THE BIG READ: When doubt is good
Demonstrating uncertainty and encouraging students to draw their own conclusions is necessary for a youth that has been socialised into dogmas
One of the memorably dishonest words used by apartheid politicians when under fire from critics was "categorically".
With that single word the charge of torture of detainees or military excursions into bordering states or the official incitement of violence in townships was dismissed: "I categorically deny that ."
What that infuriating word reveals is a much deeper fault-line in our democracy - a rigid, unyielding dogmatism that becomes especially aggressive when under threat.
It is not only in politics that this crude attachment to singular truth expresses itself; our religious organisations are steeped in an intimidating fundamentalism about right and wrong. Schools insist on pedagogical routines that discourage doubt, reflection and uncertainty in a facts-driven curriculum. When our first-year students returned from their study abroad experiences, I asked them what the one difference was between US and South African campuses.
Their answers were consistent: "In US classrooms students ask questions." Our incapacity for a reflective doubt was viciously exposed during the Spear saga. The hardline positions were cemented quickly.
Those who refused to bend to the certainties of the masses incited into action by their political masters were to experience the most aggressive intimidation, bullying and outright threats targeting ordinary citizens since 1994.
The editor of a newspaper buckled under political pressure; otherwise sensible journalists changed their minds in the heat of opposition; and the owner of a gallery apologised feverishly for the offending artwork with the disciplining politician by her side. The artwork must be destroyed on native soil, says the minister of higher education; no, the entire gallery must be destroyed, says his junior party sidekick.
The shift from reasoned arguments about dignity and artistic expression to raucous calls for the destruction of artwork was swift.
Once the emotional link was made to our hurtful history, the space for reason was shut down. It was as if this country never had a vicious history of censorship in which other dignities were suppressed. There should have been reason for pause, extended dialogues on freedoms in tension as we sought to make sense of the challenges offered by TheSpear. But where a nation is so cocksure of itself, doubt gives way to danger.
Yet the main lesson of The Spear is the failure of education. Our political conductors took advantage of this, and appealed to the rawest passions of a semi-literate chorus, no doubt sensing opportunistic advantage on offer to a party that fails to deliver on the basic education needs of the poorest among us. It is the cynicism of this political silencing of doubt that should concern us.
A few days later a senior politician made a public call to university leaders for more intellectuals in society, having just driven one of them, the scared artist, into hiding. Here is my concern: there will be more Spears, in a manner of speaking, to challenge our certainties.
The next time round we will be much more fearful to challenge boundaries, to question authority, to express dissent. We will, and should be, scared.
When Harvard president Drew Faust was recently asked what one book she would recommend to students, she chose Kathryn Schulz's On Being Wrong since "it advocates doubt as a skill and praises error as the foundation of wisdom" in line with her encouragement to students "to embrace risk and even failure".
I would add to that curriculum the movie Doubt and The Lives of Others. These different texts teach complexity and question certainty.
They put a hold on destructive emotions and force us to rethink starting assumptions. How could schools and universities encourage a pedagogy of doubt? Teach using questions rather than assertions.
Encourage curiosity about everyday problems. Show the complexity in what appears to be simple. Take time to draw out different perspectives on what is taken for granted.
Demonstrate uncertainty, even doubt, in your own teaching rather than assume you must know all the answers. Withhold judgment and allow students to draw their own conclusions as you guide them through rival bodies of evidence. And follow that Finnish maxim: less teaching, more learning.
This will take time, and it will be difficult. One teacher doing this will be isolated, but it's a start. University students come to class wanting "the notes" and insisting on "the scope of the exams". Our young people have long been socialised into social and educational dogmas.
The more we change - teachers, parents and priests - the better prepared the next generation will be to reverse our slide into barbarism.