Whose ‘way forward’ for the humanities is it anyway?

In several recent speeches by Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande and in an article headlined “Way forward for the humanities” by Professor Ari Sitas (Mail & Guardian, April 26), a series of initiatives has been described that is planned to invigorate the humanities and social sciences in South Africa.

This is a breath of fresh air for the community that comprises these fields — it has long felt neglected by government policies that have prioritised science and technology as ­primary levers for social and ­economic development. The humanities and social science ­”charter” initiatives thus require the serious and close attention of all who work in this area.

There is much we could support in the proposals that have been put forward, but there are also areas of grave concern, both in relation to the proposals themselves as well as the processes entailed in developing them and taking them forward.

Anxieties were expressed at the time the charter document was first circulated for comment that its proposals were overly bureaucratic. The document maps out a national institute, five virtual schools, seven different panels, committees, forums and six so-called catalytic projects to be established “to address gaps” that the charter task team identified in researching and teaching the humanities and social sciences.

The cure
There are concerns that this bureaucracy would, if established, divert precious resources away from core research and teaching activities in these fields. Further discussion has been requested on the diagnosis that the charter task team made of the ills it deems the fields to be suffering and on its proposed “cure”.

Concerns have been expressed that the charter document is overly prescriptive of the intellectual areas of inquiry that are to be supported as “catalytic projects”. In his speech at the Birchwood conference on the charter late in March, the minister spoke of the need to break “the hegemony of ideologies that ­primarily serve the interests of ­capital” — the “dictatorship of the single idea” that, in his view, has dominated research and teaching in the humanities and social sciences.

Many find it refreshing to hear a government minister speak in such terms, but there is widespread wariness that one set of hegemonic ideas will simply be replaced by another.

Anxieties about the imposition of a “top-down” agenda have been exacerbated by the process followed in developing the charter and the proposals that have emanated from it. Professor Sitas indicated in his M&G article that all 23 universities were visited in the preparation of the charter report. This was a careful and painstaking information-gathering exercise, but to my knowledge it was not a process of consultation about precise proposals about the form that support for the humanities and social sciences should take.

Where is the feedback?
The charter document was published in mid-2011 and feedback was solicited. As Professor Sitas indicated, more than 1 000 pages of commentary were generated. Yet we see little evidence of this feedback in the proposals announced at the Birchwood conference or in Sitas’s article, because these appear substantially the same as those in the original document. And it seems there is to be little further discussion of these proposals in future.

In his article Professor Sitas listed a number of projects that “will be” implemented (a phrase repeated six times in one paragraph in the article) in the course of the next few months.

These anxieties can only be allayed through a process of formal consultation. The humanities and social sciences sector should insist on the opportunity to engage formally and rigorously with detailed proposals for an institute, the virtual schools and the catalytic projects and to place additional or ­counter-suggestions on the table for consideration.

This consultation could happen via Higher Education South Africa or the Council on Higher Education, or both. Sitas argued that we should embrace a diversity of visions and allow “competition between priorities and visions” to flourish. This should begin with discussions about the institute and the work it is being asked to initiate and lead.

One participant at the Birchwood conference (which in the way it was constituted and organised cannot be regarded as a formal consultation with the sector) asked pointedly whether the humanities and social sciences community intended to hand over the future of the humanities and social sciences to regulation by a government ministry.

In his M&G article, Professor Sitas wrote that the “tables have been turned away from the government” in relation to the charter project — but I see little evidence of this yet.

We need to see a fully fleshed-out set of proposals and be given the opportunity to consider them. A space has been opened for the humanities and social sciences community to position itself and give voice to its concerns. Failure to do this and allowing regulation of its affairs to be placed in the hands of a government ministry would indeed be a declaration of a dire crisis in the humanities and social sciences in South Africa and would not ­ultimately invigorate them at all.

Professor Paula Ensor is dean of the faculty of humanities at the ­University of Cape Town.

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