Education

JM Coetzee: Universities head for extinction

JM Coetzee

Novelist and academic JM Coetzee's foreword to University of Cape Town fellow Professor John Higgins's new book.

The response of the political class to the university's claim to a special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectua. (David Harrison, MG)

Dear John,

Thank you for letting me see your essays on academic freedom in South Africa. The general question you address - "Is a university still a university when it loses its academic autonomy?" - seems to me of the utmost importance to the future of higher education in South Africa.

Hardly less important is the junior cousin of that question, namely: "Is a university without a proper faculty of humanities (or faculty of humanities and social sciences) still a university?"

As you point out, the policy on academic autonomy followed by the ANC government is troublingly close to the policy followed by the old National Party government: universities may retain their autonomy as long as the terms of their autonomy can be defined by the state.

The National Party had a conception of the state, and the role played by education within the state, to which such tenets of British liberal faith as academic freedom were simply alien. The indifference of the ANC to academic freedom has less of a philosophical basis, and may simply come out of a defensive reluctance to sanction sites of power over which it has no control.

But South African universities are by no means in a unique position. All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.

You argue - cogently - that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short­sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society - indeed, to a vigorous national economy - is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves, you argue, we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis. And only the neglected humanities can provide a training in such critical literacy.

I hope that your book will be high on the reading list of those politicians busy reshaping higher ­education in the light of national priorities, as well as of those university administrators to whom the traditional humanities have become alien ground. I hope that, having read and digested what you have to say, those politicians and administrators will undergo a change of heart. But alas, I do not believe that your hopes and mine have much chance of being realised.

There are two main reasons for my pessimism. The first is that you somewhat underestimate, in my opinion, the ideological force driving the assault on the independence of universities in the (broadly conceived) West. This assault commenced in the 1980s as a reaction to what universities were doing in the 1960s and 1970s, namely, encouraging masses of young people in the view that there was something badly wrong with the way the world was being run and supplying them with the intellectual fodder for a critique of Western civilisation as a whole.

The campaign to rid the academy of what was variously diagnosed as a leftist or anarchist or anti-rational or anti-civilisational malaise has continued without let-up for decades, and has succeeded to such an extent that to conceive of universities any more as seedbeds of agitation and dissent would be laughable.

The response of the political class to the university's claim to a special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectual: if the university, which, when the chips are down, is simply one among many players competing for public funds, really believes in the lofty ideals it proclaims, then it must show it is prepared to starve for its beliefs. I know of no case in which a university has taken up the challenge.

The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in defending themselves against pressure from the state has not been a proud one. Resistance was weak and ill organised; routed, the professors beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire.

This leads me to the second reason why I fail to share your optimistic faith that the tide may yet be turned. A certain phase in the history of the university, a phase taking its inspiration from the German Romantic revival of humanism, is now, I believe, pretty much at its end. It has come to an end not just because the neoliberal enemies of the university have succeeded in their aims, but because there are too few people left who really believe in the humanities and in the university built on humanistic grounds, with philosophical, historical and philological studies as its pillars.

You argue that only the faculties of humanities are equipped to teach students the critical literacy that allows a culture to continually renew itself. But I envisage a telling question will be asked of you: even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses - courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enrol - one course to be entitled "Reading and Writing", in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled "Great Ideas", in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

Basic courses in cultural literacy are not a new idea. They have been mounted at countless American universities under the rubric of "Freshman Composition". These universities have been responding to precisely the same pressure that the humanities in South Africa now feel.

There is nothing wrong with arguing that a good humanistic education will produce graduates who are critically literate, by some definition of critical literacy. However, the claim that only the full apparatus of a humanistic education can produce critical literacy seems to me hard to sustain, since it is always open to the objection: if critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself? Would that not be simpler, and cheaper too?

I could not be more strongly on your side in your defence of the humanities and of the university as the home of free enquiry. I respect your basic approach, which, as I see it, is to mount a strategic defence of academic freedom, the kind of defence that stands a chance of swaying the relevant decision-makers, as opposed to a quixotic defence that can be easily brushed aside.

But in the end, I believe, you will have to make a stand. You will have to say: we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society.

In institutions of higher learning in Poland, in the bad old days, if on ideological grounds you were not permitted to teach real philosophy, you let it be known that you would be running a philosophy seminar in your living room, outside office hours, outside the institution. In that way the study of philosophy was kept alive. It may be something along the same lines will be needed to keep humanistic studies alive in a world in which universities have redefined themselves out of existence.

Best regards
John Coetzee

This is an edited extract from novelist and academic JM Coetzee's foreword to University of Cape Town fellow Professor John Higgins's new book, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa, published this month by Wits University Press

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