Critical lessons

2010-04-26 00:00

WHEN I was learning to drive a car my father criticised my efforts, relentlessly. “Don’t overcorrect, don’t cut the corners, don’t go wide. Use the handbrake, don’t slip the clutch. Watch out, dogs go in packs, when one crosses the road expect others to follow. Expect the unexpected from any driver wearing a hat. Don’t labour the engine in a high gear and don’t overrev it in a low gear, etc, etc.” Later, my older brother added his bit regarding bike riding. “Ride as though you’re invisible. Wet roads, especially after a dry spell, are like ice. Use more back brake and less front brake in the wet, etc. etc.”

Dad’s philosophy was that I should not avoid doing dangerous things, but that I should let fear be my guide and not operate beyond my ability. I should, however, constantly try to increase my knowledge and ability, partly by talking to people with more experience­.

When I was learning to fly, I was nearly deafened by the instructor shouting in my ear. “You’re too high! You’re too fast! If you pull back too much (in a spin recovery) you will pull the wings off — or induce another stall and continue spinning, etc. etc.”

My academic career was marked (literally) with endless red ink, criticising and correcting my efforts. My first scientific papers­ were rejected with uncomplimentary comments by the referees­. My applications for jobs were rejected with the comment, “too little experience”. When I did get a job, my applications for promotion were rejected on the grounds of “not enough publications”.

My first submissions to The Witness were rejected with the comments, “too long, too wordy, not enough ‘punch’”. Many publishers rejected my first efforts at writing books before I got one accepted­.

The weight of criticism was enough to crush the ego but, fortunately (due to my loving and supportive family), mine was robust enough and I gradually learnt how to drive; how to ride a bike; how to fly; how to get a job; how to write scientific papers, articles for The Witness and books; and how to get promoted.

Along the way I formulated my own principle of dating. To get a date you have to be bold enough to ask and to handle the possible rejection. However, the rejections can be immediately dismissed from one’s mind (except as a learning experience): it’s the acceptances­ that become important in one’s life. In dating, as in life in general, there is no progress without rejection, so one must steel oneself to it and soldier on.

The right balance of ego and self-esteem is critical. Too much ego will make one less inclined to accept (perceived) criticism and advice. What if I had rejected the criticisms with the attitude “what do they know, they are from a previous generation. They can’t tell me anything?” Too little self-esteem has a similar effect — in an attempt at self-preservation, the ego tends to reject criticism and becomes highly creative at thinking of reasons for doing so.

Thinking back, what were the motives of my various instructors and mentors? Were they gunning for me and trying to humiliate me because of my lack of knowledge or because I was different from them? Were the editors of scientific­ journals out to get me because I was from a former colony­? Indeed not. They were all actually­ acting in my interests — trying to get me to benefit from their experience and avoid having to learn solely by my own mistakes.

Learning only by one’s own experience can be costly. I nearly killed myself once, trying to do a downwind takeoff in the Berg (the syllabus didn’t cover downwind takeoffs, as they are too dangerous). The first time I tried to overhaul an engine, in ignorance I neglected­ to hone off the ridge in the cylinders, with the result that a ring broke and made a hole in the piston after only a few thousand­ kilometres — an expensive lesson.

The correct response to criticism is the key to success. One must have sufficient self-esteem to persist, yet not have so much ego that one fails to recognise that one’s critics are one’s best friends and that they are acting in one’s own interests. One must nurture one’s self-esteem, but curb one’s ego.

I am brought to this point by learning that, as a result of my articles­ in The Witness, I am considered hostile to the university (University­ of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg­) and have consequently been blacklisted and not invited to participate in any university proceedings. Nothing could be further from the truth. I care deeply about the welfare of the university and this has motivated my criticisms. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be motivated to say anything. And, no, my criticisms are not based on a racial resistance­ to transformation (whatever that may mean). It all has to do with not throwing the baby­ out with the bathwater and preserving scholarship in the face of an assault from managerialism.

If the Thabo Mbeki experience has taught us anything, it is that one learns nothing from sycophants, but everything from one’s harshest critics. Hard though it may be to accept, they are the surest source of the truth. Robert Burns expressed it as: “Would God the gift t’gie us, to see ourselves as others see us.”

My best friend was killed in an air crash and I was greatly moved by the words of the hymn sung at his funeral: “Were you good and strong and true, and did you fill the world with love your whole life through.”

If, at the end of your life, these words are true of yourself — as they certainly were of my friend — you will have been a success. Can a sycophant be described as good and strong and true?

• Emeritus Professor Clive Dennison has written a number of articles for The Witness, critical of some of the changes that have taken place in the university. The central theme of these articles has been his belief that the nurturing, preserving and promotion of scholarship should be central to the university’s existence and endeavours. He sees the changes towards corporatisation and centralisation of the university as promoting the interests and stature of managers, while eroding the authority, independence and freedom of students, and believes that this will be to the ultimate detriment of the university and its customers.

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