Reassess the culture of knowledge

Hate figure: Stormy battles around race are a response to the way knowledge is taught in South Africa, writes Daniel Herwitz. (David Harrison)

Hate figure: Stormy battles around race are a response to the way knowledge is taught in South Africa, writes Daniel Herwitz. (David Harrison)

  The philosopher Stanley Cavell once responded to Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind, with its rant against the United State’s degraded youth (their blaring rock music, their failure to memorise the complete works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, according to Bloom’s expectations), by asking: “Who disappoints whom?”.

The question can be asked again in the light of the student demonstrations that rocked South African universities last year and the sometimes vitriolic identity politics that have turned the humanities, arts and other regions of the South African university into racialised platforms.

No doubt these politics of who can speak, who must listen, who is in a position to demand what of the curriculum and of knowledge from which institutions – these politics of demand and counterdemand – are understandable in terms of South Africa’s oppressive history of race.

In the past there were shared projects that brought people together across racial lines: first getting rid of the apartheid state and, second, the grand project of nation-building in the heady days of Mandela.

The first project was completed; the second – building an equitable, nonracial and democratic nation – has become an object of disappointment, especially among young people in South Africa.

Young people are disaffected with the institutions of South African democracy, with entrenched inequality, with the corruption and malfeasance of the state, and the inability of most universities to guarantee them the good life in a country of unemployment and malaise.

People revert to attacking the past when they can’t attack the present, either because they can’t formulate the present problem clearly enough to do anything about it, because they cannot find the target (which is elusive), or because they lack the power to do so.

The #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town last year was well enough motivated. Without Rhodes and his land there would have been no UCT at all. But on the other hand South Africa’s greatest historian, Charles van Onselen, is said to have said at Oxford that having a Rhodes chair in African history is like having a Hitler chair in German studies.

But the students’ attack on heritage (a monument from the past) was also misplaced, I believe, because students are really disappointed with the present and cannot yet formulate why.

In the first instance, their reasons soon became clear enough, as what followed were demonstrations about money – fees, student debt, financial access to universities, the proper payment of staff and the like.

But the hidden variable has been the culture of universities. For what has emerged in the classroom is a quite surprising and virulent form of racially based identity politics. Achille Mbembe has written eloquently about these identity politics, but there is another take on them I want to pursue now.

These identity politics of anger, assertion and demand, these stormy battles around race that have shown their ugly heads once again are also, I think, a response to the way knowledge is taught in this country, and I speak having been chair in philosophy at the then University of Natal from 1996 to 2002, and from my current honorary research position at UCT.

But I really speak from the point of view of my friend Dennis Davis, the judge and professor, whose recent experience teaching law at UCT is instructive. Davis told me that he assigned a “take home” exam in his law class this past November, setting the question to his constitutional law students: “What do you think the prospects are for an equitable, non-racial society, given that that is the central purpose of the South African Constitution?”

The answers he got from black and white students alike were revelatory. These students, accustomed to being lectured at, scolded, marked, evaluated, told what to think and how to think it, blared at by professors in the old English style of boys’ schools – I exaggerate but not so very much! –±accustomed to keeping their thoughts, uncertainties and insecurities to themselves, accustomed, in short, to being invisible as the persons they are when in the classroom, suddenly opened up.

They recruited their own stories to think through the difficulty of this central and trenchant question. Their own lives suddenly came to matter for the understanding of the fate of South African democracy and they realised their own lives – their identities – can and ought to matter in the classroom, being central to the conversation of knowledge.

This is the message of Statute 39 of the South African Constitution, which enjoins the judge to make each and every decision in the light of the spirit of the Constitution as a whole. The law must be constantly reinvented in the light of the tenebrous and shifting context of society, and the changing lives of the people who make up that society.

Statute 39 in effect mandates continual philosophical reflection on what the Constitution is and how it should be rethought in the light of such circumstance. All knowledge is, I think, like this – and certainly anything you learn in the arts, humanities or social sciences. Identity matters because knowledge is liable to require revision in the light of it.

This was the lesson these students were prompted by the good judge to consider: that their identity politics could just perhaps play a more positive role than that of truculent demand, entitlement and intransigent assertion.

When a person feels they are invisible to the knowledge process, that their lives don’t matter for how they pursue the knowledge of their own society, they are liable to emulate the authorities who tell them how to know and what to know, mimicking the quality and character of assertion they see in their professors, especially if those professors are white and carry the legacy (like it or not) of settler authority.

When Stanley Cavell asked who disappoints whom, he was thinking of the very paradox of the transmissibility of knowledge from one generation to the next. We, the older generation (and I speak as a man who, like Davis, is in his 60s), teach under the belief that knowledge is transparently transmissible across generations like a message in Morse code or an email sent across the internet.

We believe we have knowledge, and it is stable enough to be sent to the young who should learn it like learning to decipher Morse code. We just need to “train” students to receive the message. We talk; they listen. We authorise; they receive.

This is all wrong, and a legacy of the British university system transposed south of the Zambezi to South African universities. Even if university professors say all the right things, it is how they say it that is wrong – and I speak from wide experience of the South African educational system, which is a massive instance of the failure of the Socratic. Socrates did not speak, he listened, and then critically guided students to bring their own experience to the task of learning, teaching them through deft questions and counter-arguments how to trust, but also distrust, their experience, how to think differently and better.

Their lives mattered because it was out of their lives that their learning had to take place and be guided by expert thinking.

The process did not kowtow to identity or experience. It took human lives to be the substance or medium through which learning must be shaped. Not all learning but much of it.

And this is a point about knowledge, not simply about transmitting it. Knowledge is no more timeless than the judgments of the Constitution. As we age, we know less and less about how the young encounter and negotiate the world: how they know it.

What we wish to transmit to them by way of knowledge in the arts, humanities, social sciences, in law and even in other subjects, in fact demands reinvention by them in order to remain “knowledge”.

Their identities matter for how knowledge will be reinvented and we – the older generation – have to know something about them for the process to work.

The heritage of knowledge is only as good as its next generation. Without the young, knowledge simply becomes a thing past its sell-by date, like milk left out of the refrigerator.

It is urgent that South African universities address the culture of knowledge: how it is taught and transmitted, in order to proceed with their transformation.

I am not saying this will resolve the virulence of identity politics today. I am saying it is one of their elusive and unstated motivations.

  Daniel Herwitz is Fredric Huetwell professor at the University of Michigan in the United States and honorary research associate at the University of Cape Town

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