Do varsities produce free thinkers?

The psychologist BF Skinner, in 1964, said: ‘Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” Do universities provide an adequate education to South Africa’s budding social scientists?

Having gone through the journey of obtaining a degree, having sat through countless lectures, written dozens of essays, and finally having a bachelor of social science ‘conferred” upon me at graduation, a critical reflection of the past three years seems necessary. Have I really been ‘educated”?

Having experienced the university system from the inside, I think I am fairly well placed to critique what I believe are the dilemmas of a tertiary education.

While telling a friend about the amount of reading I had do for the exams, she, a chemical engineering student, quipped: ‘Hey, be grateful you don’ t have to actually understand the stuff.” I don’t?

Well, when I thought about it, I would really like to understand the stuff, and for the most part I usually do. But, actually, you could easily get away with knowing sweet nothing.
You see, Skinner reminds us, the things we ‘learn” are not the test of an education, because all that we learn, say for an exam, will soon (often moments after) be forgotten. In the social sciences, the majority of students fall into this terrible trap. Pseudo-knowledge covered by rote memorisation of elaborate facts and even dense detail is ready to be regurgitated into the exam like a tightly shut box whose hinges have finally popped. Take cover!

The facade of knowing, an art admirably practised by many students, is why university degrees are not symbols of highly educated people. The true test of education is an ability to think, not the grade we receive for simply knowing.

Sadly, social sciences are very susceptible to this kind of problem. How does a marker differentiate between the essays of two students, similarly written, but where one student understands precious little of what he or she wrote, while the other has deeply engaged with the material, having even done some extra reading (another rare occurrence in a degree that ought to be grounded in a wide range of texts)? You see it all the time—students receiving marks that are nowhere near the level of effort put into that piece of work. It is easy to see why many students are easily discouraged right from the start.

Why should one student—who has read widely, referenced properly and written elegantly—be seen as no different from another student who has read Wikipedia, referenced sources they have not read and written properly only because the copy- and-paste function of MS Word works just fine. It happens. What is lost in the long run are those students who would otherwise have finished their degrees summa cum laude, had it not been for the early realisation that putting in extra effort is seldom worth it. Only those students with that intrinsic motivation to achieve are the ones who will, irrespective of other factors, finish their degrees with an extra pat on their back. Waiting three years to get that pat is just a little too long for others, who jump the ship of success early on for the gravy train of mediocrity—‘Come on board; at the bare minimum, you will pass!”

One commentator remarked: ‘Education in America has become the notes of the professor transformed into the notes of the student, without passing through the brains of either.” Arguably, this holds quite true here as well. Why think when Powerpoint will provide all the answers? Why do the reading when the overheads will provide a summary? Why even come to class when it will be little more than listening to a lecturer read notes (with a few personal anecdotes thrown in for flavour). Critical, independent, free thinkers are not being developed through the university’s academic programme.

Yet we are a country that should be thirsting for the abilities of social scientists. We should be making loud, amplified calls to matric- leavers to consider doing social science degrees. We should be rigorously training our country’s future policy-makers and national leaders. We need to remind people that crime, poverty, HIV/Aids, unemployment, xenophobia, homophobia, racism and homelessness are all social problems that need solutions from social scientists. Why are matriculants with five, six, even seven As not choosing the BSocSc degree? Why are the ‘A” students not studying psychology, sociology, ethics, politics or history? Why are science students in high school not becoming social science students at university? Subjects that can be taken under the BSocSc degree usually have no high-school subject requirements. Is anyone who did physics now majoring in ethics? The answer, if you are thinking it, is not obvious.

One of the reasons is probably the lower points needed to enrol for arts courses, as compared to other degrees. The falsely prestigious virtues of matric marks, which seldom predict how well one is going to do at university, are often tallied and weighed up against the entry requirements of the various degrees. Presumably, a student who got all As in high school feels that all his extra points would be wasted if he were to opt for what seems an easier degree (after all, it does need less points).

The result is a bad brand image for the social sciences in general. Once at university, the generally relaxed vibe of budding social scientists also does very little to remind the over-stressed, ‘hard working” BSc students that we too are actually studying something valuable. Sometimes, even social science students need to be reminded of this.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. Most courses are rooted in theoretical ideas and rote learning of texts. The result is the mass production of swotters instead of thinkers.

Part of the solution lies in creating a culture of free thinking at universities, so that the social sciences faculty becomes renowned for its hive of student activity, creation of new ideas, out-of-the-box thinking and rigorous student-initiated debates.

I’m not convinced that a bachelors degree in social science nurtures the minds, let alone the imaginations, of the thousands of students who receive it every year.

Suntosh Pillay is an honours student at the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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