Opinionista Adam Cooper 11 October 2017

Surely good scholarship means having our perspectives challenged?

If universities of the future are to be relevant and contribute to building an inclusive, just society, one that nurtures reflection and deep learning, they should be places where we are intrigued by opinions that differ from our own. Such perspectives may challenge the status quo and our assumptions about the world we live in.

Last year during a lunch break at a conference at Unisa, a tall, lean Indian man with wispy grey hair asked if he could sit next to me. I was eating alone and felt a bit awkward, so I said that he was welcome to join me, relieved to have a companion and avoid appearing to be the conference attendee with no friends. The scholar told me that he had designed the first Indian super computer, but that he was now more interested in the history of mathematics. He spoke eloquently and complained about all of this nonsense in South Africa about science and mathematics being “white man’s knowledge”, that all peoples have practised science of some sort since antiquity and that he was determined to set the record straight.

He explained that while the West usually draws a straight line connecting the Greeks and Romans to the enlightenment and then proceeds to link this genealogy to modern-day European and North American scientists, many Indian, Arab and African scholars have contributed to the reservoir of global scientific knowledge that we now inherit.

In ancient India, he continued, where people used pieces of string instead of geometry sets, mathematicians were more concerned with the use of science for the benefit of community needs than generating abstract proofs. So if a solution was incorrect by the time you arrived at the fiftieth decimal point, something that would render it simply “wrong” in the modern academy, this would not matter for community based science because the difference would not be able to be seen by the naked eye.

He told me that in modern mathematics one cannot use an empirical example in order to prove a theorem. You have to prove theories through abstract languages or sets of symbols. This astounded me. I had always thought of mathematics as that most scientific of scientific subjects and yet in certain instances the scientific method could not be used as the basis for knowledge generation. Rather than saying that this practice was “wrong” or not good for science, he was interested in learning about how these rules of the game were established.

I thought further of my time at school, spending hours memorising proofs of theorems that had no meaning to me and which taught me nothing other than the fact that to do well at school you had to commit to memory large bodies of information that leave your brain the minute you exit the examination room.

The Indian scholar from whom I learnt a great deal during that lunch break is called CK Raju.

This week a storm broke loose because Professor Loretta Ferris Deputy Vice-Chancellor for transformation at UCT invited Dr Raju to address the university community. People, many of whom complain that students shut down debate and behave barbarically by burning paintings, demanded that this man not be given a platform to speak, that he be silenced and denied the opportunity to share his ideas. They then questioned the credentials of the black female deputy vice-chancellor who invited him, sending her a barrage of abusive emails. 

In all the controversy I did not read a single critique of Dr Raju’s work, his ideas or his scholarship. I don’t think most of his critics even realise that he is primarily a historian of mathematics, rather than a mathematician. All I read was mud-slinging and name calling by the very people that hypocritically proclaim that South African students scream and shout rather than develop good arguments. I observed these sentiments from former vice-chancellors and Nobel prize winners alike.

We do not have to believe everything we are told. Neither are we forced to like everything to which we are exposed. But if universities of the future are to be relevant and contribute to building an inclusive, just society, one that nurtures reflection and deep learning, they should be places where we are intrigued by opinions that differ from our own. Such perspectives may challenge the status quo and our assumptions about the world we live in.

Rather than feeling threatened and defensive about these opinions, we should engage with them in the spirit of dialogue. Is that not what constitutes good scholarship? To have our perspectives challenged by different ones? I am not a mathematician, but my discussion with Dr Raju made me want to learn more about mathematics, the philosophy behind it and the difference between culturally specific traditions and rigorous science. Our would-be-educators who spent a portion of last week castigating Dr Raju would be better off working on their own curricula and pedagogical techniques, such that they may begin to interest South African students. It is remarkable, considering the events that have taken place in this country since 2015, that these learned people have yet to realise that their futures depend on this. DM

Dr Adam Cooper is post-doctoral fellow and research specialist in the Human and Social Development programme at the Human Sciences Research Council. He holds a PhD in Education Policy Studies from Stellenbosch University and is a fellow of the Centre for Commonwealth Education at the University of Cambridge. He writes in his personal capacity.

*An earlier version of this story stated that Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at UCT invited Raju to address the university community. This was incorrect and has since been corrected.


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