Elitism and the university

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

In Business Day last week, Jacob Dlamini argued that “universities should not be doing the work of high schools. Universities should not be in the business of remedial education”. TO Molefe has responded to Dlamini’s column, making the case that academic excellence is not the only imperative at universities, and that they do have a role to play in reshaping society through ‘remedial’ education.

A host of issues, some more controversial than others, are raised in this conversation. I’ve already shared some of my views on outcomes-based education and the infinitely-flexible (at least in the context of higher education) word ‘transformation’, in a column from last year. And while there can be little argument that universities operate within a social context, and that it would be impractical, probably inefficient and possibly immoral to ignore that context, I do think that we should guard against this context encouraging a form of anti-elitism, where the traditional standards of excellence are set in opposition to the goal of creating an open opportunity society.

Elitism does not need to be defined by race or class. But in many of the debates one encounters regarding the role of the university, this redefinition seems to be taking hold. If we allow ourselves to forget that excellence is a virtue, we run the risk of making many of our activities quite self-defeating.

If you attend The Juilliard School, it is probably because you want to become an excellent musician. If you train for the Comrades marathon, it is because you want to become an excellent endurance athlete. Or at least, you want to move yourself up the scale, closer to excellence and further from mediocrity. If you didn’t have that goal, you would not pursue those means, and if society saw no value in those goals more generally, the means to achieve them would cease to exist.

What are the goals of university educations, and therefore the point of universities existing at all? There is certainly more than one, but alongside goals such as social transformation, one of those goals is surely academic excellence – the sort that allows or encourages the best research, often informing the best policy, or the most creative innovation. Fostering academic excellence is what the university has traditionally been best at doing, and intuitively, it would see that they would perform this job most efficiently if it was allowed to be their primary focus.

This is why T.O. Molefe’s disputation of the notion “that universities exist to create intellectuals” is worrying. I could agree that it’s not all they exist to do, but to claim that this is not the reason for their existence is, well, anti-intellectual. While this sounds like (and is) entirely circular reasoning, it’s defensible on the grounds that creating intellectuals is what the university is designed to do, and that this is a good thing – so long as intellectuals don’t need to be rich, or white, or male.

The fact that they often are (comparatively) rich, white and male is a problem. This is why creating intellectuals should not be their only goal – but it in no way speaks against the fact that it could nevertheless be their primary goal. So, in order to address some of the issues raised by both Dlamini and Molefe, one perhaps has to start by defending the value of intellectuals (and intellectualism generally), regardless of the practical demands of the society in which they find themselves.

People respond to incentives, as do institutions. To define universities as having the primary responsibility of affecting social change means that academics will increasingly be required to become agents of social change. The worst possible sorts of consequences of this are obvious: all research funding, and all student subsidies, being channelled to courses and degrees which are socially responsive. And seeing as it’s far easier to see the short-term social effects of more engineers and accountants in the marketplace compared to philosophers and literary critics, justifying the existence of the latter sort of person will – and has already – become increasingly difficult.

A second sort of consequence (again, the worst-case scenario) is that academic activity would increasingly be driven towards specialisation, where your outputs can rapidly be translated into policy implementation. The pressure to address some sort of practical concern, be it poverty, sexism, racism, or the restitution of land will contribute to driving out or marginalising what we could perhaps call the public intellectual – the person who writes about potentially public issues in (sometimes) accessible language, and whose freedom to think outside of practical and social constraints can allow for unique insights, highlighting emerging problems that the more technically inclined might be less equipped to notice.

This pressure has been observed even in the discipline you might think most insulated, namely philosophy. Richard Rorty has pointed out that the “older sort of philosophy professor is dying out. The newer type is technically trained, devoted to ‘cases’, and argumentation – not history, morals, or public issues”. In other words, even the most rarefied intellectual activity is driven towards the practical. And while I’d agree that much philosophy strays too far in the direction of only being relevant to imaginary worlds, we should be wary of over-correction here, where we disincentivise all speculative thinking in order to address pragmatic reality.

The point is that achieving intellectual distance from the demands of the day, such as prevailing social or political conditions, form crucial features of the required intellectual conditions for permitting some forms of thought, and that these forms of thought can greatly extend the boundaries of our knowledge.

It’s not only in the academy that this is important. The citizen outside of the university sometimes needs to be reminded that politicians can spin the truth or that scientists sometimes cherry-pick the data. These are theoretical issues, and a culture in which they are treated as real and important issues is a culture that will be more prone to debate, civilised disagreement and learning.

If the universities are not allowed to encourage this, it’s not clear who will. Universities do so by encouraging intellectual activity. More to the point, they do so by encouraging the best intellectual activity possible under the conditions in which they operate. Elite intellectual activity, in other words, albeit constrained by circumstance as all things are.

The problem is not in the elitism, but in the fact that not everyone has equal opportunity to become elite. But let’s not demonise elitism for the sake of equality.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.