Doing what we are best at

2008-09-29 00:00

Noble ideals don’t always work in practice. One of my daughters is fiercely raising her boys according to her liberal values.

They are not allowed to watch TV news items in case they see police or soldiers with firearms. In theory they do not know what firearms are.

But boys will be boys. We visited a restaurant with my daughter and the boys and disgraced ourselves. The boys visited the men’s toilet and emerged, one brandishing the toilet brush as a makeshift sword and the other a broom as a long-range ray gun, duelling with each other as they prepared to take on the bad men of the world. Customers fled lest they be put to the sword with a toilet brush. Management approached threateningly.

“But we are being Batman,” they explained in their defence (they have never been allowed to watch Batman but they know about him just the same).

Little boys seem to be born for the rough and tumble side of life. They love to wrestle and fight and play with toy weapons. Sometimes, like the ANC Youth League, they never grow out of it. How do we turn these bellicose little superheroes into men who will help build a world of justice and peace?

Professor Malegapuru Makgoba wrote an interesting article in a recent Sunday newspaper. He said first that it is a mistake to think that South Africa’s 23 universities can be treated, and funded, as if they can all be world-class research institutions. Most universities do not have that capacity, and the state does not have the capacity to fund them in that way. By attempting to do so, those universities — he identified five — who do have research capacity are underfunded and their staff underpaid. The other universities have, or should have, different missions and should be funded differently.

This was, of course, the original intention of Professor Kader Asmal when he commenced the reshaping of higher education in South Africa. Some universities, he said, were best equipped to provide support and teaching for those whom South African education had ill prepared for degree studies. Those universities should primarily be teaching institutions.

But political reality made that neat proposal unworkable. The historically black universities saw themselves as having been underfunded by the previous government and as having been heroic centres of resistance to oppression. Now they deserve to have their place in the sun. They would all be like the University of Cape Town.

Of course it hasn’t worked out like that. One might disagree with Makgoba’s specific choice of five — others might claim to be part of the elite band of research-driven institutions —but the truth is that the great majority of serious research work in South Africa comes from a small group of institutions. Research activity elsewhere has remained static or indeed diminished. The present funding system for higher education in South Africa works to no one’s advantage.

Makgoba’s other point is more controversial. “What is South African research really good at?” he asks. Of course we have great scientists. Of course we need to train scientists in agriculture, medicine and the rest. But South Africa will never be able to afford the hugely expensive research facilities available in Europe or the United States. The recent experiment throwing protons at each other in the Large Hadron Collider cost a staggering R75 billion.

What we are best at, in terms of truly South African originated research, says Makgoba, is the humanities. South Africa is a wonderful living laboratory. Here things that are merely subject matter for boring lectures in Britain or the U.S. are the very stuff of life. In South Africa, history, political science, sociology, psychology all really matter.

How do we develop a culture of shared values in a diverse population embracing many religions, many cultures and many immigrants new and old? Research into all of this, and the development of literary and artistic expression of all of this, is potentially what we are best at in the world. The funding of higher education needs to be nuanced accordingly.

So says Makgoba. What a surprising claim from one who is himself a world-class medical scientist. But, the embattled human sciences will say, he surely has a point. As a one-time academic in the human sciences I applaud vociferously.

Except, of course, studying does not mean doing. In theory, having studied, all theologians ought to be good, all philosophers wise, all law professors honest, all economists rich and all psychologists sane. If only. Let’s hope my grandsons, when they grow up, put down their toy weaponry and turn to peace and kindness. But I doubt if a university education alone will guarantee that.

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