Let genius flourish

2009-06-05 00:00

AS I write this, I confess to a measure of emotional turmoil occasioned by the article, “UKZN: doing just fine … or not?” (The Witness, June 1).

I know Professor Nceba Gqaleni personally (he was a student of mine), perhaps well enough to call him a friend. I have enormous respect for his intellect, integrity and his many well-deserved achievements. Consequently, I have every reason to believe that what he says is the truth, as he sees it.

However, he is quoted in this article as saying: “The issue of academic freedom has always been a cover-up from people wanting to practise racism”, and, “The culture is still deeply embedded in colonialism, which undermines everything African. It perpetuates the European ideology.” He is quoted as giving the examples of “the culture of lectures in the classroom and the ethos of holding a meeting”. With these few words, he has pulled the carpet on the beliefs that underpinned my whole academic career in science.

What were these beliefs?

Firstly, science is universal: there is no such thing as African science, as opposed to American science or Japanese science, or any other — there is only science. Moreover, scientists everywhere have come to a common consensus regarding the modus operandi of science. The methods of science are thus also universal. Secondly, it is the quality of a scientist’s ideas that are important and their ethnicity and gender is of no moment, whatsoever.

Because science is universal, it has to be discussed in international forums and a common language, English, has been agreed upon for reasons of practicality. Scientists who do not speak English as their first language must acquire a competence in English as part of the requirements for being a scientist. However, those who are exposed to English in their own country have an enormous advantage.

Not only is science international, it is also extremely competitive. I used to tell my students that science is like Grand Prix racing in that it is international, on the cutting edge of technology and highly competitive. Unless one is prepared to contest one’s ideas in the top international forums, against the best in the world, then one should not be in science.

Nevertheless, everyone in the world benefits from the competition and not only the winners. Any one of us who drives or rides in a car benefits from Grand Prix racing and anyone who uses, directly or indirectly, any modern technology (think computers, cellphones, antibiotics, Cat scanners, GPSs, etc.) is the beneficiary of the intense competition in science (followed by the intense competition in business).

Notice that Grand Prix racing — and science — is not a handicap event. The slower do not get to set off first. The competition is absolute and ruthless.

So how does all of this translate into academic policy? Firstly, my policy was to accept postgraduate students on their proven merit, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. Having accepted them, my policy was to expose my doctoral students, regardless of their gender or ethnicity, to international forums so that they could see, first hand, how science works: that people of all ethnicities and both genders compete vigorously, and on an equal footing, in the world of ideas and experimentation, using English as a common language. In essence, my philosophy was that if they are up to it, they must go for it. I would back them to the hilt, and expect the university to do likewise.

What I wanted was for my students — South Africans of every sort — and my university, to be out there, competing and winning on the world stage. Why not a Nobel prize to someone at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg?

Historically, universities evolved out of medieval monasteries and nunneries — a legacy being the graduation gowns that hark back to medieval monks’ habits (gowns). Our South African universities are thus, indisputably, a British colonial legacy. Similarly, democracy as a style of government reached its first fruition in Britain and was aimed at curbing the power of the monarch and allowing talented individuals to flourish. This culminated in Britain having a great tolerance for eccentrics and mavericks, to its enduring advantage.

War is perhaps the ultimate competition and history has shown that democracies, where talented individuals are given free rein, are more successful than autocratic states. Britain’s success in the Battle of Britain can be attributed largely to a few eccentric geniuses — the sportsmen who sponsored the Schneider Trophy racing floatplanes (from which the Spitfire evolved), Rolls Royce which privately built the engines to power these planes, eccentric physicists who built the radar sets, mavericks who applied mathematics to code breaking and built the first computers to crunch the numbers, and the oddballs who put this all together into a functional system.

From this history, deeply embedded in the ethos of a British university from which ours derive, is that genius cannot and should not be controlled, and that universities should be autonomous bodies controlled by and for scholars, with the primary aim of promoting scholarship. That, to me, is what academic freedom means.

Now (and this is the part that totally takes the wind out of my sails) it appears that this whole approach — and hence my whole approach — is considered by some to be intrinsically racist. How can this be when, at its core, it denies any significance of race? How can a racially exclusive body, such as the Black African Academics Forum, not be racist? Does the word “racist” mean different things to different people?

I think the word “racist” is used too freely and imprecisely, and it can do great damage. It was largely through being thus labelled, that I have completely withdrawn from the university. If we mean that we have different cultural values, let’s say that and discuss that issue, with mutual respect rather than use a toxic word like “racist”, which should be consigned to the same bin as other offensive labels.

What I would like to know from Professor Gqaleni, or anybody else, is how they think South African universities should be structured differently from the international norm, for an African to feel at home? How should teaching be effected, if not through lectures, and how should meetings be structured? How would this university compete in the world?

I confess that I am completely baffled and deeply depressed that my most cherished values (racial and gender equality, democratic governance, and academic freedom) are perceived to be so wrong. It makes me question if there is a place for people like me in the university and indeed in South Africa, or would it be better for all concerned if we sought pastures new?

• Clive Dennison is an emeritus professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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