the life of the mind is good for all of us
November 4, 2013, 5:18 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

J. M. Coetzee’s remarks on the decimation of the idea of the University over the past 40 or so years. He says we must resist the idea that the humanities are good for improving the population’s skills and argues that they are essential for their own sake, for their ability to make a rich and just and social life. The article is linked below.

At the beginning of his letter, he agrees that there must be academic autonomy, but then asks a deeper question: without the humanities is it still really a university?:

Thank you for letting me see your essays on academic freedom in South Africa. The general question you address – “Is a university still a university when it loses its academic autonomy?” – seems to me of the utmost importance to the future of higher education in South Africa.

Hardly less important is the junior cousin of that question, namely: “Is a university without a proper faculty of humanities (or faculty of humanities and social sciences) still a university?”

Governments, once guardians of the common good and benefactors of a literate citizenry, have morphed into mere skills training schools made to meet the needs of the economy:

But South African universities are by no means in a unique position. All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.

You argue – cogently – that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short­sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society – indeed, to a vigorous national economy – is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves, you argue, we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis. And only the neglected humanities can provide a training in such critical literacy. Continue reading