UCT summer school opens new vistas

Summer school is about making the hallowed halls of Fortress UCT accessible to all the people of Cape Town and beyond.

Summer school is about making the hallowed halls of Fortress UCT accessible to all the people of Cape Town and beyond.

When I told my friends that I was starting work at the University of Cape Town’s summer school, most of them chuckled uncomfortably and looked a little confused – and then, realising I wasn’t joking, quickly recovered their social graces and congratulated me profusely on leaving academia for actual employment.

For most of my politically sussed and overeducated friends, summer school is that place where older white folks from the southern suburbs of Cape Town come to spend their summer holidays. What on earth was I, also politically sussed and overeducated, doing working to entertain old folks in the holidays?

Here is what.

First, it’s not only elderly white folks at summer school.
There are also young, politically, socially, artistically interested folks who attend.

Second, what’s wrong with old folks? Our youth-obsessed culture seems to devalue anything associated with older people. It’s called ageism, and it’s really problematic.

Some of my favourite moments at summer school have been those when I’ve seen real intergenerational and intercultural exchange. Us young ’uns have a lot to learn from these old folks – we don’t value them nearly enough.

Now that I have that off my chest …

As recent student protests have brought into focus, university education is one of the most inaccessible things in our country and, some might argue, the world. What the student protests have also made clear is that it is valuable – it is one of the most important factors for social mobility, personal growth and, it has been argued, the stability and health of any democratic society.

As such, making the resources of UCT accessible to the public is not an exercise in entertaining old folks during the holidays.

It is about making the hallowed halls of Fortress UCT accessible to all the people of Cape Town and beyond – and, we believe, contributes to the robustness of intellectual, political and social life in the city (and beyond).

My husband, who works in engineering, always gets terribly frustrated with me when I don’t feel like having “political” conversations when I get home in the evening (poor man: I used to enjoy a good political throwdown, especially after a few glasses of wine; I think it’s why he liked me so much). My excuse is that I talk about this stuff all day; I’m tired: Can I please just watch the bake-off?

But that’s exactly it – I get to talk about it all day. I am surrounded by colleagues, students, researchers and scholars with whom I can make sense of the latest developments around what happened at Marikana, or the refugee crisis in Europe or the relationship between the Islamic State and Boko Haram.

I have people I can talk to about the latest novel by NoViolet Bulawayo, the latest breakthrough by UCT’s Lindiwe Lamola in cancer research or the neuropsychology of drug addiction. It is an enormous privilege to inhabit this space, and it is one that most of us take for granted.

It is exactly this space that my colleagues and I have to work to expand and make available to more people. Every year we scour the academic landscape to bring leading thinkers and scholars to this public forum to give anyone who’s interested the opportunity to make sense of these things with us.

This time at UCT’s summer school, between January 18 and 29 2016, we have Andrew Feinstein sharing his personal account of exposing the arms deal. Political analyst Zwelethu Jolobe will guide us through the issues around the 2016 municipal elections. Criminology researcher Andrew Faull will be providing insight into the psychology of policing in South African.

Activists Vivienne Mentor-Lalu and Joy Watson will be in conversation about the horror stories of sexual violence emerging out of Bredasdorp, examining whether they are symptomatic of a broader South African culture.

Mark Gevisser will be discussing the new “gender frontier”, exploring the significance of people like Caitlyn Jenner in what he calls a “new global sexuality”.

Academic Andrea Brigaglia will explore the complex history of Islam in West Africa, beyond what he refers to as the “Boko Haram syndrome”.

Historian Colin Bundy returns to ask whether poverty will always be with us in South Africa.

And when one has exhausted one’s social and political brain, there are the worlds of art, literature and science to immerse oneself in. I recall last year wandering into Dr Kenneth Hughes’s lecture on Elizabeth of Bohemia. I was entranced. I learned more about European history, art and architecture in those three hours than I had up until that point.

The same was true for Professor Anasuya Chinsamy-Turin’s course on African fossils and David Wolfe’s course on women in science.

All these scholars will be returning this year. Hughes will be examining the history of anti-Judaisim and anti-Semitism, Prof Chinsamy-Turin will talk about the significance of extinctions, including the “sixth extinction” (which some say we are experiencing at present), and Wolfe will discuss the physics of music. I can’t wait.

No, summer school is not free, but it’s relatively affordable (about R400 for a five-day course, with discounts for students). No, summer school will not give you a qualification (courses are not credit-bearing). Anyone can come to summer school – there are no entrance requirements – although matric-level literacy in English is advisable to follow the content. Many of the formal barriers to higher education don’t exist here.

I don’t want to argue that summer school is a radically transformative space. We face the same challenges as the rest of UCT in that regard, and we are profoundly aware of this. But I consider education to be transformative, in and of itself. In her popular TED talk, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi talks about the “danger of a single story”.

If we consider that, as Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says, “it is through hearing stories that we learn what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are”, if there is only one story, there is only one possible way of being available to us.

For me the transformative power of education is that it provides new and different stories about ourselves, the places we live in and the people we share these places with, opening up not only new ways of seeing, but also of being.

Researcher Molly Andrews says it provides “meaning outside of the emplotments which are ordinarily available”, making us aware of new possibilities for ourselves and for our world.

I can still remember my most powerful lessons. I can remember them because they changed how I saw myself and the world around me. Reading that first feminist text, that first historical analysis of Jane Austen and Chinua Achebe, that first foray into (quite frankly, very weird) quantum physics, that first glimpse at how my brain works – and, who would’ve thunk, that first encounter with Elizabeth of Bohemia.

Each encounter with knowledge has the capacity to transform us.

It is about expanding the edge of the worlds that we inhabit, deepening our understanding of the worlds with which we are familiar and venturing into those with which we are not, and thereby deepening and probably changing our understanding of who we are in relation to all of it.

This is what summer school is for me – the possibility of making this extraordinary experience of learning available to everyone, not just us lucky few who can pay the king or manage to scale the high walls and crocodile-filled moats of the fortress.

It is worthy work for this politically sussed, overeducated young ’un.

Claire Kelly is a lecturer in the UCT Centre for Extramural Studies and a convenor of the UCT Summer School. Visit summerschool.uct.ac.za for details.

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