Ismail Lagardien: Idea of university is paramount

Ismail LagardienDestroying our education systems, as we have for most of the democratic period, has had unimaginably bad outcomes for prosperity and stability in South Africa.

Most of our social, political and economic problems have their origins in some of the structural injustices of our past.

Our failures in basic education, where young people are taught to read and write, and are instructed in civics and the sciences, have not helped us resolve some of the country’s most awful iniquities.

We are faced, now, with the horrific prospect of the destruction of higher learning. Given the inter-generational lag – it could take up to 20 years for a young person to make it through basic and higher education – we may be faced with a desperate lack of people who are insufficiently skilled to run the institutions of society for the foreseeable future.

We should be clear, there is a vital need to develop skills for people to enter the workforce, whether as nurses, teachers, librarians or bankers. At the most basic level, people usually do well when they have practical abilities to build or produce things to clothe, feed and provide shelter for themselves, for their families and communities. These activities usually lead to stable and progressive exchange, to social and economic expansion, followed by prosperity and stability.

This is not some conspiratorial plot conjured in the European imperial or capitalist imagination. We should, however, be cautious about assuming that the university had only a singular and eternally valid economic functionalist value.

It is certainly true that from the earliest of times, before European thinkers would tell us how to organise ourselves into economic units, towns and cities across the globe took shape as a result of creativity, innovation and investment in agriculture, manufacturing and exchange.

It is worth remembering that there have been passages of history that were especially violent. Europe, arguably the most stable and prosperous region in the world, has a very deep history of war. From the time of the Norse invasions to the Cold War, the history of Europe was shaped on an anvil of war.

What is clear, however, is that the functionality of the university is tied up with the idea of the university within society. The university has increasingly played a definitive role in shaping society, which, in turn, plays a defining role in shaping the idea of the university.

It is fair to say, also, that when a society goes into decay, the institutions upon which it rests start to come apart. And so, when the idea of the university loses its strength and place, it loses the ability to reconstitute itself and to drive meaningful and progressive social change and transformation.

Like most ideas, the idea of the university has very deep moorings in society. As society changes, there are pressures for the idea of the university to change. Appeals for the reform, or transformation, of universities are as old as some of the oldest institutions in the world. The motto of Heidelberg University, in Germany, which first came into being more than 600 years ago, is semper apertus, which can be translated as “the book of learning is always open”.

With this motto, we get an appreciation that change and transformation of the idea and the institution are always possible. I would suggest that the idea of the university is larger than particularised needs, yet it provides individual access, voice and mobility.

When the teargas clears and the flames are doused, when the military vehicles leave campuses and students return to class, the idea of the university should prevail. For now, the idea of the university has been transformed as a space of rebellion, protest, dissent and conflict.

Research, professional training, general education and the shaping of cultural understanding, some of the elements that are vital to the idea (and the actual function) of the university, have been replaced by something which changes shape almost daily.

There is a sliver of a chance that amid the turmoil across campuses, someone has a sense of the value of the idea of the university. The only certainty is that we will probably not return to the idea of the university we had two or three years ago, much in the way that we will probably not have the democracy that sparkled in our eyes two decades ago.

The idea of the university is umbilically linked to the pursuit of truth, and to exploration and discovery in science. There have already been demands for “science to fall”, and we live in what has become known as a post-truth era. It would be unwise to indulge in misty-eyed romanticism about what is happening in South Africa today. The least we can do is restore the idea of the university – whatever it may be.


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