Monday, April 06, 2015

Defending Freedoms

Extract from novelist and academic JM Coetzee's foreword to University of Cape Town fellow Professor John Higgins's new book. 

Is a university still a university when it loses its academic autonomy? Is a university without a proper faculty of humanities (or faculty of humanities and social sciences) still a university?

The policy on academic autonomy followed by the ANC government is troublingly close to the policy followed by the old National Party government: universities may retain their autonomy as long as the terms of their autonomy can be defined by the state. The National Party had a conception of the state, and the role played by education within the state, to which such tenets of British liberal faith as academic freedom were simply alien. The indifference of the ANC to academic freedom has less of a philosophical basis, and may simply come out of a defensive reluctance to sanction sites of power over which it has no control.

But South African universities are by no means in a unique position. All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.
[the ideological force driving the assault on the independence of universities in the (broadly conceived) West] …commenced in the 1980s as a reaction to what universities were doing in the 1960s and 1970s, namely, encouraging masses of young people in the view that there was something badly wrong with the way the world was being run and supplying them with the intellectual fodder for a critique of Western civilisation as a whole.

The campaign to rid the academy of what was variously diagnosed as a leftist or anarchist or anti-rational or anti-civilisational malaise has continued without let-up for decades, and has succeeded to such an extent that to conceive of universities any more as seedbeds of agitation and dissent would be laughable.

The response of the political class to the university's claim to a special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectual: if the university, which, when the chips are down, is simply one among many players competing for public funds, really believes in the lofty ideals it proclaims, then it must show it is prepared to starve for its beliefs. I know of no case in which a university has taken up the challenge.

The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in defending themselves against pressure from the state has not been a proud one. Resistance was weak and ill organised; routed, the professors beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire.

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