The University as a Place to Think

How we harness knowledge to the ethical injunctions we uphold against marginality, pain or suffering, on a global scale.

Fees Must Fall demonstrators. Photo: Barry Christianson.

I was recently asked to be on a panel with the theme of the role of the university, social justice and global change. When the invite came I was in the middle of teaching a course to graduate students, titled Violent Modernities. We were reading an article about the famous “Debate at Valladolid” between Las Casas and Sepulveda regarding the fate, as you will recall, of the native populations under Spanish Conquest about whether they were property or had souls available for salvation.

In the course, we read about the first genocide of the 20th century of the Nama and Herero peoples in South West Africa the early 1900’s, under German Occupation. And we also read about the ways in which, after Napoleon’s military expedition to Egypt in 1798, the story of the Biblical Hamitic curse on the descendants of Noah, had to be changed to account for who might have produced the artifacts of Egyptian Pharanoic civilization. This story has a later life in Rwanda under German and then Belgian colonization. In all of these episodes it so happens that intellectuals , and Social Scientific and Humanistic inquiry, feature quite prominently.

The Debate at Valladolid, which took place in 1550 was held at the Collegio de San Gregorio, under the instruction of King Charles V, and brought contending arguments, reason and critical thought to bear on a pressing matter of concern of contemporary relevance. Las Casas was considered a ‘friend of the Indians’ advocating a form of social justice that was outraged at the treatment of the indigenous populations. But as a friend of the Natives he did not disagree with Sepulveda that the Indians, as such, could not be left to their own devices.

Moving on to Egypt: the expedition of Napoleon into Egypt remains interesting not only because Napoleon was not victorious, but because of the novelty of that expedition, which took with it among the military men, a column of some 400 scholars, archaeologists, historians, artists, and botanists and other natural scientists, to draw, map, record and classify. I was introduced to this in a graduate course with Mahmood Mamdani, when we read a classic text by Edith Sanders on the Egyptian excursion undertaken by Napoleon and the scholars he took with him. They produced a 10-volume study on the wonders of Egypt, which more or less helped to consolidate Egyptology as the study of a civilization in Africa but somehow not produced by Africans.

And when we read about the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples, we encountered the Kaiser’s appointment there, Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha who said, ‘I wipe out rebellious tribes with streams of blood and streams of money. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge.’ But we also encountered there the figure of Eugen Fischer, who came to Namibia to conduct experiments in genetic theory in the camps where Herero and Nama were being held. Fischer went on to write a famous book on the subject in 1923, which Hitler read while in prison, and later Fischer was appointed the Rector of what is today known as Humboldt University in Berlin.

And just to round off this set of vignettes, it was of course the renewed “Hamitic Hypothesis” that suggested that Egypt was the product of a foreign civilizing European descendent race defined the Tutsi as a foreign race destined to rule over the Hutu majority, the former a race, the latter defined as an ethnic group, setting off a chain of resentments. When the sympathies of Belgian public opinion and the Catholic church shifted to a solidarity with the injustice that the Hutu majority faced, we know that Hutu power articulated its social justice by filling the national university in Rwanda with historians sympathetic to the suffering of the majority, and casting the Tutsi as foreign race forever scheming to re-establish its alien rule over the majority. We also know that this program of social justice later took a genocidal form. I am of course truncating, being alarmist, and simplifying grossly. But you get my point. Asking about the role of the university, social justice and global change ‘from the standpoint’ as the late Eqbal Ahmad might say, ‘of its victims’, complicates things. And he was talking coincidently about the role of US Cold War intellectuals in counter urgency during that other war on Terror. Intellectuals can be pretty dangerous sometimes when we want to influence the world and make it better.

It is a reminder that almost every intervention that we now look back on as a colonial imposition and frown upon because of its excesses of violence and arrogance, had as its animating logic a good idea, and the desire to be doing good, saving people, saving women, and often in the case of colonies, saving them from themselves. When King Leopold invaded Congo in the late 1800’s it was supposedly to end Arab slavery and bring justice. So there was a very strong humanitarian and just impulse in many a civilizing atrocity. I draw attention to this of course because I come from a continent that continues to be defined as an object of such kind of intervention, differently articulated and differently understood, but where populations remain the beneficiaries of humanitarianism that is sometimes haunted by a future that looks a lot like its past.

That said, mindful of this grounds, if you like, there are ways that the university is always also a more ambiguous space, where its productive thought also encourages a subversive genealogy that works against hegemonic practices. I was reminded of this as I recently signed a petition of African scholars responding to the military coup that is attempting to take over and strangle the popular revolt in Burkina Faso, and in the words of a prominent university scholar Jean-Bernard Oudrago, ‘to return Blaise Campoare to power without Blaise Campaore.’

The modern university in Africa, as many of you know, is largely a postcolonial invention, and has gone through a number of iterations, from nationalist to developmental rationales and a lot in in between. The South African university landscape (where I work) is of course a complex and diverse one too- with both its share of complicity- apartheids intellectual architect Hendrik Verwoerd was the first ever and youngest Chair in Sociology at Stellenbosch University.

But it has its share of a counter-narrative too, if you think of the African nationalists, like Mandela and Mugabe who emerged from what is now Fort Hare University or figures like Dullah Omar at places like the University of the Western Cape; or in the growth of the independent trade union movement in the 1970’s and its relationship to the leftist-oriented philosophy and sociology departments at the largely white Natal University. Or Black Conciousness and its flourishing at that same university. Subversive traditions, all of them.

There are then ways to cultivate a different ethic of thought and conduct in the midst of something else. We are now thinking about that as we produce a new generation of scholars to enter the university, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Demographically, institutionally and in terms of curriculum there is much that remains to be changed. There are questions about how to do that in a way that recognizes the inheritance of apartheid, that is oriented to our locality and geographical affinities—in other words is not the abstraction of placelessness and a kind of ahistorical cosmopolitanism dressed up in second hand modernity. But it should also not be inward, and insular or think that justice simply means that those at the bottom are now at the top.

So what might it mean to think about social justice and social change in a global world? Clearly, there are questions of who changes who, to what end? When we hosted the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne earlier this year at my university, he put to us the proposition of the university as being a space to offer the gift of a ‘truly universal universalism’. He is mindful of a distinction between being global, and the potentially imperial undertones of the hubris that underwrites that, and the aspiration towards a different kind of universalism, in which the horizon is not clearly marked out ahead of time. In the wake of the complicated present and past in the career of universities and global power, it would seem to me to be prudent and modest about how we harness knowledge to the ethical injunctions we uphold against marginality, pain or suffering, on a global scale. We might be mindful then also, that under certain circumstances, and in certain places, the mere time and space to think is in itself an increasingly subversive idea.

Further Reading

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