For the Sake of Democracy, Scholars Must Return to Past Practices

Article excerpt

In today's article in our series, SaleEm Badat, vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, argues that South African universities cannot be reduced to instruments of the economy.

Intellectuals, public officials, business and civil society leaders and political commentators have complained about the lack of "visibility" of our universities.

For some this is about the unresponsiveness of universities in addressing the myriad economic and social development challenges the country faces. It is certainly true that universities should advance the public good, and should use science and scholarship to contribute to economic and social progress, thereby making a difference to the lives of South Africa's people.

But negative comments on the contribution of universities to economic and social development are open to challenge. For one thing, critics are often poorly informed: unwarranted generalisations cloud judgements about the quality of research and teaching at most of our universities. For another, unrealistic expectations often hold out the hope that universities can transform society. Societal transformation demands political will, the force of a developmental state, and interventions in all areas of society. Faced with this, universities can only contribute to social transformation.

Often, negative views follow from a desire to redefine the role of the university. It is wrong and dangerous to force universities to serve purely utilitarian ends and to seek to reduce them to instruments of the economy, the labour market and skills production alone. The responsiveness of universities cannot only be economic in character; it has to be of a wider intellectual and social character.

While for some the "visibility" of universities is about their responsiveness, for others it is about whether universities are engaging sufficiently and critically with vital social questions of the day and are adequately serving as catalysts of public intellectual debate.

Prior to 1994, some universities were sites of critical scholarship on crucial aspects of South African society: disinterested, critical and rigorous, yet socially committed scholarship spanned various disciplines including history, sociology, psychology, political studies, anthropology, philosophy, gender studies and education. Very often this work connected with the national liberation movements, mass organisations, workers and rural poor; it also found expression in popular publications.

Of course this scholarship was neither officially encouraged, nor promoted. It was also not mission-driven: indeed, some critical scholars were often denied academic posts, subjected to repression, and had no opportunity to foster public debate through the mass media. Some, like Rick Turner and David Webster, lost their lives.

Today a constitutional democracy and an admirable Bill of Rights protects free speech and yet, curiously, there is a dearth of critical and engaged scholarship.

The truth is this: if we are to protect our freedoms and so deepen our democracy, scholars must return to their past practice.

Rigorous scholarship - whether it identifies wholly or in part with the social goals of the government, the state, political parties or other key social actors - must freely interrogate the thinking, priorities and policies of all these actors.

The late Harold Wolpe once wrote "neither the theory nor the analysis ... can ever be regarded as settled". So the goals of our society and the means to their achievement are never settled. It is the task of critical scholarship to investigate the theoretical foundations, and the empirical analyses that define the direction the country has taken. This work could well show that today's conventional wisdoms (and their associated policies) rest on shaky foundations, with possibly profound social consequences.

Wolpe also wrote that critical scholarship must treat the priorities and policies of political parties not "as conclusions but as starting points for investigation". …