J. M. Coetzee on Academic Freedom

What follows is the opening section of J. M. Coetzee’s Foreword to a new book by John Higgins, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa. Coetzee is, of course, a very highly regarded South African novelist, whose honors include the Nobel Prize for Literature. Higgins is a professor at the University of Cape Town.

The Foreword is titled “J. M. Coetzee: Universities Head for Extinction.” The full text has appeared in the South African editions of The Guardian and The Mail, and it has been reprinted in the most recent Africa edition of University World News.

That full text, which includes a detailed explanation for Coetzee’s personal pessimism about the future of higher education, is available at: http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20131126223127382.

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“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?’

“As you point out, the policy on academic autonomy followed by the African National Congress (ANC) government is troublingly close to the policy followed by the old [apartheid] National Party government: universities may retain their autonomy as long as the terms of their autonomy can be defined by the state. . . .

“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 short-sighted 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.”

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