Forty years on: Did my BA degree count for anything at all?

2010-02-24 00:00

AS I sit in my office in the Old Main Building of our local university, the old “Arts” block, I remember a hot day exactly 40 years ago when I entered this institution as a first-year student. Today, I watch a new batch of students getting registered and settling in. They wait in long queues — for days, it seems. They wait for faculty officers, deans, test results, financial aid officers, student fees, student housing, student cards. They wait for lecturers to sign them on for their courses. They wait for all kinds of documentation: affidavits, faxes, certified copies, stamps, or for verifications that funds have appeared in their student accounts.

In February 2010 it is still very hot. In the queues the girls have umbrellas and they fan themselves with their incomprehensible registration forms. I walk past lines of quiet, polite, long-suffering young people, so different from my own generation. A young man stops me: “Excuse me, ma’am,” he says, pointing to a section of his registration form, “but can you explain to me what my ‘maiden name’ is?” Was it this tough registering 40 years ago? Have I simply forgotten? Is this what the “massification of higher education” looks like? Does it have to look like this?

My office is on the ground floor of the Old Main Building and I am thus an easy refuge for the lost and the bewildered. Many times a day I hear a tentative knock on my door and I am asked the same questions over and over again: Could I explain where to find this lecturer or that venue? Could I help them locate their time tables? Could I explain the faculty handbook? Why is half of it upside down? What do these codes mean? What is ethics? Anthropology? ISTN? Classical archaeology? What does this or this subject qualify me for?

I resist the temptation to challenge naïve preconceptions: psychology is not about helping people; theology is not about becoming a pastor; political science is not a training for political activism. Not necessarily, anyway. Then comes the killer question: But what can I do with a humanities degree? Suddenly I am more than just a walking, talking, gesticulating information booklet. I have something to say.

Forty years ago I registered for a “go-nowhere” humanities degree. I did a general BA and chose a hotchpotch of courses because they interested me: theology, English literature, classical civilisation, history of art. What my degree lacked in depth, it made up for in breadth. We forget now quite how dreary the school curriculum was in those days, with its roots in Christian National Education and its emphasis on dull, reproductive learning. Here, in this very building, for the first time in my life, I experienced excellent, inspired teaching. It was like a bolt from the blue, a revelation. I remember Colin Gardner, Roger Ellis, David Raven, Pauline Fletcher, the Beales, Glen Lawson, Mark Prestwich, and others … a veritable pantheon. In those undergraduate years I started to read, anything and everything: huge Victorian novels, Germaine Greer, Paulo Freire, Bultman, Chaucer, sections of Homer, even bits of Marx. The lecturers would listen attentively and respectfully to my callow assertions. One, in particular, echoes down the years and still makes me cringe: “Weren’t the Romans just rugger-buggers who copied the Greeks?” But I was enjoying the encounter with great, grand, contradictory ideas. I was finding a voice. I was even, after a less than distinguished matric, discovering a degree of intellectual self-confidence.

I took my new ideas back to my family. I told them that they were “bourgeois, unreconstructed capitalists” and that they were victims of a “false consciousness”. They laughed uproariously, mocking what they saw as my 17-year-old presumption. But I defied their bourgeois values. I wore kaftans, Zulu beadwork, Dutch clogs, Scottish kilts, Indian scarves, sandals made from tyres — often mixed up together. Somehow, in my bizarre dress sense, I was trying to act out an idea of multiculturalism. Now as I read Saleem Badat’s understanding of The Concept of a University, I realise that I was not far off the mark of what are still the desirable outcomes of an undergraduate humanities training. I had begun to think “effectively and critically”. I had begun “to understand society and ourselves” and how history has shaped us. I was developing a “broad knowledge of other cultures and other times” and “some understanding of and experience in thinking systematically about moral and ethical problems”.

A university, says Badat, is “committed to the spirit of truth and allows intellectual enquiry to go where it will without any boundaries”. I began that intellectual journey 40 years ago in this university, here in this building, and here I still am, still finding out where a truthful, questing intellectual spirit might lead me next.

Today I attend a first-year lecture in a social science discipline. A new, young lecturer is explaining the concept of the “separation of powers” — legislative, executive, judicial  — an idea that is central to a properly functioning democratic state. He is good, but what can he do with 400 students in a venue designed for 300? The microphone is not working, it is very hot, we cannot see the overheads, students at the back of the venue chatter, no one takes notes. The lecturer invites participation in a discussion of this key feature of democracy, but he is defeated by the logic of his context. Is this, then, what “the democratisation of higher education” looks like? Does it have to look like this?

In the early seventies, this university was a “liberal” institution and I acquired a set of “liberal” values. Those were the days before the great ideological shifts that later discredited aspects of liberalism, neoliberalism and individualism. During my undergraduate years, I became aware of these shifts. I heard about Black Consciousness, the name of Steve Biko, and I remember when Saso (South African Students Organisation) started. Nusas (National Union of South African Students) was no longer cool. The struggle took a different direction and “white liberals” like me seemed to become rather irrelevant. Nevertheless, it was my liberal education that later afforded me the intellectual flexibility to accommodate new ideas. Over the years I have developed new ways of seeing and new ways of knowing. To use the current parlance, I have become a “lifelong learner” but, for me, this has had its roots in a liberal curriculum and fine, attentive teaching.

So what is my answer to the students who ask what the point of a humanities degree is? Certainly it did not lead me directly towards a specific career. Instead, it gave me values, ideas, confidence, tolerance, the habit of reading a lot, a speculative mind, and, above all, an inquiring spirit. Ironically enough, my actual “career”, for the past 10 years, has sought to facilitate the “massification” and “democratisation” of higher education. Simply put, my colleagues and I support groups of students from poor, underprivileged backgrounds to succeed at university. But now I am off on a new quest: I am grappling obsessively with a PhD topic that concerns the quality of teaching and learning in undergraduate courses in the humanities. My life has come full circle. I want the class of 2010 to have the high-quality learning experiences that I, a privileged member of the class of 1970, had. They require it and deserve it, and our democracy requires and deserves reflective, critical citizens who can interrogate their political and social environment, both national and international.

The class of 2010 is queuing up to register at our university which projects itself as “The Premier University of African Scholarship”. I would prefer that they were queuing up for the premier university of great undergrad teaching. I would prefer it to be the premier university of great support for novice students and their teachers. The more prestigious postgraduate “scholarship” profile would follow quite naturally. In the words of the controversial Professor Jonathan Jansen, “If you wish to honour me, call me ‘teacher’”.

Penny Niven is a lecturer at UKZN. For the past three years she has been piloting the Extended Curriculum in the Humanities Faculty and is working towards a PhD in Higher Education Studies.

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