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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

Print version ISSN 0041-4751

Abstract

SCHOEMAN, Marinus. The humanities in a soulless institutional environment? Thoughts on the contemporary university and the neglect of its educational function. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2012, vol.52, n.1, pp. 121-129. ISSN 0041-4751.

Over the past few decades vocational training has increasingly become the norm within our universities. This, together with the demand for democratisation and "social" equality, resulted in the eclipse of the classical ideal of a comprehensive humanist education (Lat. studia humanitatis, German Bildung). This had a particularly detrimental (if not devastating) effect on the teaching of the humanities. Traditionally it was accepted that a thorough schooling in the humanities was only meant for the few. Not everybody was deemed equal to the task - not on grounds of principle, but rather because of circumstance. Factors such as talent, interestedness, intellectual and cultural background, as well as the level of aspiration and commitment together play a decisive role in preparing a person for such a schooling. However, the idea of such an education as the exclusive preserve of the few is now widely rejected as outmoded, too elitist and hence totally unacceptable. Education should be accessible to all "because we are all equal". And if the latter seems not to be the case, everybody can and should be made equal by means of "progressive" and "transformative" education. This is called the "democratisation of the university", but in reality it means a popularisation and even a form of demagoguery by means of which far too high and unrealistic expectations are aroused among our young people. At the root of this levelling process in education, and of the egalitarian dogma in general, lies the fallacy of the zero sum. It rests on the assumption that if something or someone fails, it is the result of another that has succeeded. The other 's success was the cause of my failure. All gains are paid for by the losers. This fallacy plays an important role in supporting many a social reform programme or transformation initiative and the false hopes it arouses. The makers of current higher education policy (also those in university positions) increasingly appeal to didactic principles and practices in order to make young people fit for and amenable to study at a university. Thus they give expression to one of the most persistent superstitions of our time, i.e. the belief that there is a technical solution for each and every conceivable problem. More than ever before people believe that by applying the appropriate didactical techniques, somehow everyone can be successfully schooled. This goes hand in hand with unprecedented forms of coercion and manipulation that are completely at odds with a truly humanist education. Moreover, a humanist education in the traditional sense is regarded as useless and obsolete. Under the influence of the ideology of economic profit-seeking and technical efficiency the emphasis is on knowledge that has practical utility value, and this signifies a shift towards training at the expense of a humanist education - training which is geared towards the mastering of skills that are necessary for one 's job or profession. For this very reason there is a continuous search for new and more efficient teaching methods. In contrast to this, a humanist education requires a kind of initiation which cannot be accomplished merely by means of controlled methodological procedures. Both types of teaching (humanist education and vocational training) have their own merits. They need not compete with one another. However, an alarming tendency exists at universities to become mere training institutions, providers of "high level manpower" that comply with the demands of industry, the business sector and the professions. Thereby universities could find themselves wholly in the grip of economic-technical rationality. This would result in the loss of academic freedom and the rise of "educated philistinism" (Hannah Arendt). The decline of a truly humanist education in our universities must be arrested. To my mind this can only happen insofar as universities succeed in maintaining their autonomy. If our universities wish to do justice to the name "university" in any credible way, they must provide sufficient scope for free intellectual activity, thus allowing students to freely commit themselves to the discipline of scholarship, with no other motive than their love for a specific field of study which they deem important for their own cultivation as human beings. Universities must insist on being islands of academic freedom, safeguarded against all sorts of illusions, unrealistic expectations and interferences of interest groups and lobbies, and averse to any form of ideological and technological expediency. However, the autonomous status of universities can only prevail as long as they maintain strict entrance requirements.

Keywords : Humanities; humaniora; Bildung; education; the university; vocational training; democratisation of education; social justice; equality.

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