Lighting a fire, not filling a bucket

The students I congratulated and spoke to on June 9 at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), two days before the start of our World Cup adventure, constitute a privileged and gifted few.

In South Africa only 16% of those eligible for universities find places there and, moreover, as cum laude students, they are among the top 5% of these lucky few.

Given that 40% of students study the humanities and the average dropout rate is 50%, they are in fact among the top 0.2% of last year’s cohort of students—in other words, they are one in 500. This makes them a crop of real and potential intellectual leaders in South Africa.

Although many of us could think of little else but the impending World Cup and Bafana Bafana glory, these students deserved to feel the pride they clearly felt. Many of them are also graduate students, a scarce resource in South Africa.
As a percentage of population, South Africa produces fewer doctoral students than all developed countries and most developing countries, including India.

Cornerstone of personal development
Despite these obstacles and statistics, these students acted according to one of Nelson Mandela’s dictums on education and humanity in Long Walk to Freedom—“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of a mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”

Some of the students I congratulated and exhorted to reach for greater heights, however, may have been thinking that a BA or other degree in the humanities and social sciences (“humanities” for short) is not worth much—or, as was often said when I was at school, that a BA stood for “bugger all”.

Whether or not that is still current, South Africa still remains bedevilled by the myth that the humanities in general and BA degrees in particular are the least demanding and “useful” of the degrees on offer at our tertiary institutions.

Many people believe this is the case because they think that a degree is only of value if it trains students directly for specific jobs.

This mistaken belief, coupled with our resource constraints, means that good theoretical or humanities-based training is often compromised in the pursuit of direct application. In other words, immediate practical usefulness is prioritised above innovative theoretical advances whose applicability may be felt only indirectly or by later generations.

This situation has only been reinforced by the poor output and quality of our science, engineering and technology degrees and the accompanying tendency to elevate their importance above all other kinds of degrees.

I want to debunk these persistent myths, highlight the importance of the humanities and emphasise the responsibility we all have to defend them.

Besides good science and technology graduates, South Africa desperately needs ambassadors of the humanities, real leaders inspired by the skills and knowledge acquired through a comprehensive training in the humanities.

Many of the students I spoke to in the heady days of early June, before the World Cup brought us all down to Earth, will I am sure take up the challenge, but the rest of us also need to step up to the plate. These ambassadors are the future of the humanities — that is, the current and future repositories of the skills and ethical attitudes that have to be used every day to defend the freedoms and forms of training that all societies must cherish if they have any chance of flourishing.

A common thread
For starters, look into the history of some of South Africa’s greatest leaders and thinkers and you will find a common thread—training in and a deep appreciation for the humanities.

This is true of Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Mandela and many others; in fact all were particularly fascinated by history, law, philosophy, literature, languages, politics and classics (the core disciplines of the humanities, as understood today).
But this is insufficient on its own. We have to grasp why these figures found the humanities so rewarding and helpful.

What are the humanities? The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytic, critical or speculative (supplemented by empirical analysis), as distinct from those adopted in the natural and physical sciences, management and engineering.

Study in the humanities provides knowledge and understanding of the human condition as well as a set of associated intellectual and analytical skills.

The source of the term and the form of education is found in Ancient Greece and Rome. It formed the basis of a broad education, not for sitting in an ivory tower but for citizens—that is, for effective citizenship—which in Rome developed into the concept of the seven liberal arts, involving grammar, rhetoric and logic (the trivium), with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music (the quadrivium). The emphasis in this form of education was on the humanities as skills or “ways of doing” for active citizens, participating in the social and political life of the polis, res publica (state).

‘Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire’
Cicero, the famous Roman politician, orator and philosopher, argued and defended a humanitas (humanity) that was founded on this form of education, in particular one based in an understanding of human dignity and worth and how to train citizens in the art of effective citizenship. And the skills necessary for this form of citizenship, he argued, rested on a set of moral values and an emphasis on rational, critical thought, which themselves rested on high levels of literacy and evaluative skill (or, in other words, the ability to judge).

As I argued in a speech at the UJ, in South Africa’s higher education institutions we teach in this tradition (see the emphasis, for example, on human dignity in UJ’s list of values guiding the university) but we do so with a focus on South African and African conditions, concerns and needs. This is important because for a humanities training to be a success in its own terms it has always to be informed by context.

It must enable students to create themselves as they engage with the world they experience around them—as Yeats put it: “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.”

“Understanding” here is not simply theoretical knowledge of the world, but the ability to transform the world according to a set of moral and political values.

Given our history and persistent social and political problems, this is a vital component of education in the new South Africa.
To paraphrase Che Guevara, education is not only about studying the way the apple falls, it is also about making it fall. (Che Guevara was, of course, paraphrasing Karl Marx, who maintained that philosophers have sought to understand the world, but the point is to change it.)

As lecturers in the humanities, we hope to equip students to understand and change their world. In fact, the great advantage of the humanities is that it enables this form of contextual understanding. It offers us the tools to question many of our received opinions both in society at large and in the humanities themselves.

So, as informed by the skills you develop in the humanities, to learn about Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx, Hani and Mandela, for example, is not simply to accept their ideas as doctrine but to be empowered to question and criticise them.

The intellectual and practical skills that a humanities training enables can be summed up in three words: critique, imagination and persuasion.

A humanities training provides you with the skills not only to understand your current individual, social and political situation, but also to criticise it and to imagine beyond it.

It does this because it gives you perspective on yourself and your conditions, either through knowledge of different histories, peoples, languages and polities or through the use of reason, or even experimentation with “unreason”.

Valuable skills
Most importantly, it provides you with the analytical and rhetorical skills to persuade others of the value of reaching for these seemingly unimaginable or unrealistic possibilities (old or new, utopian or otherwise).

But what exactly do the humanities offer us? In sum, these specialised skills of understanding, critique, imagination and persuasion equip students and others for two vital aspects of their future life: a) effective citizenship, and b) the labour market.

a) In the new South Africa we now have the formal means equally to affect the future of our social, economic and political environment. But it is a humanities training that truly empowers us—it provides the best means of understanding our conditions and social and political environment and it teaches us how to think rationally and critically, to use words skilfully.
It therefore provides both the knowledge and the skills necessary for meaningful engagement within existing social and political institutions.

b) It also provides the requirements for the changing nature of the labour market:
i) A number of recent studies have shown that the analytical skills you acquire through the study of humanities — philosophy, politics, languages etcetera — are linked directly to fast ­vertical promotion within firms.
ii) Modern labour markets seek specialised expertise, but also (more and more) the capability to work skilfully with others driven by the right kinds of ethical concerns. For example, as many South African banks expand into Africa they find that recruiting humanities students is much more valuable than hiring those trained solely in accountancy and statistics. This is the case because they have acquired the requisite knowledge of context, human skills and levels of analytical and ethical literacy that are the unique attributes of humanities students.

As with many other companies that require specialised training, they have come to realise that the more specific skills for the job in question are best taught in-house.

But they have found that the converse is not true: these companies cannot teach in-house the skills provided by a humanities training—the ability to read and write critically and to express yourself clearly and powerfully.

The BA is bugger all? Not on your life; it is everything. Besides equipping you for the labour market and effective citizenship, it is very good fun—it provides students with so much to talk about to their friends and the tools to persuade others.

Above all else, a humanities training enables you to listen and read critically, to be acutely aware and skilled to cut through to the core of a matter and not be fooled by fine speech.

Everyone needs to learn the skills of the art of critique and persuasion, but particularly leaders, for without these skills our leaders can easily be duped by those who have mastered these arts. Nobody will be able to fool you again.

If you want to be the leaders of tomorrow or successful, quickly promoted employees, you need to study the humanities and do all you can to defend them.

The same is true of the current political leadership of South Africa. Denigrating or undermining the humanities for the short-term imperatives of science and technology outputs will, in the long run, severely undermine the quality and skills of our citizens and our workforce.

Collective responsibility
It therefore follows that the current political leaders and the crop of future intellectual leaders I spoke to a month ago have a huge collective responsibility. The logical and rhetorical skills that many of them have mastered, thanks to good humanities training, provides them with the means to defend the vitally important ability and freedom to criticise existing norms, institutions and attitudes, to generate new ideas and institutions, to break down the boundaries of accepted traditions of thinking and living and to defend without pause the freedom to analyse and criticise without fear of harm or prejudice.
As we all know, the right to do so in South Africa has only recently been acquired for all and will always remain precarious in the face of conservative, racist and patriarchal traditions. Those trained in the humanities are the best equipped to defend our newly acquired freedoms.

I have a vision for the future of humanities in South Africa and, if you share it with me, I exhort you to support it at all costs. This vision is one in which the humanities are held high as a repository of excellence in research and where the wider society and job markets demand job seekers with good-quality BA, MA and PhD degrees in the humanities.

The kinds of knowledge and critical thinking acquired within the humanities are vital for South Africa’s future as a competitive and stable economy and polity. The approach to knowledge that identifies the importance of knowledge and skills in purely instrumental terms — in terms of its utility for specific jobs—fails to see that the knowledge and innovative thinking characteristic of a humanities training is not only important for quality of life but also important for the creation of new markets, new jobs and new needs, and is, in any case, more and more indispensable for most existing jobs.

Good training in the humanities provides the kinds of high-level literacy, communication and analytical skills that are desperately needed by South Africa’s society, economy and government.

Lawrence Hamilton is professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg, affiliated lecturer in political theory at Cambridge University and current recipient of the National Research Foundation’s President’s Award for research excellence. He is the author of The Political Philosophy of Needs (Cambridge University Press 2003-2007) and his second book, Freedom Is Power, will be published shortly. This is his amended version of his public lecture as guest speaker at the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of humanities prize-giving on June 9

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