Academia must stand the test of time

Change agents: Local students commit no other crime than living in the present and using its resources to break the cycles of fate that would otherwise overshadow their future. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Change agents: Local students commit no other crime than living in the present and using its resources to break the cycles of fate that would otherwise overshadow their future. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

The mainstream media classify the ongoing student protests as being about the high cost of studies, as in #FeesMustFall. But #RhodesMustFall and other campaigns directly question the legitimacy of the university.

In whose name, and by what authority, does a university impose itself as the obligatory passage between young persons’ aspirations and access to social goods such as opportunities to rise out of poverty or prosper in a profession?

The 19th-century European university housed in its faculties all the different endeavours of learning and knowledge. They remained separate from society and one another to avoid fruitless dispute.
Only philosophy could speculate on what they had in common and provided the university with its legitimacy as serving truth and justice on society’s behalf.

This naive piety disintegrated during World War I, which was fought using the most powerful elements of science, economics and state strategy that the 19th-century university could produce.

With the alibi of serving truth and justice in tatters, two highly progressive institutions reassembled the elements of the 19th-century university for 20th-century use: the Bauhaus, which focused on innovation, skill and production as its justification, and the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which, by means of the new role it gave philosophy, aimed to bring all knowledge, all the former faculties, under security.

During the cold war of the 20th century, fascism, communism and American capitalism differently reformulated the university as an organic part of their social reconstruction goals. None of these reforms deviates from the prototypes developed by the two counter-cultural institutions – the Bauhaus and the Frankfurt Institute. To this day, they serve the remnants of Cold War societies as their polytechnical or critical-philosophical norms.

It is easily forgotten that South Africa acquired its universities in strict compliance with the rules laid out for colonies. With the exception of the Afrikaans universities, which unfolded in the 20th-century space of social engineering, the colonial universities can only receive the institutional cast-offs of the mother country. This means the colonial university can never attain autonomy, legitimise itself or challenge the more prestigious institutions in the mother country that it feeds.

Hence, when confronted by their user groups in recent months, South African universities respond in one of two ways, which clearly exhibit how they conceive their own legitimacy.

The Afrikaans universities pride themselves on how well managed the protest became and with what pragmatic elegance its outcome was fed back into policy.

The neo-British universities immediately pointed to the 19th-century Humboldt ideals of truth and justice. Truth somehow serves the shibboleth of research as a social cure-all, and justice seems to underpin their own claim to have come to a reasonable compromise in line with their own ongoing, belated corporatising while giving the impression of fair dialogue.

Student action in the 21st century inevitably raises the precedent of May 1968 and its sequels. What was experienced as a shutdown of society and the antechamber of a revolution turned out to be a violent but necessary stage in the modernisation of the post-World War II European university system.

No less than events on that scale were required to start the process that now, decades later, has resulted in the Bologna Accord and the gearing of universities to technocracy throughout the European Union.

The stake in South African student action is to force the neo-British universities from their 19th-century legitimation strategy and into an open engagement with a 20th-century model based on something better than truth and justice, as if these in themselves constituted social purpose.

The other stake is to drive the Afrikaans universities beyond their exclusive service agreements with pre-1994 technocracies and into new ones with the transformed technocracies of the present. Both of these fronts, which differ significantly in their key tasks and milestones, cannot be subsumed under a single strategy.

Today, this will require a deliberate deepening of the crisis of legitimisation induced in the universities from the outside.

It will also need a refusal to be awed by the archaic reflex of current academics to hide behind the cult values of claiming access to higher truths, norms and objectives than surrounding society properly comprehends.

The authoritarian justification that university skills are somehow preapproved by the various sector value chains and, therefore, cannot be bypassed or improved on is the aftermath of a corresponding, badly understood and implemented poly-technical ideal.

South African universities are caught in a time warp. It is thus possible for students to refine and formulate their demands by a deliberate public process of benchmarking and bringing back models from the contemporary world to strengthen their demands for progressive changes in the university, value chain, state-support formulae and social service models.

It is worth reviewing why South African society broadly and spontaneously gives its support to the students and why exceptions to this always condemn them in terms straight out of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

The students of South Africa commit no other crime than living in the present and using its resources to break the cycles of fate that would otherwise overshadow their future. We have placed a heavy burden in their hands of having to transform what we have neglected to, or ignored as if it were benign. With the profound wisdom of youth, courageous thought leaders have at last drawn the line in the sand.

Chats Devroop works in the performing arts department of the Tshwane University of Technology. The views expressed here are his own.

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