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Monday, August 17, 2009


South African university education is organized along the English model: a three year B. A. degree, followed by a one year honors degree, if one has done well enough. A student can then earn a Master's Degree, by writing a Master's Thesis, and a doctorate by writing a doctoral dissertation. Normally, there is no further course work associated with either the MA or the Ph. D., although that is changing, and there are now what are called "coursework Masters."

Typically, students are admitted not simply to the university but to a faculty, thus having already chosen their field of study. The undergraduate course offerings are heavily dominated by lock-step full year courses -- Philosophy 1, Philosophy 2, Philosophy 3, that sort of thing. Until quite recently, it was standard for the entire year's work to be evaluated by a single end-of-year written examination, or "script." Fail that exam, and lose all credit for the year's work.

Also until quite recently, it was simply impossible to transfer credits from one university to another, even if one had earned the credits at one of the elite institutions. It is quite unusual for a student to complete a B. A. at one university and do an Honors Year at another, and it is even very unusual for a student to transfer at the Master's or Doctoral level.

As in Great Britain, many of the university faculty hold only the M.A.. Also as in the old-fashioned Continental and English universities, only one person in each field or department holds the title of Professor, and is referred to as THE Professor of Chemistry, or History, or Education. That person is also typically the Head of Department.

As is common in colonial educational systems, the faculty and administration are obsessed with MAINTAINING STANDARDS, a goal that they achieve by means of an extremely high failure rate. Even at the Historically Black Universities, or HBUs, and even when those grading the examinations are themselves Black [or perhaps especially because they are Black], the failure rates, from an American perspective, were and continue to be appalling. These failure rates are bad enough for White students from privileged backgrounds [which is to say, virtually all of the White students]. For Black students, whose parents, extended families, and even communities have cobbled together the money for tuition at extraordinary cost to themselves, the failure rate is catastrophic. One story will illustrate the point. Very early in my travels to South Africa, I visited the University of the Transkei, in Umtata. I was told of a young man whose father had sold his stock to come up with the first year tuition charges, only to see his son flunk out. In my blind American fashion , I imagined this meant that he had sold GM stock, but of course what it really meant was that this peasant farmer had sold his few cattle, thereby condemning himself and his family to utter poverty, all so that one menber of the family could have some chance of escaping from their village.

I have spent twenty years fulminating and arguing and protesting against this punitive and destructive grading practice, to virtually no effect. The faculty view the Black students as stupid, because English is not their first language [even though it is, typically, their third or fourth or fifth language], and consider themselves to bear no responsibility for the success of those in their classes. They, after all, are maintaining standards. One year, while on the campus of the University of Durban-Westville, I managed to obtain a huge computer printout of the results in all the final examinations given in the entire university the previous year. I asked to see the Chair of the Economics Department, a young White English speaking man clearly very pleased with himself. I pointed out that in the previous year, in which he had taught the First Year course, only 11% of the students had passed. [That is not a typographical error. It was eleven percent.] Yes, he said sadly, they really are unprepared for Economics. "What makes you think that you are a teacher?" I asked him. "If you were a doctor running a hospital and only 11% of your patients left the hospital alive, you would be brought up on charges of malpractice." He looked at me uncomprehending and unrepentant. I simply did not understand how badly prepared the students were. There was, as far as he was concerned, no more to be said.

At the end of each school year, the students in the highest grade are required to take a battery of school leaving examinations called Matriculation Examinations, or The Matric. The Matric is administered nationally, and under apartheid, four examinations were given -- one each for Whites, Indians, Coloureds, and Africans. Students seeking to go on to university must take a certain mixture of parts, including some at a more advanced level [for which, as you will easily imagine, the Bantu system hardly prepares the African students], and must achieve a certain level of performance. The results of the Matric exams are awaited with bated breath, because unless one does sufficiently well to earn what is called, for mysterious reasons, a "full university exemption," one is simply not permitted to go to university. If the university chooses to admit a student without a Matric Exemption, the state funding formula will not allocate any money to the university for that student, and regardless of how well he or she does, the university will in general not be permitted to award a degree.

The grading of the African Matrics was haphazard, corrupt, and unpredictable. Only a small fraction of each age cohort of African students actually managed to finish secondary school and sit the exams, and only perhaps 1-2% of the entire age cohort earned an Exemption, and thus was eligible to apply to university. Making it into this select company did not guarantee admission. Far from it. Each university was free to impose its own admissions standards, more rigorous than those required for an Exemption, and there was in general nothing resembling financial aid.

At one point, Jakes Gerwel, the radical new Rector of the HBU for Coloureds [The University of the Western Cape] announced with great fanfare that he was adopting a policy of Open Admissions -- first come, first served. Familiar as I was with the practice of open admissions at the old CCNY in New York, it took me a while to realize that this revolutionary policy only applied -- indeed could by law only apply -- to the tiny group of non-White students who had managed to obtain an Exemption.

A bit before liberation [i.e., the release of Mandela and his fellow Robben Island prisoners -- in February 1990], both The University of Durban-Westville and the University of the Western Cape managed, for the first time, to elect non-White Rectors -- Jakes Gerwel at UWC, and Jairam Reddy, an Indian dentist and Professor of Dentistry, at UDW. This marked a major step forward for the HBUs, and coincided with the moment at which I began to work with UDW and brought USSAS into existence.

Tomorrow: Radical South African Proposals for Educational Reform, and the resistance to those proposals.

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