The tragedy of Pallo Jordan

2014-08-16 12:00

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The customary farce of public figures caught faking their credentials lurched into tragedy these last two weeks with the revelation that top intellectual and ANC stalwart Pallo Jordan had lied about his PhD.

To his credit, Jordan resigned from Parliament. But the Jordan Affair (and others, all too many of them) raises questions we need to ask as a society.

Classical tragedy centres on a heroic figure’s fatal moral flaw that proves his (seldom her) undoing. Unlike the swathe of other pretenders exposed in recent months, Pallo Jordan is a tragic hero figure: a respected politician with an excellent track record, a heavyweight public intellectual whose incisive and reasoned analysis of South African politics for the last 30 years has been a major contribution to public debate.

In fairness, Jordan has never, to my knowledge, applied for or accepted a university teaching or research post, though he has spoken on some occasions at universities in public discussions, as have many people who – though not academically credentialed – have had (like Jordan) many important things to say to scholars and the wider public alike.

Jordan did not need to invent degrees to gain intellectual gravitas. He had it already. Ironically, some may now start to question the work he has already done as an intellectual. Personally, I hope that a spirit of mercy may temper the anger many feel now and that his legacy as an important political thinker won’t be lost.

Let us ask, rather, why so many South Africans seem to be willing to risk public dishonour by faking credentials, particular in an age where facts can be so easily verified, where a simple check of university records can show that scholarly ‘achievements’ do not exist.

As a nation, we seem obsessed with academic achievement. If you don’t get the school grades to get into university, it seems as if one’s life is over. If you don’t have “PhD” after your name, no-one will take you seriously. And, so the reasoning goes, you will never get a decent job. This is quite untrue.

Many people have done very well, and made important contributions to our society, without academic degrees. Generations of business people have made fortunes without MBAs. Many of our top journalists and writers have made their mark without formal studies in journalism.

The obsession with academic achievements has blurred the fact that SA needs a diversity of skills to succeed. The problem, of course, is that so many skills are in short supply in SA. If anyone doubts this, I invite you to consider how difficult it is to find a decent electrician or plumber when you need one. Ask yourself: how many PhDs would you trust to unblock a drain or repair a damaged fuse box? And how many university graduates are currently struggling to find decent jobs?

Don’t get me wrong. I am definitely not against tertiary education, just against the dangerous assumption that a degree is the guarantee of success.

Most of all, I am opposed to the cult of deceit – the lies that lead a person into a web of self-deception. As someone familiar to us once said: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose oneself?”

– Egan writes on behalf of the Jesuit Institute of SA

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