Humanities offers the gift of reason

18 September 2011 - 03:06 By CRAIN SOUDIEN

A number of people, including the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, are deeply concerned about the years we spend at university and the value we derive from this experience. The question is particularly asked about the humanities.

My response, as a humanities graduate, is that the humanities are at the heart of a university. I suggest that a study of the humanities - the arts, the social sciences and education - is central to the incredible privilege we have in this country of imagining ourselves anew, of thinking against our racist apartheid and colonial history and projecting ourselves, firstly and most importantly, as human beings, before and above any other sense of who we imagine we might be.

Living in South Africa demands much more headwork than it does in virtually any other country in the world. We are living through real conflicts of what constitutes appropriate behaviour.

These conflicts come out of more than two centuries of European cultural imposition and the consistent devaluing of local people's ways of life. Having attained democracy, the question is now rightfully posed, whether things that had been outlawed by the apartheid government can now be brought into the mainstream of life. We are at a point where we have to consider what is right and what is wrong.

An issue that illustrates the situation in which we find ourselves is the Ukweshwama ritual in KwaZulu-Natal, where in spring a bull is killed with people's bare hands. It is extraordinary how much heat this issue has raised. On the one hand, defenders of the practice argue that "Europeans will never appreciate African culture". Those who are outraged by the experience, shout: "Barbaric! I cannot understand the logic or the motive. Get them educated, please."

The critical point about these confusing times is to ask where guidance might come from. It could, of course, come from anywhere. But it is the responsibility of us in the humanities to address these questions squarely and provide the kind of guidance to make it possible for these questions to be broached in ways that do not close down discussions. Very evident in the debate around Ukweshwama are people taking positions such as "my culture, right or wrong", or the accusation of "uncivilised, uneducated people".

An important point is to recognise that we now live, with all our differences, colour, class, and in multiple other ways, right in each other's worlds. This is not something we should regret - we should celebrate it. It takes us to the heart of the challenge of treating each other, rich or poor, well or unwell, with unconditional respect. If we get that right, we will become world leaders.

So, whose judgment on Ukweshwama is the correct one? The issue, it seems, is how to take an approach that can hold all the contending arguments in place and then come to a position. The great American philosopher Hannah Arendt, in Between Past and Future, addresses the crisis in American education. She says: "A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is with prejudices. Such an attitude ... makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides."

We cannot simply go forward as if we have no past; nor can we simply go back. When Hamlet came face to face with this problem, he cried: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right."

Our opportunity is not a curse but a blessing. It is the gift of being in a university.

The gift of the university is that, in a way which is not easily possible in, say, a religious institution or one's home, it is one of the most critical modern spaces for the making of the democratic subject. One learns, especially in the humanities, how to balance different points of view and thus come to reasoned judgments. To work with the drama of difference in reasoned and thoughtful ways.

We enter the university with a range of calls on our loyalty, as whites or blacks, as men or women. But we cannot leave it with all those prejudices intact. The university asks us to develop our capacity for reason to the highest levels. Such a gift is beyond compare.

Professor Soudien is a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town. This is an edited version of a speech at the University of the Witwatersrand this year