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Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I have several times spoken about the punitive character of the South African grading practices. It occurs to me that I ought to tell one story to illustrate what I mean. Early in my trips to UDW, I happened to be on campus just when final exams were being graded. Everyone had big piles of exam books stacked on their desks. I asked Mala what the passing grade was, and she said it was 50%. "Let me see some exams that received 47s or 48s in the first year course," I said. In other words, I wanted to see the exams of students who had come close, but had nonetheless lost all credit for the entire year's work. She pulled six or seven from her pile, and I sat down to read them. The questions were all pretty standard for an Intro Phil course, and could easily have been taken from Philosophy 100 at UMass. After I had read through them all, I turned to Mala and said, "You know, every single one of these students would have received a passing grade at the University of Massachusetts." She was rather startled by that. Despite being quite sophisticated and widely traveled in America, Europe, and Asia, she suffered from the typical colonial self-doubt. "But they are not really prepared for the Second Year course," she responded. "All right," I said, "then give two passing grades, one that admits you to the second year course and the other that does not, but nevertheless gives you credit for the year's work. Not all of our first year students go on to be majors." Now Mala was the most sophisticated of the South African academics, the president [as it happens] of the national organization of progressive university teachers. And yet this simple solution had never occurred to her, nor, it was pretty clear, had she given the matter much thought.

For some years, I was content to focus my efforts solely on UDW, where Prem was doing so good a job of managing things, but eventually, during one of the periodic budget crises, he decided to take an early retirement package [as they call it in SA]. By this time, Mala and he had separated [for reasons that I have never been able to fathom], and she had moved on to an important post in the national education ministry working on Quality Assurance. [This is an enormous subject all its own, too complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say that it is a sort of bureaucratic institutional and programmatic certification process, very big around the world but not as important in the United States]. Prem, who despite his much less impressive educational credentials was always the more intellectual and thoughtful of the two, had made himself knowledgeable about the subject, and secured a post at UNISA to work on Quality Assurance. Following him, I took my money to UNISA, and for a year or two tried rather unsuccessfully to integrate my efforts with their own rather lacksadaisical financial aid office.

During this time, Prem made the acquaintance of the newly appointed Rector of the QwaQwa campus of the University of the North, and after some long distance consultation, we decided to bring USSAS to QwaQwa in support of the new Rector's rather dramatic plans to transform that sleepy rural campus. Olusegun Dipeolu, or Segun, as he was known, was a very curious man indeed. A Nigerian parisitologist with seemingly hundreds of publications, he hit the backwater QwaQwa campus like a tornado, immediately stirring up enormous controversy and hostility. QwaQwa was about as far from UWC or UDW as it was possible to get, academically, and still have any claim at all to the honorific "university." The campus sits in the shadow of the western slopes of the Drakensberg [QwaQwa, in Sotho, means "white white," and refers to the snow that sometimes gathers on the peaks of the mountains in the dead of winter -- an unusual enough occurrence in South Africa to warrant immortalizing in the campus name]. Although it was then officially a campus of the University of the North, hundreds of miles away, it actually lies in the middle of the Orange Free State, not far from Harrismith, and closer still to the Homelands community of Phuthaditjhaba [and you had better believe it took me a while to master that spelling!] At about the time we left QwaQwa, Kader Asmal rearranged things so that QwaQwa became a satellite campus of the University of the Orange Free State, a considerably more rational organizational plan. [The Orange Free State was perhaps the most obdurately segregated and repressive region of the old South Africa. Prem and Mala both remarked that prior to liberation, they would not have been allowed to stay overnight in the province while driving from Johannesburg to Durban.]

The QwaQwa small campus was presided over, prior to Segun's arrival, by an old boy network of Boers who had scheduled the classes in the evening so that they could devote the daylight hours to their farms. Nothing remotely resembling research took place on the campus, and the students, drawn almost entirely from the Sotho and Zulu population of the area, were, to put it mildly, ill-served. Segun proposed to transform all of that, with a series of dictates and mandates designed to get the faculty teaching, crank up their research output, and put QwaQwa on the map.

For two years, Prem and I were enraptured by Segun's energy and ambition, but little by little, we concluded that his dreams for the campus were simply incompatible with the facts on the ground. A grandiose plan for a program in urban development and planning was undertaken, but nothing ever came of it. We grew increasingly uneasy about whether our money was being well used, and finally we pulled out of the campus, shortly before it joined the University of the Orange Free State. I did get something from the experience, however. Segun's wife, who was a very talented fabric designer, made two beautiful dashikis for me as gifts, and I wear them still on formal occasions.

We moved USSAS next to two campuses -- MEDUNSA and Cape Technikon. MEDUNSA, The Medical University of South Africa, is located in a rural section of Bophuthatswana, more or less northwest of Pretoria. We chose to bring some of our funds there as part of our first attempt to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic then beginning its devastation of South Africa. The shocking, shameful, incomprehensible response of Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, to the AIDS crisis had demoralized medical personnel and progressives generally in the country. For a long time, the White medical schools had been producing superbly trained White doctors who then took their skills abroad, leaving their countrymen and women unserved. We thought it made sense to offer support to Black medical students who could be counted on to stay in South Africa. For three years, we provided bursaries to five students each year, and by now, I trust, they are practicing as doctors somewhere in South Africa.

Cape Technikon was an historically White institution, extremely well endowed, that had for many years served the mostly Afrikaner student body of the Western Cape province. However, an old friend from UDW, Marcus Balintulo, had been appointed the new Rector, and I hoped that my personal relationship with him would make it possible to gain entry to the campus and do some good work there. The experience, which was in many ways very disappointing, was an extraordinary window into the thinking of the entrenched Afrikaner academic community -- the people I had called, in my commencement address at UDW, the "old crocodiles." The Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic -- roughly what we would call a Provost on an American campus -- was a Boer named Koch who resisted every proposal put forward by Marcus to transform the campus. Because of the job security not only of the tenured faculty but also of the administrative officers, Marcus was able to do surprisingly little to change the place, despite being nominally the chief administrative officer. For several years I did my usual thing, offering bursaries and meeting with the students. But the deeply rooted problems of the campus only became clear to me during one visit, when by chance the administrator who accompanied me to the meeting with the students was called away, and I had a chance to talk with them privately. After a bit of hesitation, they opened up, and I learned some things about classroom practices that truly horrified me. These were African students, many from the Eastern Cape though some from other parts of South Africa. Their first languages were Zulu, Sotho, or Xhosa, and the language in which they had done their secondary school work was English. For the most part, they did not speak Afrikaans. The instructors were all Afrikaners. Apparently, it often happened in a class session that a White or Coloured student would ask a question in Afrikaans. The instructor would reply in Afrikaans, and then proceed to teach the remainder of the class in that language, completely shutting out the African students. Came exam time, they were examined on materials that had been covered in a language they did not speak. When I told Marcus about this, he was astonished [but did nothing to rectify the situation].

Without warning, Prem died suddenly of a heart attack. I was stunned and saddened, and totally at a loss to know what to do about USSAS. I had no idea how to continue the work of USSAS, but at that moment, an old friend, Sheila Tyeku, stepped forward to offer to take Prem's place. Sheila has a long history in the struggle for liberation, working in the Eastern Cape area where she grew up. During the dangerous days before the release of Mandela, when a wrong step could mean house arrest or prison, she balanced raising her children with going to secret meetings, working toward the day when South Africans would be free. In those days, she came to know and form close bonds with many of the men and women who would later play prominent roles in the New South Africa.

Sheila had gone from UDW, where she worked on a project for which Mala had secured funding, to the Council on Higher Education, when Mala took over that organization. Sheila had also been elected as the Chair of the Council of the University of the Western Cape, so it was natural that USSAS would move its work to that campus. The Council of a South African University is an important governing body that, among other things, chooses the Rector. In the South African system, the Chancellorship is a purely honorific position, and the real head of the campus, the Rector, holds the title of Vice-Chancellor. The principal administrative posts are called Deputy Vice-Chancellorships.

I had by this time totally committed the USSAS funds to students making a contribution to the struggle against HIV/AIDS. As it happens, UWC has, in the person of Dr. Tania Vergnani, a brilliant and charismatic head of the anti-AIDS effort. I was also directed by the friend of a friend to Dr. Frida Rundell, a wonderful woman who had started, and headed up, the Department of Child and Youth Development at Durban Technikon. Frida's students were being trained to work with AIDS-impacted children in the KwaZulu/Natal Province -- roughly, the area around and north of Durban. I made trips to walk-in shelters, street clinics, and halfway houses for children entangled with the law, seeing firsthand the character and extent of their work. It was clear to me that Frida's program richly deserved whatever little support I could provide.

So it is that for the past seven years or so, I have been dividing our USSAS money between UWC and what is now, under the new transformation arrangements, Durban University of Technology [actually the merging of a Black, an Indian, and a White Technikon into one institution.]

Over the years, while pursuing my primary goal of making higher education available to poor Black South African men and women, I have become very deeply involved in the efforts to rid the higher educational sector of its apartheid past and bring it into the modern world. Once liberation finally came in 1990, calls went up across South Africa for Educational TRANSFORMATION. There were Transformation Conferences, Transformation Committees, Transformation Officers at each of the universities, Transformation grants from the USIA, Transformation Workshops. At times, it seemed that the regular business of the universities had been indefinitely set aside while everyone engaged in transformation.

The three transformation goals most often posited were first, increasing the number of Black students at universities, second, increasing the number of Black academics and administrators in universities, and third, rationalizing the overlapping, duplicating hodgepodge of institutions bequeathed to the new South Africa by the apartheid regime. It took me a while to realize that transformation was unlikely actually to reach into the classroom and change the way students were taught and examined. The rigidities of the existing educational bureaucracy made any sort of genuine change extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps most distressing to me was the discovery that my radical friends, who had talked so bravely of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky and Mao, actually had no desire at all to change what they themselves did. They were quite as convinced of the essential rightness of their pedagogical practices as were my American friends convinced of theirs. The only people who were genuinely eager, for example, to implement the radical proposal to give formal educational credit for life experiences were the organic intellectuals, as Gramsci called them, who had been working in the townships and the unions. Indeed, in all of my time in South Africa, I can think of only one academic, Prem Singh at UDW, who actually spent time experimenting with new teaching techniques in an effort to reach his Indian and African students. Each time I came to UDW, he would show me new lesson plans, and with great excitement pull out essays that his students had written.

The effort to increase the numbers of Black students at university proceeded along two fronts. The existing historically Black universities rapidly expanded their intake. Durban-Westville, Zululand, Western Cape, Venda, and the others started admitting larger numbers of students, for despite the crippling requirement that admittees have a Full University Exemption on their Matric, which restricted the pool of applicants to a tiny sliver of each age cohort, there were still many, many young Black men and women who were being denied access. The historically White universities, even those at which Afrikaans was the language of instruction, began cherry-picking the even tinier pool of Black students who had actually done well on the Matrics, trumpeting their new-found progressive commitment by going after the children of returning ANC leaders and such. I was on fire with revolutionary zeal, and talked to anyone who would listen about my belief that Durban-Westville and Western Cape would become the leading universities of the new South Africa, but my naive enthusiasm was not shared by the new Black elite. They all chose to send their children to Wits and Cape Town.

The search for Black administrators was considerably more difficult, even though the numbers needed were very small, inasmuch as the entire higher education sector is tiny by American standards. A few positions went to those who, like Jakes Gerwel and Jairam Reddy, had remained in South Africa during the struggle. Some posts went to exiles who began to flood back into the country. Kader Asmal, a distinguished legal scholar who had taught law for twenty-seven years in exile in Dublin, Ireland, returned to become the first Minister of Education in Nelson Mandela's government. [Kader is a marvelously flamboyant character with many of the same endearing traits as our own Larry Summers. I had a boisterous dinner with him and other returnees in Cape Town at a restaurant that had, in the bad old days, been a meeting place for revolutionaries.]

The call for structural rationalization garnered the most national attention, and inevitably became a subject for complicated political maneuvering and log-rolling. It made no sense to support two Technikons side by side in Cape Town, one for White students and the other for Coloured students, both offering the same range of courses and degrees. Everyone could agree to that. But was rich, well-endowed, well equipped Cape Technikon to merge into poorer, less well equipped Peninsula Technikon, simply because Pen Tech was Coloured and Cape Tech was White? And if the two were to become one, which Rector would survive as the head of the new, rationalized institution? Over a period of many years, as I returned again and again to South Africa, I watched Kader Asmal and the Cabinet juggle a dozen or more such hot potatoes.

One of the less well publicized rationalization efforts involved reducing the number of Teacher's Colleges from more than one hundred to two or three dozen. This effort was overseen by Ben Parker, an old friend on whose doctoral dissertation committee I served as external reader. Ben, who passed away last year much too early, had done extensive field work on the system of farm schools that existed along side of formal educational institutions in the old South Africa.

But despite the frenzied Transformation efforts throughout South Africa, change came very slowly, if at all. The Matric system remains in place, still excluding countless talented African students from higher education. The flexibility and array of second chances that is, in my judgment, the glory of the American system is still unknown to South Africans. Perhaps I should not have been surprised by the deeply rooted institutional conservatism of South African academics, since it mirrors so well traits I find distressing in American higher education. South Africa has not yet produced a John Dewey or a Robert Maynard Hutchins, let alone a Paul Goodman.

As I watched my friends settle back, post-liberation, into their accustomed habits and practices, I grew more and more dismayed. Eventually, when I was invited to give a talk to the Education Faculty of the University of Pretoria, I gave voice to my disappointment with the failures of genuine change in the South African higher educational establishment. [If you Google "Tertiary Education in the New South Africa: A Lover's Complaint" you can take a look at it.]

It will become clear, as I return to my narrative of the events of the past twenty years, that my focus came increasingly to be on trying to have some impact on the world rather than restricting myself to writing about it. As the young Karl Marx famously proclaimed in the Eleventh Thesis on Feurbach, Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. My efforts, slender though they have been, have taught me an important lesson, and as I conclude my account of University Scholarships for South African Students, which has been far and away my longest lasting effort to make a change in the world, I should like to share a bit of wisdom that I have gained from that experience.

I am a philosopher, and for the first thirty-four years of my half century in the Academy, I taught philosophy at the undergraduate and graduate level, and wrote books of philosophy. Now, what philosophers do is think -- no fieldwork, no lab work, not even much in the way of library research [my books are notorious for their lack of footnotes.] Very quickly, one learns as a philosopher that so long as all you are doing is thinking, you might as well think big. So philosophers do a lot of thinking about God, about the universe, about Being, about possible worlds in addition to the actual one. The idea of Everything, it turns out, weighs no more than the idea of Something. Neither one involves any heavy lifting. However, as soon as you try to make a difference in the world, you learn that it takes a great deal of effort to make a tiny difference, and a great deal more to make a slightly bigger difference.

All of this came home to me very quickly once USSAS was up and running. In our very best year, thanks to a complicated deal that Prem struck with the UDW administration for cost sharing, we were able to help maybe 120 young Black men and women. Now 120 students gathered in a room looks like a lot of people, but viewed from the perspective of South Africa as a whole, it is really so small a number that it does not even constitute a blip in the national educational statistics. Even after twenty years, the 1500 or so students Prem and Frida and Tania and my many donors and I have been able to help constitute a tiny fraction of all the Black students who have gone to university in South African in that time, and an even tinier fraction of all the young people who were eligible to go, let alone those who had the talent and the ability, but not the Matric Exemption. All that folding and stuffing, merge printing and sealing and stamping, all those trips to South Africa, all those thank you letters banged out on my home computer, and from a philosophical perspective, precious little to show for it.

It might have helped, of course, to be religious. After all, if eternal bliss is in the offing, what is a slog through a pile of mailing materials? But absent the comfort of faith, I have found that I must learn to be satisfied with the knowledge that at the end of each day, there are identifiable young people in South Africa who would not have gone to university were it not for my meager efforts. You see, while the Thought of Somebody is very little, in the presence of the Thought of Everybody, a real person, even just one, is very significant. Indeed, one actual person, no matter how insignificant, is more important than all of the philosophical ideas ever thought.


andy said...

Professor Wolff,

1)i was away for awhile. don't know whether you saw/posted this column in the nytimes re: Patrick.
it may be of interest to others.

2) i wrote my dissertation on Rawls.i know you wrote a critique in one of your books.however, i am pressed for time.

i was wondering if you could provide a link to a shorter paper that contains the gist of your argument.



Robert Paul Wolff said...

sigh. One writers books, and they want precis! Take a look at my other blog, on formal methods, and follow the link to one chapter of the book, which is a formal analysis of the argument, but not at all a precis of the book.

Anonymous said...

Please do look into setting up a Paypal account for donations as well as perhaps a Google payments account. Many charities use Paypal and I'm sure it would be easy to set up such a program and then you would just set up a bank account to handle donations and then could write checks from the Paypal account perhaps either directly to the students or probably more astutely into the other account you use by writing checks from the newly set up bank account to your main charity account. I for one would like to donate this way. And millions of people globally could use this method to make donations.

Anonymous said...

Quality is better than quantity..................................................................                           

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I checked out the link to the story about Patrick. I just spent five days with him in Paruis and he never mentioned it! Sigh. I guess fathers just have to surf the web.

I couldn't figure out how to vote for Brittany. But then, I am none too smart about such things.

Steven said...

Interesting that two of the article's three featured chess players are sons of philosophers (your son and Rachels). What's more, I recall Patrick taking philosophy courses in college (when I was a grad student) -- perhaps he was even a philosophy concentrator (or had it as a secondary field)? Rachels is of course now himself a philosophy professor. And I think Wilder was also a philosophy major as an undergrad (either that or he certainly at least he took a darn lot of phil courses).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Steven, it is interesting. Patrick majored in Philosophy at Harvard. He got to take courses with, or sit in on lectures by, Jack Rawls, Bob Nozick, and Christine Korsgaard, among others. And Jack Rawls' son, Bob, majored in the STPEC program I ran at UMass. A small world. Patrick used to call me up and have long conversations with me about deontological and teleological ethical theories. He also had some absolutely fascinating things to say about the structure of reasoning that great chess players, as opposed to computers, use, but I could not persuade him to write an honors thesis on them. It would have been an important contribution, I think. So you must be a professor of philosophy now.

Steven said...

Yes, I teach at Johns Hopkins. But I live in Washington, DC, where my wife works -- which incidentally is also how we became friends with Mike Wilder and his family. We used to all live in the same apartment building.

I remember Patrick -- it's *possible* I even signed his 'study card' (the list of courses for which one wanted to register), as I had an advising job in the department for a few years.

I also have a vague memory of seeing you, perhaps even briefly meeting you, one summer when you were teaching a course at Harvard.

Anyway, I continue to enjoy your memoirs!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I taught Summer School at Harvard from 82 through 87, until I married Susie and we moved to Pelham. We might indeed have met.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

p.s. Steve Barker, Jerry Schneewind, and Peter Achinstein are all old friends of mine.

Steven said...

And your former colleague William Connolly, mentioned earlier in your memoir, is also here at Hopkins (in political science).