The Big Read: It's right to be wrong - Times LIVE
Thu Mar 23 02:26:33 SAST 2017

The Big Read: It's right to be wrong

Jonathan Jansen | 2014-01-31 00:23:03.0

It is the 21st century and the 20th anniversary of our young democracy.

These two simple markers in time bring particular challenges to bear on you as first-year students. You are required to be the most technologically savvy of your generation and to be "born frees", who do not carry the burdens of our past.

For this kind of new world that you enter, what, in fact, is a university education for?

In the first place, a university exists, then and now, to challenge you with new ideas, new questions and new ways of dealing with intractable problems. A university does not exist to confirm what you already know. It is not an extension of your school or your community.

A university is a place in which you are supposed to feel uncomfortable as your views are tested and challenged by other views. If a university simply exists to confirm your culture, your language, your faith and your habits, then it will decidedly not prepare you for the kind of world you will enter on graduation. In other words, you will be a social and cultural misfit in a changing, complex and globalised world.

A good university education prepares you for the possibility of being wrong. As a new university student, aged 18 to 20 , you already have firm ideas about yourself and others, about government and the private sector, about the past and the future. But being educated means that you allow for the possibility that you might be wrong. There is nothing more dangerous than being stubborn in the face of the facts. An educated person can self-reflect and change course.

In this state of being open and ready to listen to new ideas, students and professors come to university because they believe that in a democracy based on decency and respect, reason is our prime currency. A university is not a place where you throw tantrums in public, or storm out of lectures on topics you do not like, or hurl insults at ideas that clash with your own.

This means, therefore, that a university must be different from its community when what happens outside a campus is so often marked by dangerous conflicts in which libraries are burnt down, tyres set alight in the streets, foreign nationals robbed and killed, racial and tribal bonds formed, and brutal acts of mob justice meted out.

To the extent that a university produces future leaders in a democracy, students must learn to be counter-cultural - forming habits of the mind and learning acts of duty that run in the opposite direction to what happens in the broader society.

A university does not bear allegiance to any external authority. It is not a church, even though many of the inhabitants of this place of higher learning might come from church communities. Nor does a university owe any allegiance to a political party or a government.

While universities are accountable for how they spend government money, no government can dictate what is taught or learned in universities, who gets appointed to teach or manage a university, or what kinds of students may attend.

A university is a place where you learn to express yourself on matters of public import. When there is a national crisis - such as the outbreak of xenophobia - or an international crisis - such as going to war on another part of the continent - then university communities gather to debate and deliberate on these important public issues.

In other words, your learning is not restricted to the classroom or laboratory and, in fact, your most important learning during the three or more years of study might happen outside of it.

Then, at crucial moments, a university community might decide a public matter is of such great importance that protest action must be pursued.

However, we must unlearn the routines of protest in the external environment. Students come into university life having witnessed these routines of violence and destruction that fly in the face of reason and respect which should characterise the campus life.

As you embark on this exciting journey as a first-year student in a modern democracy and an interconnected world, consider as you go these ideas about what a university is, and is not.

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