An engineer, a chief executive and a chiropractor walk into a room …. Today’s discussion is about health systems in economically marginal communities, and all three have suspended their professional identities to become students.
Business schools have historically been closely tied to industry and society around the globe. That is true in South Africa as well, only in South Africa, we confront extreme inequality, unemployment and structural violence daily. Our business schools must be different, and for the most part in South Africa, they are.
I was initially sceptical when it was suggested that I apply for my current business school position.
My education and liberal upbringing in 1990s white South Africa had primed me to be wary of anything overtly money-oriented. But at the time I was teaching hundreds of humanities undergraduates whose career trajectories I as their professor could not discern.
These students were mostly from low-income backgrounds. They had overcome great odds to achieve matric exemptions, but poor mathematics results closed the doors of stability-enabling qualifications like accounting or engineering. Scraping through arts degrees in second, third or fourth languages, from my perspective, many of them were destined to join the ranks of unemployed university graduates.
I felt complicit in systemic failure.
My job description now is much the same as it was when I taught in the humanities, albeit with a more formal dress code.
I facilitate conversation based on shared readings of some of the greatest thinkers of the past two centuries. We explore power, race, gender, politics and the manifold intersections of them all.
I was offered the position largely because of a recognition that without engaging in systems thinking, without probing our history and learning to communicate successfully on the bread-and-butter-issues of the humanities and social sciences, businesses in South Africa are unlikely to flourish.
The position appealed to me because I recognised that traditional education needs to change. Of course, as a society, we need our journalists and philosophers, but the “starving-artist stereotype” is far from funny when you know them personally.
The city as classroom
The University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business has two campuses — one in the gleaming Waterfront, and another in Philippi. The Philippi campus is tremendously important, reminding students of the realities that define daily life in the majority of the country.
Beyond these, we view the city as our classroom. We move through the Cape Flats, corporate headquarters, the Winelands, schools and housing initiatives. In each space, students engage those who are successfully solving supposedly unsolvable challenges — expanding economies, housing the unhoused, training entrepreneurs or supporting transformation in a host of different ways.
This is unusual pedagogy, but it charts the direction that 21st-century learning needs to go. Our students can learn plenty online, but what they can’t get from the internet is the nuance of human connection, and the complexity of systems that prove resilient against positive change.
When the engineer, the CEO and the chiropractor listen deeply and apply their unique perspectives and skills, they make connections that would be impossible if they were working alone. If, as a country and as a continent, we are serious about changing the status quo, this is the kind of learning that we need to embrace and then shape towards systemic action.
None of us can solve challenges alone – what we confront is now far too complex.
Future of education
Confronted with the hype and anxiety of AI-related tools, those of us in education need to change how we teach in three critical ways.
Firstly, we need to curate content and then ensure our students have the digital and analytic skills to work through it. Building such digital and analytic skills will increasingly become the main work of undergraduate training.
Like speaking a language, literacy in the navigation of one domain of knowledge (physics, sociology, pedagogy) lays the foundations for literacy in other domains of knowledge later on. The required literacy no longer rests on memorising chunks of knowledge, but being able to mentally hyperlink, use digital knowledge-sifting tools like Chat GPT, sift through forests of data to see the individual trees.
Secondly, if university is collectively imagined as the enabler of socio-economic mobility, we actually have to teach how middle-class systems work.
Under apartheid, academics could assume that most students had learned from their high schools and families the “hidden curricula” that opened the door to employment later on. This is no longer the case, though in South Africa UCT, Wits and Stellenbosch still attract a majority of privileged students.
What does it take to jump class brackets in South Africa today? This is the subject of a much longer article, but one thing is very clear — it has to be supported, and often explicitly taught.
Everybody wants to hire the “right black undergraduate”, but should that individual not show up to work in the expected ways they may well find themselves out of a position very quickly. Yet what exactly that expectation is, can be almost impossible to discern if one is the first in a family, sometimes a community, to go to university, never mind do white-collar work.
Finally, we need to recognise that what used to be called “soft skills” are rapidly becoming the most important abilities of the contemporary moment.
Can our students listen deeply to information that is at odds with their fundamental perceptions about the world? Can they speak with authenticity? Can they tell stories in a way that ignites not only the minds, but also the hearts, of their interlocutors? Do they lean towards kindness, or exclusion? Are they able to translate theoretical insight into changed systems in the very physical world we all inhabit?
Curricula of privilege
Business school degrees are very expensive, and that’s partly the point. They are unapologetic in creating and sustaining networks of privilege, and many of those who attend them study less for the content than for the circles they will move in, the connections they will make.
We need more privilege in South Africa — we need to find ways to spread it around. That is what universities have done historically, and that is why they’re still the dream for so many people. But knowledge systems have changed, and we have to reflect that.
We need better curricula of privilege for a digital age. In South Africa, they must be explicitly designed for class mobility. Once we do this, we will recognise that corporate South Africa is neither the messianic saviour last week’s initiative would have us believe, nor the devil painted by the segments of the left.
Just as South African business schools are now learning from the humanities, perhaps our academic structures can learn from them. Rather than checking your privilege, own up to it. The critical question is what are you doing to spread that privilege around?
Jess Auerbach is an associate professor and the director of the MPhil in inclusive innovation at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.