It's crucial for the South African university to bring itself to acknowledge that there is "outstanding business, business that is not even on the agenda" in terms of excluded knowledge systems, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Crain Soudien argued in an address about how a university should position itself in the information age.
Libraries were at the heart of this dilemma, he told delegates at LISC 75, the Library and Information Studies Centre's 75 years commemoration conference on 27 November. "How you begin to project this information revolution is not only about big data, but also about big data that we've lost and never come to terms with. So you, as the frontline in some ways, of how information is come to, are in a pivotal position. I really appeal to you to help us become better at what we are doing."
His talk, titled 'Patriotism, Relevance and the Capacity to Think: whereto for the South African university in the information age', was framed by an exploration of Manuel Castells idea that universities are primarily about processing information in an age where technological advances allow them to work with an "extraordinary quantum and volume of information, ideas, concepts, discourses, policies, theories and analyses".
"The information explosion which Castells speaks of consists of more than the bounteous opportunities that come with new technologies," Soudien explained. "They also include, as part of the deepening democratisation through which the world is going, better understanding of information which we have previously not taken seriously, particularly – and this is where we are in the colonial context – that of older knowledges that we have historically ignored, marginalised and even delegitimised."
Soudien critiques two frameworks for the university's role in the post-colonial information age: the one embraced by the state, and the human capital framework. Both were insufficiently nuanced as they suffered from limited understandings of 'access', he argued.
The state, as explained by President Jacob Zuma, took "patriotism" as its point of departure, and implored the university to produce patriotic graduates that would contribute to "our" vision for a better future, said Soudien, noting the use of "our" by the president.
"What the approach of the state represents is a narrow Africanist position. The Africanism promoted by the state is a racial Africanism. It constitutes the problem of universities to a symptomatic emphasis on the effects of apartheid. What apartheid had done was to systematically impede access by people classified as African to the university.
"And so goes the response of the post-apartheid government: the agenda must be to address this basic injustice. That must be the agenda of the university."
Access then became the determinative priority and the university's primary task was correcting the demographic imbalance.
South African universities had an historic obligation to accelerate access, Soudien acknowledged.
"This obligation is unchallengeable. They are morally, politically – on the simple basis of the good sense of diversity – required to be opened. Openness is a value that they have to propagate.
"But the university can never construct its agenda on a limited understanding of access," he added. "You cannot use demographic racial representivity as the primary point of reference when conducting a discussion about an agenda."
Human capital approach
Similarly, the human capital approach held that universities were responsible chiefly for developing skills that could be used to build the nation, typically understood to be in mathematics and the sciences.
But neither of these approaches was sufficient "for helping us understand how to deal with the density and complexity of our information demands", suggested Soudien.
"Like the approach of the state, [the human capital framework] has the virtue of drawing attention to real challenges. So yes, we must concede and acknowledge that we have this legacy coming out of apartheid which produced the skewed labour market that we have."
But the human capital approach saw the problem in the same symptomatic way that the state's Africanist approach did.
"People were denied skills so therefore it's your obligation to go and give them skills," was the refrain.
"Effectively what I'm arguing [is that the human capital approach] narrows the problem down to a limited understanding of what education is; a limited understanding of the work that a university does. It effectively instrumentalises the university: The university has to become an instrument for the economy.
"Not brought into perspective at all are these big questions of 'knowing', of how you know, what you know, and how you come to deal with those things that are at the deep heart of the politics of knowing."
A better Africanist position
The template of information that is in front of us is more than just technical information: it's also ideas, concepts and theories, maintains Soudien.
What we have not done, he suggests, is come to terms with the knowledge of the people around us, whether we call it traditional, indigenous or everyday knowledge.
"We have not come to terms with the incredible reality that people are leading lives in relation and accordance to approaches that are not what we teach. It's an extraordinary thing."
"It's on this basis that the university began in this country," he continued. "Cecil John Rhodes was talking in defence of the establishment of the University of the Cape of Good Hope in the 1890s: he said that it's the task of the university to train young white men – listen to all of these gendered things – to go out and tame the country. And we're still living in the penumbra of that particular legacy."
As a result we've refused admission of knowledges not perceived to have any value, Soudien said.
"And there's a better Africanist position, from my point of view," he added.
"I'm not saying that you should bow down in a very relativistic way to everything that everybody who's different to you says, but to simply provide us with the capacity to process what people are saying, to process the information that is not within the circumference of what we currently teach in a whole range of disciplines."
Story by Yusuf Omar.
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