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Think!Fest: ‘The country can’t afford to have thinking people’

The South African government’s policy on higher education is increasingly geared to catering for ”vocational training in science and technology”, said John Higgins at Think!Fest, a public discussion forum at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Higgins’ talk, entitled Two Cultures or One World?, examined the crisis faced by the humanities the world over.

Higgins — an A-rated professor in English Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town — linked this to the 1968 student protests in France, noting that European governments then did all they could to suppress freedom of thought, universities and student societies.

Higgins said former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher launched a deliberate attack on universities, especially the humanities.

In European conservative circles, the talk was about ‘rolling back 1968”. This global picture, Higgins argued, is being ‘copied in the policy of the South African government”.

He said the government was increasingly redefining what a university should be and was making moves to turn universities in to vocational training colleges on the ‘grounds that the country can’t afford to have thinking people”.

He said this felt like what had happened in past centuries, when literacy was first introduced to ordinary people. Those who opposed it were told the people needed to be literate so that they could read and follow instructions. He wondered whether it was possible to teach people to read without teaching them how to think.

Higgins bemoaned the ”feeble” response of those in the humanities and said, as government moved to privilege the sciences over the humanities, those within the field should pose the important question: ”what did science and technology contribute to the demise of apartheid?”

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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