Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa: Essays and Interviews on Higher Education and the Humanities

John HIGGINS, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa: Essays and Interviews on Higher Education and the Humanities (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2013)

THIS is an unusual book: title and sub-title could be reversed, yet still make logical sense. John Higgins undertakes his stout defence of the humanities with a brave decision to republish or adapt a number of essays, underpinned by fascinating interviews with three eminent academics: Terry Eagleton, Edward Said and Jakes Gerwel. They are joined by J.M. Coetzee’s unorthodox foreword in which he addresses the author as if by letter. While unreservedly supporting Higgins’ case for the humanities, Coetzee judges it over-optimistic. Universities, he argues, are damaged beyond redemption having redefined ‘themselves out of existence’ (p. xv). Radical enquiry of the 1960s and 1970s, held dear by a generation now easing into retirement, may have changed the way we looked at the world, but soon resulted in a reactionary backlash from which the humanities have suffered chronically.

Higgins, with his admiration for the pioneer of cultural studies Raymond Williams, reserves special criticism for C.P. Snow, the education bureaucrat and novelist of ‘two cultures’ fame who promoted science and technology in the name of economic development while discounting the importance of critical literacy. In this world view life is a matter of practical problems awaiting solution, not a place of intellectual contestation, an attitude that Higgins goes so far as to label the narcissistic self-image of the scientist (p. 90). He argues, with good reason, that post-apartheid higher education offers alarming continuity in which an instrumental view reigns supreme in the name of economic development and nation building. Indeed, these imperatives have provided the excuse for even greater control over universities than the National Party achieved, or even desired.

Yet, as Higgins intriguingly reasons, critical literacy and the advanced ability to read, analyse and communicate clearly and compellingly in writing, is a great technological achievement, a developer of human resources in itself and no less a driver of economies — as well as a key feature of participative democracy. Theoretical analysis, accounting for historical and political context, and the ability to deconstruct text and appreciate its nuances are not to be despised, but tend to be neglected in a general downgrading of the humanities for which Higgins roundly criticises the National Research Foundation. Higgins’ response to Snow is that the information economies of the twenty-first century are surely dependent on the ability to analyse, interpret and paraphrase with objectivity and rigour; skills central to the modern world that are imbibed with a training in critical literacy and all too often taken for granted. Knowledge and information should not be confused with understanding and ability to communicate in a meaningful way.

In this context, explains Higgins, academic freedom exists as a received idea or token assumption. Of course, runs the standard view, there is no threat to it in South Africa: academic freedom is after all enshrined, apparently, in the Constitution. But its constitutional standing is revealing: an individual right protected from state interference, not from malign institutional culture that influences today’s corporate and managerial university. Freedom of speech, albeit a hallowed right, cannot be mistaken for academic freedom or rule.

One of the longer chapters of the book deals with organisational culture and here Higgins goes in pursuit of the idea of academic leadership (p. 121). One is tempted to label this a tangent because surely higher education institutions maintain their own identity through a collection of distinct disciplinary cultures that inevitably result in ‘loose and complex’ organisations in the words of Olajide Oloyede (p. 123). In other words, universities require flexible, academic-friendly administration; not what he correctly terms ‘false managerialism’, nor the visions of messiahs. But it is this point that links Higgins’ book with recent work on the global blight of corporatism in academia, coupled with specific South African examples of racial social engineering that confuses academic culture with whiteness.[1]

At their worst universities are no longer governed by academics and supportive administrators, but by public relations, human resources and finance departments beholden to executive managers. They are also places of constant organisational change that fail to provide the optimum conditions for creativity, what Coetzee terms the ‘life of the mind’ (p. xiv). Eagleton emphasises the sheer inappropriateness of the business model to university education and the importance of the latter in nurturing and protecting generalist public intellectuals. Instead, all universities are now in the grip of an instrumentalism inspired by the neo-conservatism ascendant since the 1980s. Given his background, it is not surprising that Eagleton emphasises the working class struggle for education as a politically empowering historical phenomenon and points out that any attack on literacy is profoundly anti-democratic.

Here lies a link between managerialism in academia and the devaluation of the humanities. The aim of the new university bureaucrats is a corporate institution run by an oligarchy of executives responding to the market and attracting customers whose needs are supplied by academic serfs working within strict subject silos. The idea of academic rule, that these serfs should have a significant say in university governance is increasingly seen as a form of sedition. And the humanities in particular are a specific threat, in Eagleton’s opinion containing explosive potential that is a challenge to power. Said takes this further. He explains that training in the speaking of truth to power exposes the lazy rhetoric and shallow thinking that covers up the abuse of authority and the clichéd rhetoric and corrupted language of jargon and banality that increasingly passes for public discourse at the hands of politicians, corporate praise singers, the media and, sadly, many university executives. High literacy, in Said’s view, is highly democratic. Gerwel agrees and provides the intriguing insight that apartheid stimulated the human and social sciences and the intense battle over ideas characteristic of the mid to late twentieth century.

In the minds of many of those who now manage higher education there is but one ideology, which venerates the imperatives of the marketplace: as Higgins puts it, the emphasis on entrepreneur rather than citizen. As an academic industry with output targets, tertiary studies have been moved from the sphere of the political and social to the ambit of the economic. Faced with the unholy alliance of corporatism, managerialism, instrumentalism and even litigation, collegialism has withered and the concept of public good is largely forgotten. Academic factories driven by strategic plans, impact assessments and the periodic audit, all required to fit a rigid global template, have replaced intellect. This invokes Jonathan Jansen’s famous question about the point at which universities cease to exist.[2] His answer centred on failure to be defined by an intellectual project. Certainly in South Africa public intellectuals are less and less likely to be found in universities; while the latter are increasingly finding it difficult to reproduce themselves.

The idea of teaching in the humanities that empowers citizens in a participative democracy and sees universities as part of the continuum of broad public debate is surely a potential threat to the concept of a university managed by executives on market-related mega-salaries. Academics engaged in empowering students as citizens are logically going to demand restoration of their devalued right to an influential say in the running of their universities. When this is denied and they talk to the press they are charged with ‘bringing the university into disrepute’. In extreme cases disciplinary proceedings aimed at dismissal have resulted. Put in everyday terms, disputes that used to be settled in a civilised manner over a cup of tea (or in Snow’s novels, more probably a glass of sherry) now involve advocates, attorneys, charges and hearings that leave the true purpose and finances of the university in tatters and lawyers laughing all the way to the bank. Higgins reminds his readers of the point made by Manuel Castells that universities will always remain places of contestation, to the benefit of society and economy. {And lest the presence of Snow in the background should taint the record, some of the most fervent upholders of academic freedom and rule today are no longer human and social, but pure, scientists especially from physics and mathematics.}

Given Coetzee’s dismal forecast for the future of the humanities and the link between this and the concept of the true university, it is logical to ask whether his pessimism should not be extended more widely. The rise and rise of educational instrumentalism in the context of economic and cultural globalisation together with the new fashion for ethnic nationalism subverts both the humanities and academic rule for related reasons: there is but one basic truth and an approved path towards its realisation. Dissent is both insubordinate and unpatriotic. It hard to think of values further removed from the true purpose of a university and the nature of the humanities.

Higgins concludes by pointing out the ultimate futility of ‘two cultures’ thinking: that the social questions crucial to our times in Gerwel’s formulation cannot be addressed solely in terms of technical solutions. Literacy is as vital as numeracy. After all, societies prone to division and conflict must function for economies to thrive. This requires an approach of subtle analysis, careful contextualisation, application of social and cultural values, and rigorous reasoning provided by the humanities. Their contribution to public knowledge, social cohesion and tolerance, and civic values crucial to a young democracy are grossly undervalued. It is surely no coincidence that the relevance of South African universities to the reduction of injustice and inequality has declined. Their role is more often experienced as maintaining the status quo rather than changing the world. The mid-twentieth century is indeed long gone.

We live in an age of institutional decline and decay that bodes ill for the future of humanity. The alarm bells sounded by John Higgins are both highly appropriate and timely. Are they too late?

[1] See, for example, Nithaya Chetty and Christopher Merrett, The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University: The University of KwaZulu-Natal: Academic Freedom, Corporatisation and Transformation (Pretoria and Pietermaritzburg: Authors, 2014).

[2] Jonathan Jansen, When Does a University Cease to Exist? (Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations, 2005 – 40th Alfred and Winifred Hoernlé Memorial Lecture).