Curriculum transformation

15 June 2016 | Story by Newsroom

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors in their private capacity; they do not represent or reflect the views, opinions or policies of the University of Cape Town or the Communication and Marketing Department.

Emertius Professor Tim Crowe responds to Assoc Prof Suellen Shay's article that appeared in The Conversation

I disagree with this commentary, virtually word-for-word.

“statues fall, fees fall but curricula don't “fall” ”

Yes, they can.  All you need to allow is socio-politically engineered 'transformation' on a sufficiently large scale. Perhaps the best examples of this in my own field relate to genetics and human evolution. 

With regard to the former, there is Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet agronomist with no demonstrable (e.g. highly regarded, peer-reviewed publications) research credibility.  With the support of Joseph Stalin, he transformed Soviet genetics, literally over a few years, by claiming that organisms (especially agricultural plants) could evolve by acquiring heritable traits through “natural cooperation”, as opposed to Mendelian genetics, and thus bypass natural selection.  His ideas were endorsed and ruthlessly supported by the Soviet government and resulted in widespread famine and the execution of hundreds of scientists who opposed his views. 

With regard to the former, when presented with molecular evolutionary and archaeological evidence concerning the evolutionary and geographical origins of southern African peoples (summarized in 'How the origin of the KhoiSan tells us that 'race' has no place in human ancestry'), a highly touted professor from the University of Cape Town dismissed it as “eugenics”, because it conflicts with his/her ideology.

I won't even go into what might have happened if educators (perhaps when pressed by student denialists) placed any credibility on a South African government's views on HIV/AIDS and creation “scientists” views on evolution.

“meaningful representation of students on departmental and programme governance structures. Some academics will be concerned or even opposed to this. They need not be.”

Yes, they should!  Students, especially many of those admitted to UCT come from profoundly disabled educationally situations resulting from both pre- and post-Apartheid educational and family/community systems.  Given what's happened with regarding the process (not justification) of removal of symbols and artworks on UCT's campus, I believe that curricula and academic standards/research could be irrevocably 'transformed' to address the demands of aggressive, ideologically motivated 'student'/staff minorities.

“white, male, western, capitalist, heterosexual, European worldviews. This means the content under-represents and undervalues the perspectives, experiences, epistemologies of those who do not fit into these mainstream categories”

The key words here are “under-represents and undervalues”.  Ideas stand or fall on the basis of their ability to reflect the truth and solve problems in theory and practice, not by the 'race', gender, sexuality, geographical provenance of their promoters.  By “reflect”, “truth” and “solve problems”, I mean:

  1. answer well-formulated questions (e.g. Where did Homo sapiens evolve? What are the evolutionary and geographical origins of San and KhoiKhoi people?);
  2. how to conserve threatened biological diversity (e.g. through the identification of optimally located protected areas and sustainable utilization of wildlife); and most importantly
  3. require (not just promote) rational, evidence-based debate (e.g. on the relative efficacy of communist vs free-market based economies.

If curricula have to be 'balanced' to have to include and/or give equal footing to nonsensical and/or subjective opinioned-based ideas, the best result will be confusion and the worst distortion to accommodate populistic ideas. If, debate is stifled and ideas are given equal footing in the absence of evidence/logical argument, then UCT will become a grooming ground for thugs.

“many curricula are taught in oppressive classrooms by academics who are demeaning, unprofessional and use their power in ways that discriminate unfairly against students”

This is yet another unsubstantiated blanket accusation of academics being socio-political “predators”.  In my department, there are demands (not requests), e.g. course evaluation forms and an open-door HOD office, for students to identify courses and academics who behave in this disgraceful fashion.  The offending courses concerned were 'transformed' to address complaints and offensive academics were marginalized.  The author of this article (and her many colleagues) are hired to ferret out this kind of stuff.   Where is the evidence?

“the curriculum at every point – from who gets admitted, who thrives, who survives, who fails – mirrors back the historical and current unequal distribution of educational resources in the broader society”

Once again, platitudes to avoid action.  Students get admitted (at least in part) on the basis of evaluations created by the author's faculty.  Who survives?  There are structures that have long been in place to proactively identify who is in danger.  Why are they not working?  Once again, the author is best-placed to answer this question.  Who fails?  Sometimes, no matter what even outstanding academics do, students fail.  Sometimes, it's because they came irredeemably disabled from their basic education (but they should have been filtered out by a meaningful admissions process).  Sometimes, it's because they don't take advantage of the privilege that they earned.

The last point I want to make is how to (at least try) to fix things.  Many of the kids that come into university need face-to-face mentoring, possibly from day 1 to graduation.  This requires more (not fewer if the UCT Executive has its way), harder-working academics who understand what their 'clients' (the students and their potential employers) need.  Tweaking curricula and token employment are not the answers.

Emertius Professor Tim Crowe

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