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Nithaya Chetty, Denyse Webbstock19 Feb 2008 00:00
South Africa is not producing a sufficient number of free and critical thinkers, and this raises questions such as ‘Why is this the case?” and ‘Why is our higher education system failing in this respect?”—and, perhaps less obviously, ‘Does South African society need free and independent thinkers?”
Judging by former education minister Kader Asmal’s recent comment that ‘No government in the world wants lively, independent intellectuals, they want tame intellectuals”, it is clear that there might not be simple answers to these questions.
Asmal is probably correct about what many governments prefer rather than need, which underscores governments’ real intentions to push their agendas for expediency and short-term gains, even when their agendas make no logical sense.
Governments seem increasingly reluctant to defend their decisions publicly, or to subject their decisions to open scrutiny.
Societies need governments for social cohesion—to create order, to address societal needs and problems in an effective manner, to represent societal interests, and to maintain principled and moral leadership. Despite the possible intellectual capacity and prowess of individual leaders, history has shown that it is practically impossible for any single individual to make all the (optimal) decisions all of the time.
Open discourse and consultation almost always throw up new points for consideration, and the end result is usually a better understanding of the issue at hand. Despite the best intentions, even benign dictators end up being harmful to society because they are not sufficiently challenged to think laterally about issues.
Furthermore, human nature is such that consultation usually leads to a greater acceptance of the final outcome despite one’s initial views on a matter. This has ramifications for the long-term stability of societies. Ultimately, therefore, the process of decision-making is as important as the decision itself since decisions are not very useful if there isn’t sufficient support and long-term commitment to carrying them out.
The power of reason
Of crucial importance in decision-making is the power of reason and argument. In a democracy, one should be able to argue one’s case in a clear and logical manner by appealing to scientific data and facts, as well as to moral and ethical principles, historical precedents where appropriate, and the rule of law, and to use intellectual means of persuasion to convince peers of the validity of one’s views. More importantly, one should be open to different perspectives and world views. Consistent and principled arguments are vital, for example, when it comes to formulating government policy, creating fair and just laws, and for determining societal priorities and plans of action.
Unfortunately, many individuals who avail themselves of government positions are often motivated by a very different set of factors. These are usually of an egotistical nature, such as personal ambition, and a quest for power and money. Some see their government positions as simply a job to do and a means to earn a lucrative salary, while others use their positions for personal advancement. This opens the terrain for massive corruption—not only financial corruption, but also a corruption of values.
It is not surprising then that the utterances and behaviour of many of our politicians are geared toward maximising their own self-interest. Patronage and all sorts of deal- making drive decision-making rather than cogent and logical arguments or a real quest to service the needs of the people. What is particularly irritating for many ordinary people is that politicians usually clamber upon the backs of societal needs to gain personally from their positions of power. It seems very difficult for governments to act consistently in the interests of society, and to use moral and ethical principles as a framework for good governance.
Societies need free thinkers
There can be no doubt that societies need free and independent thinkers especially since—according to Asmal—governments are loath to explain themselves to the public. Beyond playing a watch-dog role over government, independent intellectuals also engender public debate on a variety of topics such as issues about the environment, the public understanding of science, health, and so on, and in so doing intellectuals contribute to the cultural milieu of societies. They are the opinion makers of society who have no personal material benefit from their views.
As remarked earlier, no single individual (read single intellectual in this context) has the capacity to make all the correct calls all of the time, so what societies really need is a system of free and independent thinkers to keep the governments of the day accountable to its people. Out of this cacophony of free and independent voices society gains incremental understanding of itself, and sets itself on the path to evolutionary progress. The press, the judiciary and the academy are three fundamental bastions of freedoms in any democratic society (it is easy to tell because these institutions are usually the first to be threatened in times of societal upheaval) and it is crucial that the independence of these institutions be protected.
Free and independent thought is vital for the health of a democracy, and should not be seen to be a threat. Politicians need to become a lot more accepting of criticism—currently, there is far too much hyper-sensitivity around criticism. Occupying public office naturally opens oneself to public scrutiny. This comes with the terrain of being a public figure. Politicians need to find a way to be contemplative about criticism and must be more open to thinking about issues differently.
On the other hand, there are generally accepted norms for free expression, such as not inciting hatred, violence, racism, and so on, and public commentators should refrain from attacks on individuals that are of a personal nature as this does not make for good journalism.
Of all the important attributes that free and independent thinkers need, we single out moral and ethical courage, honesty and integrity as perhaps the most important.
So how well is our higher education system doing in providing an environment conducive for developing free and independent thinkers?
South Africa is in a state of transition and we have a huge backlog of skills in many areas, but particularly business, mathematics, engineering, communication and computing skills. Our past discriminatory educational system entrenched this backlog, and we will be paying this price for a very long time to come.
We need a massive injection of practical skills to service the economy. For example, the multibillion-rand investment by Eskom for the future power generation needs of the country calls for a significant increase in the engineering needs of the country. Understandably, therefore, higher education policies have encouraged a greater emphasis on vocationalism, in yoking together education and training in one qualifications framework and in applying funding formulae that tend to privilege the immediately vocational fields of study. Research funding policies similarly have tended towards funding more obviously applicable research.
The perhaps unintended consequence has been the devaluing of independent critical enquiry in favour of skills development where it can be argued within a disciplinary specialisation that the one is sequenced by the other.
And even in that, higher education faces enormous challenges. This is especially urgent because of our failing high school system. This in turn is having a knock-on effect on tertiary education where, in some extreme instances—despite a couple of decades now in which academics have attempted to teach differently and to encourage participation—first-year studies at some universities are beginning to look more like glorified high school offerings in which remedial work is the order of the day. Large classes, poor tutorial support and a lack of resources are amplifying the problem of producing skilled undergraduates, let alone those capable of critical thinking.
The result is a deferral to the postgraduate programme where currently only a trickle of students are mentored in the rigours of independent inquiry and research. There is currently a massive drive underway to increase the PhD production of our universities to approximately 6 000 a year, up from about 1 200 a year. It is intended that this will have the effect of bootstrapping the undergraduate programme in terms of basic skills development and of increasing the number of postgraduates who hopefully will contribute more innovatively, creatively and critically to all facets of South African society.
For now, South Africa is banking on more PhDs to fill the gap of open inquiry because of our rather lacklustre undergraduate programmes. These efforts will, however, come undone if universities do not pay sufficient attention to quality postgraduate student production. This should not simply be an opportunity for turning the crank of doctoral thesis throughput.
One of the challenges that universities face with this strategy is the haemorrhaging of good undergraduates to the government and the private sector, which is fuelled by the quest for a secure job and greater material rewards. Many students’ choices of study are based on this skewed value system, and for this society must shoulder most of the blame. ‘What job is going to bring me the most prestige and money?” is foremost on the minds of many of our young students as they go through their university lives.
Under these circumstances, universities are finding it more and more difficult to create an environment for its students in which free and independent thinking can flourish within a moral and ethical framework.
Students would do well to think carefully as they make their decisions about their future. How can we create a more caring and compassionate society, one that is more responsive to the needs of the poor and less fortunate, one that is more efficient in the use of limited resources, one that is more respectful of our delicate environment, and one that is committed to leaving this world in a better state than we found it? How can we build a more ethically and morally binding society? How can we use our skills within our niche areas to achieve this?
It would be incredibly short-sighted for government and education planners to shape our future solely in terms of the material and technical needs of our society since an education without a conscience might be no education at all.
Student leaders should also take more responsibility—university SRCs are not as socially conscious today as they were in the past at many of the liberal South African universities. Today’s student leaders appear to be more interested in honing their political skills to further their personal ambitions rather than getting involved in rank and file social movements. This is giving rise to more right-wing tendencies of students who, ironically, still talk the language of the left.
All of this makes for a challenging time for university academics, who now also have to work under an increasingly managerialist ethos. The rise of the corporate university is mirrored by the rise of the disciplinary university which is eroding academic freedom and freedom of expression at many South African universities. The new university statutes have created more powerful university councils and have undermined university senates. The professoriate is held in distrust as universities grapple with issues of transformation. This has reduced the strength of the academic voice within the university and is having a devastating effect on the culture of critical thought.
Taken together, the poor quality of the schooling system, the increasing emphasis on practical skills and vocationalism in the undergraduate curriculum (where we are still largely failing by the standards that we have set ourselves), resource constraints in higher education, the material ambition of our students, weak student leadership and the change to a managerialist ethos in South African universities make for a bleak prognosis for the development of a vibrant civil society and critical public intellectual voices. South African society needs to develop a greater appreciation of the importance of free and open commentary for the general health of its democratic order.
Nithaya Chetty is associate professor of physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Denyse Webbstock heads the quality promotion and assurance unit at the university. They write in their personal capacities
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