SOUTH AFRICA: Initiative to strengthen liberal arts

The South African government has launched an initiative to revive and strengthen the social sciences and humanities in universities. A charter of recommendations, to be published in mid-2011, will put these oft-neglected areas back on the higher education agenda so that students who want a true liberal arts education can get a good one.

After the fall of apartheid the government neglected the social sciences and humanities and focused instead on rectifying deficits in engineering, the natural sciences and business to help make South Africa more globally competitive.

"Now is the time for the teaching of and research in the social sciences and the humanities to take their place again at the leading edge of our struggle for transformation and development of South African society," said Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande.

"They must play a leading role in helping our people understand and tackle the scourges of poverty, unemployment, racism, discrimination of all kinds and HIV-Aids."

The initiative, launched earlier this month, will provide a charter of recommendations for the government outlining how to reassert the social sciences and humanities in higher education.

The key aims of the charter, to be completed by the end of June 2011, include the creation of a positive, affirmative statement on these areas of study and an emphasis on the critical role of the liberal arts in creating responsible, ethical and broad-minded citizens.

"It has to be aspirational but it nevertheless should serve as a clear road map for intervention," said Ari Sitas, director of the initiative and a professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town.

To compile the charter Sitas and his task team, assisted by Sarah Mosoetsa of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), will conduct workshops and interviews with a large, broad-based South African reference group.

The advisory group comprises a range of participants from across the country including the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf), Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust, research directors, and deans and vice-chancellors from the nation's universities.

To combat the issue of an ageing academic profession, young minds were enlisted too.

"We tried to be sensitive to generational divergence as well," Sitas told University World News. "We have included young and promising academics who have a long-term interest in the integrity of their fields."

In addition to the reference group, an international forum will be held where leaders from overseas universities will share their experiences and expertise on giving the liberal arts their due without forsaking excellence in the sciences.

Key Unesco bodies - the International Social Science Council and the International Council of Philosophy and the Humanities - will be a part of the process, as well as Latin American, African, Indian and Chinese centres of social scientific and humanities research.

An e-portal will allow for the batting back and forth of ideas and suggestions between the various local and international participants.

Although the team is looking abroad for advice, Sitas was quick to stress that the charter will be a home-grown initiative.

"The higher education system has been through enough bench-marking against international indices to last us a century," he said. "We shall study all that we can, avoid replication but take full responsibility. We cannot and shall not outsource our brains."

The neglect of the social sciences and humanities has had a negative impact that reaches far beyond the confines of the university.

Sitas said not only has it affected the ability of graduates to think critically about key issues, but it has also led to a decline in the quality of leadership in the country, especially in the context of a post-conflict society where subjects such as history, anthropology, literature and the fine arts can go a long way towards bridging differences and creating unity among former enemies.

"How can transformation be achieved without the quality of mind that desires a post-racist world, a post-apartheid dispensation and having the scholarly content and pride to achieve it?" said Sitas.

He said warning signs had been present for some time, and the momentum to address the issue had steadily grown. All the professional associations and stakeholders in the broader humanities had been voicing concerns through Assaf and other organisations.

The quality of South Africa's degrees have been put in question following several high profile cases of plagiarism, and higher education bodies have been raising the alarm about both the quality and quantity of PhD programmes.

Part of the challenge of reintroducing a worthy liberal arts agenda is to ensure the quality of scholarship coming out of universities keeps pace with the reality across South Africa, which is that through the human experience people are beginning to come together.

Sitas said academia needed to stay on top of the post-apartheid reality. "The necessary work of creating post-apartheid forms of thinking, of heritage and scholarship has been reduced to shocking and enduring cultural stereotypes," he said.

But there are challenges.

Funding for the project is limited, and allows for only three meetings in all with key participants. Sitas and his colleagues have had to put aside research time for the initiative and keep on teaching. "We shall make our own coffee," he joked.

Sitas said funding had been transferred to UCT so the team could be autonomous in their work. Despite this freedom, he added, there was 'cynicism' at the government's intentions in spearheading the project.

As instigators of new and provocative ideas, academics are sceptical about whether the government is truly interested in free thought and the diversification of the liberal arts curriculum, or whether they are just being used to implement the government's own small-minded political aims.

Another issue is the decline in the number of people entering academia.

Many promising, bright young South Africans accepted into university, especially those who come from previously disadvantaged classes, are understandably more inclined to gravitate towards fields where they can make money.

But in order for an ambitious initiative like this to fly, there needs to be a new generation of teaching and research leaders. The country's academics have also become jaded about their usefulness and relevance in an increasingly commoditised world.

Sitas said a running joke among academics was that "academia is not a core business of the university any more, it should be outsourced".

But the charter is a step in the right direction. For starters, it gets the ball rolling. And if teachers can agree that there should be a place for a broad humanistic education, students will follow suit. The public intellectual has always had a place in great civilisational shifts. South Africa is going through one now, and it plans to be armed for the challenge.

To give the last word to Nzimande: "At a deeper level, we also look to our social scientists, philosophers, historians, artists and others to help us to rebuild our sense of nationhood, our independence and our ability to take our place proudly in the community of nations."