/ 5 July 2014

Get out of your armchairs, academics

Students are better enabled to become agents of social change if they interact more with the outside world.
Students are better enabled to become agents of social change if they interact more with the outside world.

The contemporary South African academic community has a rare opportunity. Unlike many other places around the globe, our academic institutions have neither become ossified by recalcitrant traditions nor ruined by economic fundamentalism, and hence are in an ideal position to reimagine themselves creatively.

But, sadly and paradoxically, given the central role that creativity ought to be playing in the academy, the academic community for the most part lacks the will to reimagine ways of academic being, and to recognise the rare opportunity that contemporary South Africa has to offer.

The idea behind the slogan “If it works, don’t fix it” seems to inform much of the inertia that one finds in the academy. But those of us working in the higher education sector need to start asking the difficult questions: “Who does it work for?” and “In what sense does it work?” The short answer is that it works best for those who have benefited from the status quo and who have little appetite for moving beyond long-established comfort zones.

The national mandate for transformation in higher education is challenging universities to reimagine themselves and their role in broader society. The potential tragedy is that if members of the academic community do not lead in reimagining the core purpose of the university, bureaucrats with narrow agendas will ultimately do the work for them, and their vision of the world will be imposed on the academy.

The debate about the role of community engagement in South African universities has played out since 1997, when the Council on Higher Education released the White Paper for Post-School Education and Training. This debate is about the purposes of higher education in South Africa and beyond. The debate centres on the ideal relationship between university and society. And it is precisely the current nature of this relationship that community engagement offices around the country are working to transform.

Recently, the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes University, with the assistance of the Rhodes University Community Engagement Office, hosted a roundtable debate on community engagement, as part of the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning’s annual roundtable series on critical issues in higher education. The series has been running since 2009, covering topics such as the nature of institutional culture and the aims of higher education, thanks to generous sponsorship from the Ford Foundation.

Community engagement
This year’s roundtable scrutinised the role of community engagement in both the transformation of the higher education sector and, relatedly, the project of reimagining the epistemic projects carried out at institutions of higher learning.

One of the central conclusions of the roundtable is that a false dichotomy informs much of the South African debate on community engagement, which is really a debate about the future direction of the South African tertiary sector.

On the one hand, there are those who rightly think the South African tertiary sector could be doing much more to address transformational imperatives. On the other, there are those who rightly think that universities should not function as nongovernmental organisations, and that the proper job of academics is to research and teach – rather than to fix the woes of our land on behalf of the state.

So the debate is divided between those who think that the situation is so bad outside the walls of the academy that academics should change their job descriptions, and those who think that this is not what academics are paid to do.

False dichotomy
Why is this a false dichotomy? The answer, we think, requires that academics rethink how properly to understand the academic project, as John Dewey and Paulo Freire have before us. It is through rethinking the academic project that new ways of understanding the role of community engagement in higher education emerge.

Service learning is a model of learning, increasingly promoted by community engagement offices around the country, that has its theoretical roots in Dewey and Freire’s thoughts. It involves a combination of reflection and practical involvement with the aim of giving students the opportunity to understand their disciplines in a genuinely “embodied” way – that is, in a way that pairs academic learning with practical engagement in the world we all share. The basic idea behind the service-learning model is that true understanding is often best acquired through our interaction with the world outside the academy.

We know that human beings stuck from childhood in a windowless box – even if it is a box full of books – cannot become truly sophisticated intellectuals (or human beings for that matter). Similarly, it is arguable that armchair modalities of learning, where students engage in a process of thought that does not find expression in concrete engagement with the world and others, limit what students can learn about their chosen fields.

Through service-learning activities, students gain an embodied understanding of their social and economic context and, in so doing, they are far more likely to become agents of social change, and better professionals as well. To understand, properly to understand, finds its ultimate expression in our ways of being in the world.

Active engagement
We are not suggesting that all courses should have a service-learning component, but rather that learning in general requires attentive engagement with the world and the people that populate it. So universities need systematically to open up spaces that allow for their students to engage in a very practical and direct way with the world outside the walls of the academy.

But why should things be different for research? Research is, after all, a form of learning.

So, the question of the role of community engagement in higher education is not merely about addressing development imperatives, though such imperatives are indeed pressing in our country. It is also about improving the epistemic project more generally.

One of the gaps in the national community engagement debate that was identified in the recent roundtable is lack of clarity regarding how best to understand the epistemic project, something central to the academic enterprise.

If we are right to think that this is the direction the debate should be taking, then we will have to consider revising the widespread idea of community engagement as a third core pillar of the university.

Perhaps, rather than talking about community engagement, we need to start talking about the engaged university, the university that understands that a central dimension of the epistemic project is continuous and inseparable from being in the world in the right sort of way.

Sharli Paphitis is a philosophy PhD student and works in the Community Engagement Office at Rhodes University. Professor Pedro Tabensky is the director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, department of philosophy, Rhodes University