Let's Think

Education needs less emotion, more tolerance

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Education in South Africa, at all levels, is in deep crisis, but especially so at tertiary level.

At tertiary level the protests have not only turned very nasty and violent, but the very costly ripple effect it has created will be felt for many years to come.

Amid all the mayhem and ugly scenes of violence on campuses across the country, the call for ‘decolonising’ education may seem trivial and even funny to some, and is often ridiculed.

The ‘decolonising’ debate is not new, and how serious it is to some was demonstrated in practice by the RhodesMustFall campaign.

The debate was taken to a new level last week with a YouTube post which went viral and recorded thousands of hits.

The comments of a female student during a ScienceMustFall discussion were met with much astonishment and ridicule on social media. 

The student passionately, but somewhat incomprehensibly, advocated the ‘decolonisation’ of science by “doing away with it entirely and starting all over again”.

The same student then concluded, “Science as a whole is a product of western modernity and the whole thing should be scratched off”.

The ‘decolonisation’ debate as a whole and the ScienceMustFall call in particular can easily be rejected as hogwash.

After all, science and the laws of nature are universal and immutable.

Also, they transcend colour, creed and race.

What prompted the debate?

Nevertheless, by removing all the emotion, which admittedly is not easy, there is perhaps merit to look at what has prompted the debate. 

If it is anger and frustration with a lack of recognition for the contributions of non-Westerners to science over the centuries, restitution would be in order.

Nobody could disagree that a lot could be done to improve understanding and recognition of the fact that some of the major scientific disciplines (medicine, physics, astronomy and mathematics, among others) owe a deep debt to Africa, China and India.

But if the outbursts are a manifestation of a dogmatic intolerance of the West, we are moving onto dangerous terrain.  

The inherent danger of dogmatic intolerance is that the momentum tends to escalate into an uncontrollable frenzy with devastating results.

Moa Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s remains a grim reminder, and so do the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, when wearing glasses was a punishable offence – even with death.

Closer to home, in Nigeria, the transgressions of Boko Haram, literally meaning ‘Western education is sin’, should act as a warning of what the consequences of extremism can be. 

Students have not only a right, but also an obligation, to ask uncomfortable questions and challenge the status quo.

It should, however, be done responsibly and with respect.    

In these days of high drama and tension the following conventional wisdoms about universities, as summarised in an article on the website of the FW de Klerk foundation website, are worth pondering:

  •  Universities are called ‘universities’ because they are supposed to be repositories of universal knowledge;
  • They are places where students can imbibe knowledge of the cultures, languages and science produced by civilisations all over the world;
  • True universities have absolutely no interest in the race origin of the generators of knowledge; and
  • They accept no cultural or intellectual boundaries. They avidly gather and disseminate knowledge from all parts of the world – including the rich heritage of Africa.

The ‘decolonised’ mantra, on the other hand, cuts students off from the great pool of global knowledge and culture that is essential for the future success of our country.

The great Tibetan teacher Djwhal Khul once said: “Peace will be the result of understanding and sharing and not the origin of them, as the pacifists so often imply.” (From Ponder on this; From the Writings of the Tibetan Teacher Djwbal Khul, compiled in 1905.)

by Garth Cilliers

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