An education of little value

2010-02-25 00:00

IT was with interest that I read Penny Niven’s article in The Witness of February 24. Her ruminations about her own educational history demonstrate that same anorexic selective recall which marks so much of contemporary South African discussions about the recent past.

Firstly, the history of South African education, tout court, is a history of mediocrity celebrated as and masking itself as excellence. Christian National Education was only the paler face of Bantu Education; white South African Anglophone liberal education was only the bleached incarnation of the “bush college”; the differences were superficial ones of style and resource allocation, but the underlying philosophies in all of these systems were protectionist, chauvinist, deeply racist and insular.

It is thus telling that Niven remembers herself wearing “kaftans, Zulu beadwork, Dutch clogs, Scottish kilts, Indian scarves, sandals made from tyres … trying to act out an idea of multiculturalism”; but rather than read this as a sign of her exposure to and grappling with new ideas, one can see these same elements as style affectations by a privileged young white South African university student who had “heard about Black Consciousness, the name Steve Biko”, but not, it seems, enough to explore the implications of these for her life in education or in South Africa as misremembered in writing.

Presumably, as the “veritable pantheon” (one name recognisable) instructed her on the nuances of Greer, Chaucer, Homer and Marx, they neglected to impress upon her (or she has forgotten to remember) Nyerere, Du Bois, Senghor, or Fanon, never mind Ruth First, Bessie Head or Noni Jabavu. Far from exposing her to the wider world of ideas, the university education Niven describes epitomises the narrow, Europhilic jingoism of Anglophone liberalism in South Africa, the conjoined twin of the derided Afrikaner laager mentality.

As Niven bemoans the massification of higher education (no mention is made of the neoliberal economics underpinning this process), one detects a note of nostalgia for a simpler time, when she could gain the skills Saleem Badat outlines as part of the role of a university. If such skills had been gained (effective and critical thinking, understanding society and ourselves, a broad knowledge of other cultures and times, and thinking systematically about moral and ethical problems), why is the awareness of the large and immediate canvas of South African history so signally absent from her account of pantheonic undergraduate studies at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg four decades back?

Of course, such awareness is precisely what liberal arts education in Anglophone universities have ensured, and in some senses continue to guarantee, for privileged middle-class people or those who wish to access such privileges. They can affect radical ideas when these have no material consequences beyond style affectations (dread your hair, sport “ethnic” affectations, oppose “rugger-bugger” factions), but are neatly protected from ever questioning the exigencies of history entailed by their privileged ensconcing in institutions, whether these be bourgeois families or “liberal” universities, or of doing anything about these. If anything, these were illiberal universities, farcical simulacra of anything that was truly liberal in philosophy; such illiberal institutions and those who head them object to the unequal societies they find themselves in, but only as a demonstration of the fineness of their liberal spirits, and as a style objection to the vulgar and brutalising.

Tellingly, Niven at no point reflects on how or why, given the history of inequity and inequality, she got to inhabit an office on the ground floor of the “Old Main Building”, nor how its architecture and the curriculum she wishes to celebrate with such cheaply sentimental fondness are symptomatic of the colonial alienation of the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, and how the effects of these produced the mediocrity which allowed someone to misremember the past as one of “excellent, inspired teaching”. No doubt her undergraduate years were valuable to Niven, in the same way we all have intimate value attached to our youth. However, and this must be stated unequivocally, in the larger sweep of southern African history, the Anglophone liberal arts education hardly counted for anything at all if it produced this particular sort of mediocre, individualist and smug reminiscing. This piece does not lack confidence, but there is little proof of an inquiring spirit which would have had to demonstrate what exactly the class of 1970 did that “counts” for anything at all beyond sentimental misreadings of educational history in South Africa. Niven has not come full circle: she, unlike Elvis, never left the building.

• A. C. Fick has taught at various universities in South Africa and Europe, and currently works in Pietermaritzburg.

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