Build new communities of knowledge

Of the many slights that neoliberalism has visited on higher education, the attack on the idea of community is the least understood. The measure of this, perhaps, is that the inspirational phrase of earlier generations – the university as a community of scholars – has largely been expunged from the grammar of higher education.

Indeed, instead of universities fostering the idea of community, they are ranked one against the other, and individual academics (in this country, certainly) are rated one against the other.

It is true that joint work continues to be published. It is also true that the “research group” has emerged as a major focus of the attention of funding regimes like the one that is administered by the National Research Foundation.

But a little reflection suggests the research group may well be deleterious to the notion of community (and its building) because, often, its central purpose is deeper discipline-centered specialisation than the encouragement of the transdisciplinary that was one of the benefits of the community of scholars idea.

These regimes of control – as sociologists might call them – operate in the name of accountability and democracy, but their net affect has been to close off the possibility that, except in exceptional circumstances, streams of knowledge are closed off from each other notwithstanding a rhetorical commitment of bureaucrats to interdisciplinarity.

At the quotidian level, too, hopes of re-establishing a “community of scholars” has been erased by the sheer size of the average institution, as this local example suggests.

Sealed off
In the early 1970s, most of the academic staff of Rhodes University – then an institution of 1?500-odd students – took morning tea together in the common room. Today, this university, South Africa’s smallest, boasts more than 7?000-students, and staff are sealed off from each other by department, faculty, buildings on a campus that has expanded way beyond its iconic central block.

Of course, there is the fact that these “communities of scholars” are often romanticised: mainly they were sealed-off enclaves that shut out, in the name of the unity of all scientific enterprise, forms of knowledge that would puncture the privilege of those within, as much as it closed out other races or women.

So, we ought not, perhaps, look backwards to see the idea of a community of scholars through rose-tinted glasses. And yet, few serious minds can doubt that crossing multiple disciplinary divides will both satiate individual curiosity and advance the boundaries of knowledge.

This surely explains why the college system continues in blue-chip institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge and why the challenge of building communities of scholars – attached to, or outside of the regular university – continues elsewhere.

The most famous took place in the early 1930s with the establishment of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. Its best-known member of staff, of course, was Albert Einstein – a man who decidedly understood the value of crossdisciplinary thinking.

The Princeton model, followed in many countries, departs from the notion that size – in this case, small size – matters in scholarship. It has also succeeded in rupturing that great Humboldtian shibboleth, that teaching and research can survive, one without the other.

Almost as a rule, fellows in institutes for advanced study are freed of teaching and administration.

In neoliberal times, the question is often asked whether the costs involved are justified. But it seems that even managerially inclined university leaders believe it is because the past two decades have seen a growth in the number of institutes of advanced study on every continent, including this one.

A quick survey shows that they differ from each other in manifold ways. Some have even eschewed the virtue of interdisciplinarity. Some years back, I visited one devoted to the social sciences at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Fortunately, just more than a decade ago, far-sighted leadership at Stellenbosch University led to the establishment of this country’s first institute for advanced study.

The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study – or Stias, as it now known – has established a worldwide reputation not only for its excellent facilities and setting, but also because it has drawn leading global scholars as fellows.

It has also managed to separate itself from its mother ship, Stellenbosch University, and is today a freestanding body like the institutes at Princeton, Uppsala and Berlin. The key to this independence is funding – the challenge to attract local funders to complement the current Swedish sponsors is ongoing, but a task that Stias is managing with great self-confidence.

Last week’s launch of the University of Johannesburg-based Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study (Jias) is recognition that the time was ripe for the creation of an institute for advanced study in Gauteng – South Africa’s industrial and financial heartland.

Its initial goals are modest: to create space where scholars deliberate in community and pursue crossdisciplinary work free of teaching and administration’s demands. A partnership with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, whose president attended last week’s launch, holds out the promise that comparative work between two great urban spaces can follow.

But the real work will be to build a reputation that the idea of community and interdisciplinarity can be supported in a fractious province.

Professor Peter Vale is the director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study

Peter Vale
Guest Author

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