Nobel laureate urges a return to reason on campuses

Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright, poet and novelist Wole Soyinka declared the time had come for “desperate strategies” to battle “revelatory knowledge” on university campuses in Africa and around the world.

Delivering the opening keynote speech titled “A University for the Future: A humanist’s reimagining” at the Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies Universities Summit held at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, recently, Soyinka said his target wasn’t only religious zealots but also “market fundamentalism and the commodification of higher education” and in order to combat these forces he advocated introducing a foundation year of “materialist induction” for university students to run alongside other disciplines.

The 82-year-old Soyinka, in 1986 Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, also strongly condemned “political correctness”. He said it had “proved the graveyard of the world” but acknowledged that while condemnation posed a difficult question for those advocating freedom of speech and democracy, “we must recognise that hate speech has taken advantage of freedom of speech to erode the institutions founded on that principle”.

In his view political correctness had helped create the climate for the rise of the popular right with Donald Trump’s presidential victory in the United States and the Brexit vote in Britain providing “evidence of a new world view”.

On the side lines of the conference, suiting actions to words, Soyinka threw away his green card which allows him permanent residence in the US in protest at Trump becoming the next president, something he had promised to do should Trump win.

Soyinka said his programme to oppose zealotry in higher education came out of “a decade of turmoil” in Nigeria which compromised the primary and secondary systems of education and the near-destruction of universities. “On every occasion there were strikes, whether it be faculty, students or workers that led to the collapse of intellectual and social life.”

“Laboratories became obsolete, libraries went unreplenished,” he said. “Meanwhile churches and mosques sprang up everywhere”, the Koran and the Bible became the indispensable texts while academics “added religious titles to their academic titles”.

Wave of anti-scholasticism

In universities there was a wave of anti-scholasticism driven by clerics whom Soyinka described as “scriptural zombies” who believed “academic brilliance was a sin of pride”.

Since then matters have become worse both in Nigeria and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa with the brutal incursions of the anti-intellectual movements of ISIS, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. “Boko Haram closed down universities and has crippled intellectual life across huge swathes of northern Nigeria.”

Soyinka also cited the 2015 student massacre at Garissa University College, Garissa, Kenya, when Al-Shabaab fighters took more than 700 students hostage, killing 148 identified as non-Muslims. “Students named those who were unbelievers and the victims were called out and knifed or bludgeoned to death.”

Such incidents demonstrated the “need for a reformation of the university psyche”, said Soyinka, who then laid out his plan for a year of “materialist induction” aimed at battling religious zealotry, though not the more benign forms of mainstream religion.

“My prescription is simple,” said Soyinka. “Students must look at the material explication of phenomena”; this would result in the “mental rehabilitation of that targeted and vulnerable species – the young student”.

“The target should be the mind, and its retuning” thus rendering it immune to “perverse mentors”.

Soyinka said that for a year students would be required to leave their religious books at home and address “their environment as an autonomous entity”. Only when they had achieved “existential self-sufficiency” should they then engage with “divine ideas”.

Soyinka described this programme as “an uncompromising materialistic encounter” involving a “closed monkish existence… one schooled in observation; compelling students to use their individual intelligence as opposed to received education or religious knowledge”.

Desperate strategies

He acknowledged this was a “structured extremist solution” but that due to overwhelming theocratic influence the time had come for “desperate strategies” to combat “revelatory knowledge”.

Students must learn to question, said Soyinka, and not just religious views but their secular equivalent as espoused by “Russia and its satellites burdened with its Stalinist-Leninist legacy, and taken up by revolutionary regimes in the Third World and Africa who adopted the Soviet model”.

“The mind is our battlefield,” said Soyinka, adding that universities must reimagine themselves and turn their back on their historical clerical beginnings to become “fact-based, reality-informed projects of self-enlightenment. Universities must not be allowed to stagnate but must embark on a permanent voyage of discovery.”