South Africa

Op Ed: Culture wars in universities – it’s happened before

By Charles Simkins 30 March 2015

A culture war seems to be hotting up in our universities. Much as South Africans like to think of ourselves as unique, there is experience elsewhere, notably in the United States, which sheds light on the course and consequences of a culture war. By CHARLES SIMKINS.

In relation to the issue, the following observations are pertinent: Firstly, ambitious academic staff are often key drivers of the process. Advancement in universities is usually slow and increments of income are modest. Jockeying for position has always been endemic in universities. What culture wars do is create the space for identity-based claims on resources, fought out bitterly in departments and faculties. These fights often take the form of identity-oriented curricula, which have a number of consequences, discussed below. Contests between academic staff are fought out behind closed doors. They have knock-on effects among students, and these are often the most visible manifestations to the public at large. But the visible is not necessarily the fundamental.

Secondly, identities have mythical aspects which can override accurate scholarship. The classics scholar, Mary Lefkowitz, found this during a well-known seminar on the “Black Athena” hypothesis. This hypothesis holds that the ideas of classical Athens were derived from African sources. The speaker claimed that Aristotle had stolen his ideas from the Library of Alexandria.

“But,” she asked, “how would that have been possible, when the library was not built until after his death?”

The speaker then proceeded to tell those present that “they could and should believe what black instructors told them”.

Furthermore, identities do not exist as spheres of their own, uninvolved with other identities. They have friends, allies and enemies. This immediately changes the terms of academic interaction. The classical view is that of a clash of ideas, supported by fact and argument, and the best argument wins. The process requires both the honest expression of views and the willingness to modify them in the light of debate. This is what has traditionally differentiated academic from political discourse.

Not so when identities become salient. The difference between academic and political discourse collapses. Communication becomes strategic and tactical rather than open, and the clash of ideas is replaced by trench warfare.

Erasure of artifacts does not erase the effects of history. Pieces of metal can be moved about at will. The past cannot. To be sure, we have had a difficult history. So has every society. Each generation wrestles with it and adds to it by both its successes and failings. There is no other way that societies are formed.

Culture wars affect different parts of universities differently. The parts of a university which are least susceptible to the effects of culture wars are those associated with professional bodies. Those bodies set standards, and a university that wants to attract students knows that its instructional offerings enable graduates to meet their requirements. Accounting and engineering courses are cases in point. South African accounting departments are effectively rated by their ability to provide a solid base for becoming Chartered Accountants.

Nothing else matters either for students or staff. There are set things that students have to know. Quite often, academics in these disciplines look at culture wars elsewhere in the university in open-mouthed amazement. It is otherwise in the general degrees – in South Africa, the Bachelor of Arts, the Bachelor of Science and the Bachelor of Commerce. Registering for the Bachelor of Commerce is essentially a practical vocational decision. The degree is the thing between students and their BMWs. Commerce students want to know what they have to learn, they expect it to be relevant to a future career in business and they are happiest with a plain and clear exposition. The position with the Bachelor of Science is somewhat different. Things in laboratories, ranging from spectrometers to chemical compounds to amoebas behave in their own ways, not according to cultural specification. Respect for logical coherence and experimental evidence is central to science. The project cannot proceed on any other basis.

It is in the Bachelor of Arts that anything can happen. And it does, invariably at the cost of a coherent and comprehensive introduction to disciplines. A comprehensive approach requires teachers to deal with approaches and theories they may not agree with themselves, a deeply unattractive prospect to the purveyors of identity.

There are two reasons. The first is in insistence on identity, formed in struggles, having these fixed qualities. The second is a focus on gaining adherents, rather than demanding of students that they develop their own abilities to construct arguments and criticise them. To many minds, the latter project is individualistic and alienating. And so it is. To be a good social scientist, one must be able to think outside the framework of one’s own society, both to see what is in other societies and to understand the particular features of one’s own. One may come to social science through being engagé and enragé, but good work starts only when these phases come to an end.

If identities become central, then certain things follow. If you want to spend three years in an emotionally warm environment, working out what black identity is, or female or gay or fat identity is, a Bachelor of Arts degree is likely to suit you. You may even be able to explore white identity, male or straight or slender identity. The latter will be harder to do, but with some fancy footwork you might succeed. The students who will find things tough are those who want comprehensive education and are willing, eager even, to engage with ideas they find, initially or finally, unattractive.

Then there is a need for a new humanist strategy. The historian Edward Gibbon referred to his fourteen months at Oxford as the most idle and profitless part of his life. Some of the leading utilitarian philosophers never went to university.

Fortunately, the electronic age provides new alternatives. An increasing number of open online courses are becoming available on the Internet, many of them presented by top rate international scholars. You need a computer and an Internet connection, but mercifully no fees (unless you want certification). And you can assemble the subjects that interest you while building up a wide range of knowledge.

Moreover, this process can occur over your whole life if you want it to. Whereas many scientists make their major contributions while they are young, an appreciation of the humanities can deepen with age. So an indirect strategy is possible. Go to university to acquire a certificate or a diploma or a degree which will help you to earn a living – and spend the rest of your life building a humanities education to suit yourself. DM

Charles Simkins is a Senior Researcher with the Helen Suzman Foundation. Email: charles@hsf.org.za

Main Pic: Students write their opinions on a board beneath a statue of Cecil John Rhodes wrapped in plastic bags, as part of a protest at the University of Cape Town March 20, 2015. (REUTERS/Mike Hutchings)  

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