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The University in Question

By Ari Sitas

Academics, students, and support staff the world over are in the midst of deeply emotive struggles in what has been identified as an assault on many fronts inaugurated by fiscal and political circuits of power on their (our) spaces’ integrity.

Whereas the fiscal assault attempted to treat the University as a corporate entity and to instill managerial structures that enforce productivity and a peculiar notion of excellence, the political assault originated from movements and parties of authoritative restoration, trampling over areas of dissent and diversity. The key problem has been that the struggles have been reactive and defensive and that they lack an alternative vision of what a University ought to be in the 21st century.

The most unremarkable consequence has been the valorisation of the past as a better time, better at least than what the contemporary pugilists in power insisted or have already forced into place, which is not entirely untrue but it is a capitulation to older forms of elitism and exclusion.

At the same time, movements and more specifically student movements tend to bring forth new normative orientations and there is much to be learnt about alternatives from students in India (JNU, Hyderabad) and South Africa (let alone Latin America, North Africa and so on). But their narratives and their moral underpinnings are still in formation and it would be premature to ascribe a closure to them or worse: read them as most scholars do as a manifestation of our preferred theorist from Fanon to Ambedkar.

What we can do though is to look seriously at the University as a specific kind of institution that needs careful analysis. I would like to therefore outline twelve points that have to be taken up with some urgency if we are to seriously challenge the free-marketeers, the bean counters, and the new cultural and authoritarian commissars:

  1. Societies cluster people together to achieve certain goals, this is Sociology 101, and these clusterings are institutions; and to continue this train of thought, the University is a remarkable institution which preceded the emergence of a capitalist world economy and which has been re-fashioned to play a vital role within it.
  2. Knowledge and know-hows were not and are not the sole preserve of the university and the system it operated within, but the University has established the right to be the arena that operates their formal accreditation.
  3. As an institution there is a tension between its character, its function, its knowledge project and its practices – how these are handled. These tensions reproduce and transform its authority in any social formation.
  4. Due to the predominance of European powers in the long period between the 15thand late 19th centuries, the evolving University system in the world inherited the character, function, knowledge-project, and practices of the European experience.
  5. Its character: it involves a withdrawal from the world and its contaminations that survived from its old theocratic forms where the hermeneutic study of scripture was encouraged and civilising languages were learnt – a withdrawal that was re-enforced by the emerging scientific spirit of the 17thand 18th centuries, that used this space of withdrawal to argue its necessary autonomy from the world of the clergy and immediate power. Peerage trumped Interest and therefore the origins of academic freedom to research and disseminate are to be found there.
  6. Its function: to create the quality of mind necessary to populate the steering and professional strata of society and therefore play a defining role in class and elite formation in society and to reproduce itself as such a marker. This was not only about the quality of mind of its graduates but also about the regimes of rule and discipline to groom such an elite, which always carried a tension between an older apprenticeship system and a hierarchy of control – a tension at the heart of the bureaucratisation of the system.
  7. Its knowledge project: the academic community had to research what it taught, and research networks were created out of a range of horizontal activities embedded in scientific and knowledge networks that were trans-institutional and trans-national and often quite “deviant” – for example, although Descartes was highly respected in scientific and philosophical networks, he had to be in exile in Amsterdam; and Bernier who was his kindred spirit, was in touch with the Mughal world of science, philosophy and medicine as much as the English, German, and Dutch thinkers. Once the knowledge interest got normalised as a public good, the networks of science and scholarship and not the specific institution (i.e… My University) became the definers of, in the words of Kuhn, “normal science”.
  8. Practices: within each institution there are further tensions that finally shape its ethos and the way it works and educates students. There is the perennial dissonance that each student and younger academic is considered to be a site of reason and yet the hierarchical professoriate demands minimal challenge – rather it demands patriarchy, loyalty, and mimicry. There is also a dissonance between the relational dissemination of knowledge and the bureaucratic consensus that all should be equal as specific rule-guided “cases”.  The internal tensions and the tensions between autonomy and compliance create sites of contestation. In that, we find differential traditions of freedom of expression and the right to serve non-elite interests and communities.
  9. By the late 19thcentury, Britain established its centrality not only as an economic but also as a symbolic imperial node (in culture, education and technology). Inter-imperial competition led to a transformed curriculum to articulate a civilizational prowess – the Canon (the synergy of Shakespeare and Newton) with France and Germany following suit, and the idea of it being the centre of excellence and progress got deeply entrenched. By implication, all colonial spaces had to be validated in and through its circuits of scholarly power.
  10. It is fair to say that the majority world’s idea of and institutions of higher learning and the very University system itself owed in design and purpose to the European model. This is true of settler societies like the USA (Harvard with 9 students was established in 1636, the Rio de Janeiro University as a college for armaments and fortifications in 1792 or through British East India Company, the University of Calcutta in 1857 and the Imperial University of Peking in 1898). Most of the Universities in the world during the colonial and post-colonial period reflect a direct influence of the model.
  11. Similarly, the creation and reproduction of elites and class differentiation relied on a world system of higher education whose apex was the imperial metropole. It was a sign of explicit distinction if from India you studied in Cambridge and if from Martinique, you studied in Paris.
  12. Since the late 19thcentury, pressure was exerted on the University systems of Europe and North America to become more relevant to corporate and state interests and a vast array of applied disciplines proliferated. (Including explicit work for the military industrial complex in the West and East!) Furthermore, the rise of scientific management in society, the separation of mental and manual labour in mass production and the need for new types of professionals in industry, commerce and the state, stimulated the enlargement of tertiary sectors (whose absolute demographic explosion occurred in the 1950s and 1960s). The idea that Universities and disciplines became Servants of Power gained traction in the 1960s.

It could be argued that there are exemplary models we should not lose: Harvard for example and its private endowments give it a remarkable peer-based autonomy and it is the arch-model of excellence and liberal education; the Soviet Union and China for example created more inclusive systems but constrained the development of revolutionary science and critical literacy; that Jawaharlal Nehru University created a remarkable system of diversity, autonomy and tolerance; that the German system has had the best mix of high technology and philosophy and so on. There is much to be preserved and defended, the issue is about vision. Without it, it degenerates into a list of preferences.

Would it be possible to transform the character of the University out of its monastic character and make it worldly, engaged without surrendering its autonomy? Can the system operate outside the cycles of elite formation and class and other forms of differentiation? Is it an anachronism? Can a new knowledge project be found that is about human flourishing rather than about trade, production and war?  Can a democratic ethos supplant the hierarchical system of academic patronage and can freedom of experimentation and expression be guaranteed?

The only emancipatory project of modernity has been the search for a balance between freedom and equality, ideas that originated outside any University system. Has the University been a site for their enhancement and realisation or has it been the thinking workshop of unfreedoms?

Photo: Haq’s Musings

Ari Sitas
is a creative socialist thinker, activist, poet, dramatist and one of the key intellectuals of the post 1980s generation in South Africa. He is a professor and the head of the Sociology Department at the University of Cape Town. He also chairs the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences in South Africa and leads a multi-institutional project in Afro-Asia studying the flows of people, slaves, and music (7th-15th Centuries AD). He and an ensemble of other scholars are working on a sequel to Gauging and Engaging Deviance, 1600-2000, recently published by Tulika Press in India, titled, Scripts of Defiance. His other publications include Mandela Decade: Labour, Culture and Society in Post-Apartheid South Africa (2010). At the moment, whilst on leave, he is working on his latest Oratorio which is a via dolorosa of our contemporary period and is to be staged by India’s foremost theatrical director, Anuradha Kapur, in 2017.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Sithembiso Bhengu #

    Very interesting piece, insightful writing by Ari. The point about the centrality of vision is for me, the thrust of the challenge Ari is bringing to the university discourse.

    September 17, 2016

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