kind of society would be created.
On the other, regret is evident when they describe how many of them, initially by persuasion and later by coercion, succumbed to the pressure of serving the noble ideals of a new state, setting aside their critical minds to do so.
As the eminent Malawian scholar Thandika Mkandawire puts it, a large sign hung over the universities. It said: “Silence: Development in progress”. In other words, debate was put aside in the interest of consensus, in the mistaken belief that agreement was the main requirement for building unity.
So it comes as a refreshing difference to have a minister of higher education who is not worried about too much criticism, but about too little. In Blade Nzimande’s preamble to the charter for the humanities —the report produced in September by the committee he appointed, led by Ari Sitas—he laments: “It is disturbing to note that debate is so muted around the major problems that face our society.” The academic voice, he says, “remains silent”.
Now, whether the minister will come to regret his lament when the criticisms blossom wildly from the scholars and students he is encouraging not to remain mute is another matter. But we must take it in good faith that we are being spurred on to do what we do more loudly, more vigorously and more rigorously.
We now have two high-level reports that put the future of the humanities and social sciences prominently at the forefront of the higher education debate in South Africa—the other being the study led by Jonathan Jansen and Peter Vale for the Academy of Science of South Africa, published at about the same time as the charter.
Both reports note that there are daunting demographic anxieties to do with declining enrolments in humanities and the worrying prospect of not producing enough graduate students—particularly black South African PhD graduates—who will become humanities and social-science scholars.
But, of course, it is not we alone who face these challenges. The difficulties involved in being, and deciding to be, a humanities scholar and student are global ones. In the postcolonial world we are faced not only with the imperatives of narrowly defined “development”, but also the global North’s market instrumentalism in the era of market fundamentalism and economic recession.
At the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research we have hosted colleagues and colloquiums these past few years on the state of the humanities and heard peers from major universities in the United States such as California, Minnesota, Princeton, Yale and Columbia all talk about the dire state of funding for the humanities and social sciences.
But the “crisis of the humanities” has become mere shorthand: although in these discussions we realise that there is much that we share, we also realise that the humanities does not refer to a singular entity, institutionally or epistemically speaking. There are crucial differences, local variations and historical peculiarities.
Speaking from our vantage point at the University of the Western Cape, we know the legacy that we inherited. We were not supposed to produce theoreticians, but rather be the object of theorisation by others. We were not supposed to make art, because we were art. And we were not supposed to have aspirations to think universally, because we were meant to think parochially, only about “our” so-called community.
But the university was always subversive because it did not accept these assumptions. And now at the institution we talk much less of a “crisis of the humanities” institutionally, perhaps because we have a leadership that has been visionary in recognising the need to build and encourage vitality. It is a lesson that, in the face of global determinations, and within limitations, there are possibilities. And under the leadership of deputy vice-chancellor Ramesh Bharuthram, in particular, the humanities have had a rigorous and decisive champion. In the current orthodoxy, in which we in the humanities often see the natural scientists as our enemies because they take our resources and get much nicer buildings, it is even more remarkable that we have an ally in a plasma physicist.
Institutional support and institutional transformation are one thing, however. Important as they are, there are other questions we have to confront. In the course of the past few years of reading, talking, discussing and debating the question of the humanities, it has become apparent that before we talk about a crisis, and before we talk about defending, we need to think carefully and talk frankly about what we are defending.
Coming from the legacy we do —colonially and racially defined—we must first reconstruct and, in fact, critique the humanities and social sciences we have inherited to reconstitute our humanities as defensible.
Without self-critique, renewal will not happen and without renewal the humanities and social sciences in post-apartheid South Africa will continue to be less and less compelling for our students.
If education under apartheid was defined by repression, then without that repression we will need something else that is compelling. As the Indian scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak puts it, the humanities is principally about the “non-coercive rearrangement of desires”. If we are going to make the humanities and social sciences a compelling prospect, then we might best not start with the coercive question of getting more students into university, but rather with the question of desire—that is, of making the idea of the university attractive, and not simply for instrumental reasons.
I am therefore encouraged that the preamble to the ministerial charter, perhaps thanks to Sitas’s gifts as a creative writer, opens with an act of imagination—what a humanities graduate might be in 18 years’ time. But whether the suggestions the report makes to create the prospective subject of that act of imagination will get us there is another matter we must still debate as we wait for Nzimande’s response to both reports.
Professor Suren Pillay is a senior researcher at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.