Citizenship can’t be taught in a module




After the outcry over the nonsensical article, “Age- and Education-related Effects on Cognitive Functioning in Coloured South African Women”, Stellenbosch University’s senate adopted a motion, which reads: “We believe the university should become a key site for developing a critique of race in science and research, and establishing related institutional practices and processes.”

Four proposals were referred for further consideration and action: “consideration be given to instituting a campus-wide mechanism dedicated to transforming research and science”; “offering a module on antiracism, democracy and critical citizenship to all first-year students”; “a suite of short courses for all staff members on topics such as the use of human categories in research and science”; and to “determine whether some academics may already be focusing their research on gender and critical race studies. The objective would be to build a network of experts in these fields.”

The only criticism might pertain to the fact that it has taken an unintelligent article to jar the university into a re-consciousness of what its ethical responsibility ought to be.

Let’s look at the proposals. We should have the expectation of any university to ensure that it holds its academics and researchers to particular ethical standards of research and to act when these standards are undermined or compromised. So, too, we should expect a university in a democracy to be sensitive to issues of race, gender, (dis)ability, sexuality, culture, religion, ethnicity, nationality, language and class.

A university should not have to be reminded that it has an ethical responsibility to cultivate safe and inclusive spaces of recognition and respect. It is the second proposal that I believe presents the greatest challenges, because it speaks to the heart of the civic responsibility of any university. What kind of student does a place like Stellenbosch University produce? Not the qualification, but the citizen.

Let me start by stating that it is not entirely clear why this specific proposal has been included with the other three, given that the source and scope of the problem (the above-mentioned nonsensical article) has, in fact, not been instigated by students. Of course, it would not be an exaggerated generalisation to assert that this university, like all others in South Africa, and elsewhere, have had abundant incidents of questionable and anti-social behaviour by students.

For most first-year students, entering a university space represents the first occasion for being with people who are different to themselves. To teach them, and to tell them about how non-racism and democratic citizenship works, will not get these students to learn how to be non-racist and democratic.

The idea that a module directed at a first-year class might somehow insert the necessary understandings of anti-racism, democracy and critical citizenship is to reduce democratic citizenship education to a compulsory tick-box of attendance. It is akin to trying to teach an individual how to ride a bicycle without them having to get onto a bicycle.

Unlike schools, universities are inhabited by adults who have already experienced their formative years, and who would already harbour particular views and (mis)perceptions — put in place by their families, friends and their schools. I cannot see how a cramped first-year class would lend itself to what citizenship education requires.

What citizenship education and civic responsibility require is for students to come together; they need to bring their different backgrounds and worldviews and come into meaningful discussion so that they can make sense of themselves, of others, and of themselves in relation to others.

The first point of departure, therefore, of any module or programme, that seeks to inculcate the values of thinking and being democratic is to embody that which it seeks to inculcate. Students need to learn how to think, listen and consider different perspectives.

They need to be provided with spaces where they can step out of who they are and cross over into other life worlds. It would seem that universities ought to be asking themselves whether they are providing spaces of equal belonging to all students, and staff.

Second, citizenship education needs to be contextualised in a set of values. If the intention of universities is to produce students who are critically conscious of themselves as human beings and as citizens, then universities have to reflect and defend this kind of knowledge. Research that inflicts harm and

denigration on any group or individual stands in contradistinction to what it means to act humanely or justly.

This means that if universities wish for students to be critically aware, responsible and responsive to the world they are in, then universities have to be unconditionally open to critiquing any form of injustice. Universities, therefore, as the epistemological and ethical spaces of students, have to be just in how they conceive of themselves, how they interact with students and staff, and they have to be seen as acting in the face of injustice.

This is the kind of context that will allow young people to live and flourish in the principles and practices of democracy.

In sum, what I’m arguing for is a deepening and expanding of democratic identities, values and relations. The point of deepening the possibilities of democratic ways of thinking and acting is that students have to live and experience these ways in the spaces in which they find themselves — whether it is a lecture hall, a laboratory, residence or the cafeteria.

Students and staff must be able to identify and relate to the spaces which they occupy. It is through these points of resonance and recognition that students and staff find not only familiarity and belonging, but also a stronger impulse to expand on what they experience. The idea that citizenship education can be relegated to a compulsory module is to treat the cultivation of citizenship as a supplementary activity, when it should be at the centre of what universities do and aspire towards.

Professor Nuraan Davids is chairperson of the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University. This is an abridged version of an article published in the South African Journal of Higher Education

Nuraan Davids
Guest Author

Workers’ R60m ‘lost’ in banks scam

An asset manager, VBS Mutual Bank and a Namibian bank have put the retirement funds of 26 000 municipal workers in South Africa at risk

‘Judge President Hlophe tried to influence allocation of judges to...

Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath accuses Hlophe of attempting to influence her to allocate the case to judges he perceived as ‘favourably disposed’ to former president Jacob Zuma

SAA grounds flights due to low demand

SAA is working to accommodate customers on its sister airlines after it cancelled flights due to low demand

Lekwa municipality won’t answer questions about why children died in...

Three children are dead. More than a dozen homes have been gutted by fires in the past six months. And, as...

Press Releases

MTN unveils TikTok bundles

Customised MTN TikTok data bundles are available to all prepaid customers on *136*2#.

Marketers need to reinvent themselves

Marketing is an exciting discipline, offering the perfect fit for individuals who are equally interested in business, human dynamics and strategic thinking. But the...

Upskill yourself to land your dream job in 2020

If you received admission to an IIE Higher Certificate qualification, once you have graduated, you can articulate to an IIE Diploma and then IIE Bachelor's degree at IIE Rosebank College.

South Africans unsure of what to expect in 2020

Almost half (49%) of South Africans, 15 years and older, agree or strongly agree that they view 2020 with optimism.

KZN teacher educators jet off to Columbia University

A group of academics were selected as participants of the programme focused on PhD completion, mobility, supervision capacity development and the generation of high-impact research.

New-style star accretion bursts dazzle astronomers

Associate Professor James O Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever are part of an international team of astronomers studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar.

2020 risk outlook: Use GRC to build resilience

GRC activities can be used profitably to develop an integrated risk picture and response, says ContinuitySA.

MTN voted best mobile network

An independent report found MTN to be the best mobile network in SA in the fourth quarter of 2019.