The dissing of the humanities
Twenty years ago, between 1990 and 1994, a new South Africa was taking shape. Talk of “transformation” was in the air, and some of us in the University of South Africa (Unisa) thought there was an opportunity to contribute to the transformation of the university from a Broederbond institution into a real university, and getting academics to produce better and more useful study material would also make our task as editors easier.
The Editorial Department tried to contribute to this by arranging a series of seminars on course design, and the first of the series was held in November 1993 at a new facility at Unisa Park in Irene. Most of the arrangements had been made by Sam van den Berg, then the head of the Editorial Department, and Glynn Meter, who had found Fred Lockwood of the Open University in the UK. and invited him to lead the seminars, which lasted for three days.
The seminars were generally successful, and both the academics and members of the Editorial Department who attended were enthusiastic about them, and left with plenty of ideas for improving their courses. The university administration, however, which was still dominated by the old Broederbond mentality, thought otherwise, and thought that the Editorial Department was exceeding its brief (or remit, as the Brits say) by arranging the seminars. No more seminars were held, and a couple of years later Sam van den Berg was fired for refusing to accept inferior study material from the Education Faculty, and sending it back to the lecturers.
I was a little disappointed, however, when Fred Lockwood disparaged the humanities, and said that he would take as an example a course on something useful and more practical in the real world — the production and and marketing of cosmetics.
Twenty years later that remains my predominant memory of his course — that he thought the humanities were useless and that useless fripperies like cosmetics were useful. Even the Communists’ obsession with steel production was better than that.
The trend represented by Fred Lockwood, however, seemed to be the main trend in Western and thus globalised culture. The disparaging of the humanities continues.
This could be seen in the categories of web sites that showed links to different blogs, or other web sites. For example, Amatomu, a South African blog aggregator, had the following categories:
- News & politics
As a result of complaints from several people who thought that their blog posts did not fall into any of the above categories, a couple of new categories, Humour and Religion, were added. But where do you put books and literature, language, history, or the humanities generally?
The same used to be true of an international site, Digg. That has changed now, and Digg’s categories seem to be hidden from the users. But when they could be seen, there was no place in them for the humanities.
But there are also signs of a backlash — Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God – Tara Isabella Burton – The Atlantic:
Several of the great Medieval universities, among them Oxford, Bologna, and Paris, developed in large part as training grounds for men of the Church. Theology, far from being anathema to the academic life, was indeed its central purpose: It was the “Queen of the Sciences” the field of inquiry which gave meaning to all others.
And something of this could be seen in some of the initial efforts made by Unisa to transform itself for the new South Africa. The Unisa top management consisted predominantly of pale males, and appointments had to have at least tacit Broederbond approval. But, realising that they times they were a’changing, they began to look around for some people who did not fit the mould. And where did they find them? In the Faculty of Theology, that’s where.
The Faculty of Theology was the smallest in the university, but it had to see at least three of its most talented academics poached to go into the university administration, because they were the only qualified black people available. As a result the faculty was deprived of some of its best teachers and researchers, but it nevertheless underlines the point made in the aritcle cited above: that theology was and still is “the field of inquiry which gave meaning to all others.”
Fred Lockwood’s approch to education was pragmatic. There’s little money to be made from theology, or history, or Latin or literature. There is more money to be made from making and selling cosmetics, therefore universities should teach about that.
And, under President Jacob Zuma’s leadership, South Africa seems to have been following that pragmatic path. Unlike his immediate predecessors, who stressed ubuntu (humanity), Zuma and his associates seem to be more interested in money than in ubuntu. So the dissing of the humanities is likely to continue, and ubuntu will be a forgotten dream.
 I am aware that “dissing” as a verb is derived from “disrespect”, but I’m old enough to still regard “disrespect” as a noun, not a verb, but it fits the verb “disparage” equally well, if not better.