My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Monday, August 31, 2009


On Wednesday, we leave for three weeks in Paris. I shall blog a bit from Paris, about food and beautiful buildings and such, but for the most part I shall be taking a vacation. By the time I return, I predict, the health care question will have been transformed, and it will become clear that something significant is going to pass. AS I PREDICTED!

Meanwhile, my principal concern is making a delectable hazelnut encrusted rabbit, and trying my hand at a genuine boeuf bourguignon. Wish me luck.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Last evening, Susie and I went to her son's house for his 44th birthday celebration. While there, we watched a bit of Bill Maher's show. He interviewed Bill Moyers, who stated flatly that Rahm Emmanuel's anxiety about raising money from the pharmaceutical companies and other segments of the health care industry was standing in the way of meaningful reform. According to Moyers, Emmanuel has his eye on the 2012 election, to the exclusion of virtually everything else.

This is the sort of cynical insider information that we on the left live and die for. We are endlessly ready to feel betrayed by our false heroes, and happy to be made impotent by large forces outside our control.

But what Moyers said didn't make sense to me, so I spent a few moments on line checking some numbers. By October 19, 2008, three weeks before the election, the Obhama campaign had raised $605 million. So let us suppose that by election day the total was in the neighborhood of $650 million. This includes the enormously expensive primary campaign, of course, but never mind. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, as of September 25, 2008, the "health sector" [which presumably includes Big Pharma, HMOs, doctors, etc etc] had donated $17.7 million. The focus of the NEJM article, by the way, was on the fact that the health sector had donated more to the Democratic campaign than to the Republican campaign, reversing a long trend.

Now think about this for a moment. Health Care Reform is a centerpiece of Obama's presidency, along with energy reform and educational reform. Everyone understands that health care is far and away the biggest, hardest task the Obama White House will undertake. As I have noted before, health care gobbles up 15% of the total national GDP. It is HUGE. Obama's re-election chances depend on three things: First, pulling the economy out of its slump [already happening]; second, winding down the two wars in the Middle East; and third, accomplishing some sort of visibly significant health care reform. If he does these three things, he is a shoo-in. There is no one in the Republican camp who can stop him. If he fails to accomplish the third, he becomes vulnerable to attack.


There are many reasons why the reform of health care is so difficult, not hte least of which is the role that donations from the health sector play in the decisions of members of Congress. But it is simply not plausible thast the White House is being swayed by that consideration.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


As Susie and I watched the funeral service of Ted Kennedy, I thought back to a 1976 TV movie, FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR, starring Edward Herrman and Jane Alexander. The part of the movie that I recall most vividly dealt with the early years, when Franklin was courting Eleanor [the two were fifth cousins once removed]. The couple came from old upper crust New York society -- Theodore Roosevelt was Franklin's role model, and Eleanor's uncle. In one scene, at a formal society party, the two step out onto the veranda of the stately home in which the party is being held, and carry on a long, thoughtful conversation about what they owe to those less fortunate than themselves. There is nothing condescending or pompous about the conversation. It seems perfectly natural to these two young fortunates that, because life has to given them so many of the material blessings of wealth and social connection, it is incumbent upon them to find some way to justify that good fortune by making a contribution to the welfare of others.

Wealthy White people were not better when I was young. In some ways -- racial prejudice, restriction of opportunities for women, even -- heaven help us -- acceptance of gay and lesbian men and women -- they were a good deal worse. But many people really did think as Franklin and Eleanor did, and those who did not had the decency to pay lip service to principles they knew they ought to embrace.

Those of you too young to remember that period could do worse than to watch the 2003 movie, SEABISCUIT. Although it is a movie about a race horse, it conjures up the Depression mentality and era better than any movie save the immortal GRAPES OF WRATH.

Say what you will about the Kennedys, especially their appalling father, Joe, they seem to have been the last large, wealthy White family to keep alive, and genuinely to live by, this ideal of Noblesse Oblige. It has become fashionable of late to use that phrase with a sneer. Many of the privileged these days would not be caught dead suggesting that they, or any of their fellow fortunates, owe anything to the world. The hollow ideology of the free market encourages the fortunate to attribute their wealth and position to their own sterling character.

One last story, which I have told before. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, in the very early fifties, my hero Carl Sandburg came to Cambridge to give a lecture. New Lecture Hall was packed, and I ended up standing along one wall, as I recall. Sandburg told the following story:

Two cockroach brothers were riding into town on the back of a farmer's truck, when the truck hit a bump. Both brothers bounced off the truck. The first fell onto a pile of dung -- very heaven for a cockroach. The second fell into a sewer. For weeks, the second brother struggled mightily to pull himself out of the sewer and back onto the road. By the time he had succeeded, he was thin, his coat was mottled and dull, and he looked just awful. Meanwhile, the first brother had prospered, growing fat and shiny. The unfortunate cockroach looked up and saw his kinsman, fat and sassy, on top of the dung heap. "Brother," he cried. "How have you done so well for yourself, while I have barely survived?" His brother looked down from his perch with a sneer, and said, complacently, "Brains, and hard work."

Can anyone imagine at speaker at Harvard today telling that story?

Friday, August 28, 2009


August is winding down, and as we approach the resumption of the real world, after Labor Day, the Republican craziness is imploding. After riotous town meetings, death threats against Obama, birther bizarrerie, and even the egregious Michelle Bachman being booed at a constituent meeting, with cretinous creeps like Chuck Grassley fresh out of plausible pontifications [do you ever wonder how some of these people actually got elected?], with Ted Kennedy lying in state, and serious talk of reconciliation now to the fore -- with all of this, it looks as though we will get a health care reform bill that has a good deal, but by no means all, of what we dreamed of and hoped for and voted for. JUST AS I PREDICTED. This is not rocket science or brain surgery, folks, it is Congressional legislating, pretty much as it has always been.

Let us suppose that I am correct. As we approach the Thanksgiving/Christmas season, where will we be? Well, the economy will slowly, painfully, be turning around, having avoided a second Great Depression, but unemployment will still be unacceptably high -- although much of the Stimulus Bill spending will still lie before us. We will finally have significant health care reform, though muich will remain to be done. The first serious attempt at confronting global warming will be law. A Special Prosecutor will be investigating the Bush Justice Department. And the President will be able to ask himself and the country, "What shall we do in my second year?"

I mean, seriously, what more did you really expect? Gay rights remains to be addressed, though the first steps have been taken. Barney Frank will have to find a way to shepherd serious financial reform through Congress. And Obama will have to actually wind down the Iraq war and place realistic limits on the Afghanistan involvement. But Peace Talks will be restarted in the Middle East, and we may even see some sort of major change in Iran, though that is up to the Iranians, not us.

I think back again to the wisdom of Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse argued that all of us carry within us repressed infantile fantasies of immediate and effortless gratification -- fantasies to which an enormous amount of libidinous energy is attached, but which are, in their very nature, unrealizable. Combining the deepest ideas of Marx and Freud, Marcuse tells us [this in EROS AND CIVILIZATION] that the realistic goal of any revolution can only be to diminish the quantum of surplus repression imposed on men and women by the demands of capitalism and tyranny. But what fuels revolutionary fervor is the promise of LIBERATION, which is to say the fulfilment of those repressed fantasies. That is why those who have lived through revolutionary times, no matter how dangerous and uncomfortable, look back on them as the most glorious moments of their lives [rather like the way people think about tornados, hurricanes, wars, and floods, and for the same reason.]

Well, the election of Obama was no revolution, but for a moment it felt like one. Now we are seeing that the reduction of surplus repression, so to speak, still leaves us with repressed fantasies of liberation, and so we feel let down. That is normal, understandable, but not really vrey grown up of us, and so we must put away our fantasies and get back to the daily work of making as many incremental improvements in the life of this country as we can.

In an odd way, I think Teddy understood this, but that Jack and Bobby did not. That is why Jack was actually an indifferent President, and Bobby an indifferent Senator, but both were spectacular bearers of our fantasies of instant and infinite gratification.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


After Prem's death, I was totally at a loss to know 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 selected 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 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. Thus, on the Cape Technikon campus, Koch held the title of DVC Academic -- roughly equivalent to an American Provost.

I had by this time totally committed the USSAS funds to students making a contribution to the struggle against HIV/AIDS. As it happened, UWC had, in the person of Dr. Tania Vergnani, a brilliant and charismatic head of the anti-AIDS effort. At the same time, I was 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 first hand 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 six 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, and Indian, and a White Technikon into one institution.]

As I write these words today, I have been merge printing envelopes in preparation for yet another USSAS fund-raising appeal. This will be the twentieth year of the organization, and it may be that we are approaching a time when I shall have to finally wrap things up and cease our work.

In one of my mailings, I reminded my donors of Dostoyevsky's story, in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, of the mean-spirited old woman and the onion. [For those of you who do not recall it, Google Grushenka and Karamazov and Onion and it ought to come up.] As I grow older, I think of USSAS as my onion. I hope that as the Angel of Death holds out the onion to pull me from Hell, I do not kick so hard against the other poor souls clinging to my ankles in a desperate effort at salvation that I break the onion and fall back into eternal hellfire. [you have to read the story].

USSAS is a good example, I think, of the bit of actual difference that one person can make in the world, with the help of friends, and the willingness to be content with small but genuine victories.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


One after another my Harvard classmates pass from the scene. First John Updike, now Teddy Kennedy. I did not know either of them, of course. I was in Adams House, and all the Kennedy boys were in Winthrop. Besides, I was perhaps the least sociable member of the class of '54, and I ended up knowing very few of my more than one thousand classmates. I did visit Kennedy's office in the old Senate Office Building once, but he wasn't in.

Much is being said this morning by the television commentators of Kennedy's ability to forge friendships cross the aisle, and the role that played in his unparallelled legislative success. There is no doubt much truth to that observation, but I would like to comment on another of Kennedy's characteristics that was, in my judgment, equally important. Kennedy was preternaturally patient in his pursuit of the enactment of the liberal legislation for which he is rightly famous. He was capable of working unflaggingly for decades, suffering defeat after defeat as he tried to build the legislative coalitions that would turn child care or worker protection or health care reform into law. He, more than anyone else in the Congress, will deserve the credit when the health care reform bill now being crafted so laboriously and inelegantly finally passes in a month or two.

One of my readers objected to the fact that I mentioned Stalin in a previous comment about the need for such patience and commitment. I thought I made it clear that I was praising the trait, not the man. But henceforward I will happily cite Teddy when the need arises.

All of us on the left must learn from Kennedy's patience. Those of us, especially, whose professional work consists in having ideas tend to be hopelessly impatient. We get an idea, express it, and think that is the end of it. But as Kierkegaard so wisely observes, whereas novelty is the essence of the aesthetic, repetition is the essence of the ethical [see EITHER/OR].

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Cognitive dissonance is defined as "an uncomfortable feeling produced by holding two incompatible ideas in the mind at the same time." I think it is time to make a simple but profound observation about the outbreak of increasingly hysterical craziness surfacing on the right at town hall meetings and similar gatherings. Health care reform proposals are compared to naziism. Obama's citizenship is denied. Obama is called a little Hitler. Men show up at public meetings carrying assault weapons, and little old World War II veterans say that they are ready to take a gun to Washington if some others will join them.

What on earth is going on? I think the answer is very simple, so simple that the pundits and commentators just won't look it square in the face and acknowledge it. A BLACK MAN IS IN THE WHITE HOUSE. Scores of millions of Americans simply cannot hold comfortably in their minds the two ideas: Barack Obama is Black and Barack Obama is President. The world of these people has come unhinged. They know in their bones that something huge and deadly serious is out of whack, but they cannot say it, and probably most of them cannot even permit themselves to think it. So they reach for ever more outlandish descriptions of the state of things in an effort to give voice to their terrified awareness that the world they grew up in, the world they learned to negotiate, the social truths ingrained in their beings -- all of these are gone.

Because Obama is suave, supremely well-educated, soft-spoken, and anti-dramatic, because he speaks endlessly about compromise and reaching out to his opponents, pundits who are themselves reasonably comfortable with that kind of Black man in the White House simply cannot grasp how deeply, unacceptably cognitiviely dissonant Obama's presidency is to huge numbers of Americans.

Let me say it again: This hysteria is not about health care reform [of all things!!], it is not about deficit spending, it is not about global warming, it is not about Wall Street bailouts. It is about a Black man in the White House. If we can just stop singing Kumbaya and congratulating ourselves on how evolved we are, and look at this country for what it is, this truth will be obvious.

What is to be done about this? I think the answer is obvious, and Harry Truman understood it half a century ago when he desegregated the Armed Forces. The only reasonable thing to do is to cram this truth down their throats and make them swallow it. They won't like it; they will kick and scream, and yes, sooner or later someone will try to assassinate Obama. But if those whose very being is wrapped up in denying the fact that a Black man is in the White House are forced to accept that fact, then in time we will get past this. They themselves will probably have to die off, like old smokers. There are millions of Americans who will go to their graves unable to acknowledge that a Black man was truly and legitimately elected President.

Oh yes. Tomorrow, I will return to USSAS.


Today I am taking a time out. I got up this morning at 4:30 a.m. in an attempt to tackle and conquor the always stressful business of breaking my USSAS donor list into eight sub-lists, preparatory to merge printing the envelopes for yet another USSAS mailing. Well, my ancient HP three-in-one printer, which for years now has been unable to print in color anyway, finally gave up the ghost. My desktop/laptop is also ancient, and missing the "x" key [you would be astonished how often you use that key, especially if it is missing and you have to press what is underneath the key, carefully, to produce the letter -- notice I am avoiding writing it.] So I bit the bullet, went to Best Buy, consulted the Geek Squad, and bought a new computer and printer. Nothing fancy, but it is an upgrade from what I had, and in a big splurge, I went for an oversized monitor. I figure since I spend more time in front of the computer than I do in bed, I might as well enjoy my retirement.

Now, this is going to take some getting used to. Susie is going to an MS Support Group meeting tonight, and I shall stay home with the cats and laboriously familiarize myself with the new computer.

If all goes well [and it never does, of course], I shall back with the final part of my USSAS essay tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


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 particularly 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 aboiut 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, Mala and 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 over night in the province while driving from Johannesburg to Durban.]

The 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 beutiful 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 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 terrible 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 Afrikaaner 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 Afrikaaner 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 entrenched 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 Afrikaaners. 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].

During this time, Prem died suddenly of a heart attack. I was stunned and saddened, and totally at a loss to know what to do about USSAS. The organization was saved by an extraordinary woman, Sheila Tyeku, who stepped forward to fill Prem's shoes.

Tomorrw: UWC, DUT, and the Final Part of the Story


I am reading a schlock novel this morning [retirement being what it is, I read four or five of these a week, courtesy of the Chapel Hill Public Library], and since it is based on a rather nice idea, I thought I would mention it. It is called VIRUS, by Graham Watkins, and was published in 1995, which is actually ancient as schlock fiction goes, but I was drawn to it because the author, according to the dust jacket, lives in Durham, NC, and the novel is set in the Triangle area, where I now live. The idea is this: a large number of people start showing up in emergency rooms and doctor's offices with a serious mysterious illness. They all are upscale types with techie jobs or interests. It turns out that a computer virus has taken on a life of its own and is infecting the people who use the computers. I think of this as a reverse metaphor. In the 17th century, devoted subjects of Queen Elizabeth called the female in a bees' nest "the Queen bee" as a tribute to her -- mother of the nation and all. Once this metaphor had become ensconced in the language, entymologists of a socio-biological bent started ruminating on the significant fact that human beings as well as bees have queens!! Don't you love it? So here we have a metaphor -- computer virus -- that is turned on its head for literary effect. Nice.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


As USSAS was getting started, the situation on the ground in South Africa with regard to higher education was changing rapidly, and we were forced to alter our guidelines and procedures to adjust to that change. The first response of the historically Black universities to liberation was to expand their intake enormously, in an effort to respond to the pent-up demand. UDW, Western Cape, Zululand, Venda, Transkei, Fort Hare all began taking many more students. On the opening day of term [which in South Africa is January or February, of course, because the country is in the Southern Hemisphere], young men and women would show up at the doors of the university, sometimes with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, having walked hundreds of miles from the rural areas. They would put down the small registration fee and begin classes, with little or no idea of where they would get the remainder of the tuition. So long as the students were passing their exams, the universities would do everything possible to carry them on the books while they and their families tried to get loans from local banks for the unpaid fees. Those who did not pass -- and there were many, thanks to the punitive grading practices of even the HBU's -- simply walked away at the end of the year, leaving their accounts in arrears and uncollectible.

Very quickly, the HBUs fell into deep financial trouble. At first, a few large American foundations bailed them out with multi-million dollar grants. Mellon, for example, gave a grant to UWC, huge by South African standards, to balance their books. But the situation was unsustainable, and in response, the universities changed their rules so that the registration fee came to represent half or more of the year's tuition charges.

At the same time, the new government, which came to power in 1992, created a national student loan scheme, called TEFSA [Tertiary Education Fund of South Africa -- you see why I say all the acronyms sound alike]. But the catch was that in order to be eligible for a TEFSA loan, a student had to be registered, which meant coming up with the very large registration fee. Incidentally, it is worth noting that this new enlarged registration fee was on the order of 5000 Rand, which, at the exchange rate of those days, was only about $500.

Prem and I discussed this new problem, and decided that the best way we could stretch the bits of money I was able to raise was to offer bursaries sufficient to cover the registration fee, and then let students apply to TEFA for the remainder. That in fact is what we have done for almost fifteen years now. Each $10,000 I can raise in the United States translates into twenty students able to register and study for another year.

USSAS has never been a big money operation. In a really good year, I might raise $50,000 or more, but in a typical year, I raise between $35,000 and $45,000. Most of my donations fall in the range of $50 to $100, but there have been a few astonishing and welcome surprises. One December, early on, I was in Johannesburg, visiting Debra Nails at Wits, when a fax came in from Susie back in Pelham. Someone had just sent a check for $14,000. What should she do? "Deposit it!" I faxed back. The donor, I eventually learned, was a retired Professor of Eighteenth Century English Literature, not on my list of previous donors. He made comparable donations for many years, the check always arriving just about on the last day of the year. I sent lavish thank you letters, of course, but never heard from him personally [the money came from something called a Unitrust in his name -- some sort of tax device], and were it not for the internet and the fact that he has a rather unusual name, I would not even know that he is a retired professor.

Since the only costs incurred by USSAS were the printing and postal charges, a dedicated fax line, and some money to help pay for my trips to South Africa, almost everything I raised could be sent over to the South African bank account and used for bursaries. Over the years, USSAS has given perhaps 1500 awards, so there are hundreds and hundreds of South African men and women who have university degrees as a result of our efforts.

Each year, when I come to South Africa, I explain to the students we are supporting that I have no idea whether anyone will send money next year, but that if they do, and if the students pass their exams, they will once again get bursaries. The evidence from our experience at UDW shows that this simple promise, combined with the personal attention paid to them by Prem, resulted in a startling improvement in the pass rate of our bursary recipients, by comparison with students at UDW generally. It was, for me, one more confirmation of my long-standing conviction that virtually all of the students who make it to university are capable of doing well enough to earn their degrees.

During my years working at UDW, I got involved in a variety of other activities there, in addition to the USSAS scheme. The United States Agency for International Development [USAID] launched a program called the Tertiary Educational Linkages Program [TELP], and invited the HBUs to submit proposals for grants. For those who have not had experience with USAID, I should explain that USAID programs, although designed to assist underdeveloped economies, characteristically spend most of their money hiring Americans to travel abroad on comfortable per diems, to tell the benighted locals how to run their affairs. In a typical USAID grant, maybe 90% of the money will be paid to Americans, and only 10% will find its way into the local economy. Well, the South Africans were awash in American experts of all sorts. South Africa in the early nineties was very much the flavor of the month. Since there are four thousand Americn institutions of higher education as contrasted with maybe thirty of the same in S0uth Africa, and since every American academic wanted to spend at least a few weeks on a South African campus, the last thing the HBUs needed was another flood of American experts paid by a grant supposedly designed to help them. I went a wonderful meeting chaired by the expensively paid TELP coordinators and attended by the Rectors of all the HBUs [most of whom, incidentally, were manifestly better educated than the Americans who were there to lead them by the hand into the world economy], and in no uncertain terms, they stated that they wanted the preponderance of the funds to come to their institutions, to be spent as they thought best. Since Nelson Mandela was then possibly the most widely respected person on the planet, USAID caved.

UDW really had no one at the middle management level capable of writing grant proposals. The lack of second tier academic administrators, as a consequence of the apartheid policies, was one of the signal weaknesses of the South African HBUs. I had been rather successful on my home campus with some grants I had managed to secure for a school to college program I was running for minority high school students in Springfield, MA, so I volunteered to try my hand at the TELP opportunity. In the end, I wrote five TELP proposals, four of which were funded. One of them was for a "modularization" conference, to begin the process of restructuring the UDW curriculum. The idea, which seems second nature to an American academic, was to break the big, unwieldy year long sequenced courses into modules of eight or twelve or sixteen weeks. This would allow students who could handle part of the year's work to get credit for it nailed down, even if they weren't up to meeting the pass standard for a module farther along. Students would also be able to accumulate partial credits, for perhaps half a year of work, and then leave the university to work or look for money to continue their studies. Simple and self-evident as this may seem, it was a revolution in South Africa, and met with considerable resistance.

My visits to South Africa weren't all work, of course. Three experiences in particular stand out in my memory. The first was a weekend trip to a resort in the Drakensberg Mountains, west of Durban, where I read a paper I had written attacking the concept of culture as an ideological construct. After a solemn afternoon of intellectual discussion, we all turned our attention to the real purpose of the outing, a true South African Brai. I should explain that to South Africans, a balanced diet is four or five different sorts of meat. A Brai, or barbeque, as we would call it, consists of steaks surrounded by a garnish of sausages and chops, all washed down with beer and wine. One of the more endearing traits of the South African is his or her suspicion of work. Fridays are usually spent preparing for the weekend, and a week with a holiday on a Wednesday or Thursday is pretty much a washout. The Drakensberg is hauntingly beautiful, with sprongbok and impala grazing on the slopes of the hills.

The second event was what is called a Midlands Ramble. The Midlands in South Africa is the area between the lowlands around Durban on the coast and the Drakensberg, which though not of Rockies stature, is still a pretty decent range of mountains running down the center of the country. Tucked away, at the end of dirt roads and little hollows, are countless artists' and craftspersons' studios where pottery, painting, woodworking, basket weaving, glass blowing, and jewelry making flourish. They may live in rural isolation, but these folks are no rubes. They sell into the world market, and know quite well the value of what they make. The ramble, with half a dozen friends from UDW, was an all day affair, broken for lunch at an impossibly quaint inn called -- I kid you not -- Granny Mouse's House. I think I bought a necklace for Susie, but it is long ago, and I am no longer sure.

But far and away the most extraordinary experience of my entire twenty year involvement with South Africa was the night I spent at the Beatrice Street Y in downtown Durban attending, and filming, an isicathamiya contest. Isicathamiya [it is a Zulu word, the first syllable of which is actually a sibilant click] is a contest of male Zulu a cappella singing groups. The most famous of these groups is Ladysmith Black Mambazo [which means, roughly, the black horned bull from the town of Ladysmith], though as I discovered during that remarkable night, Masakela's group does a prettified version of isicathamiya, suitable for White audiences. The tradition of male a capella singing is rooted in Zulu history, but has been strikingly influenced by African American musical styles, including the Cake Walk. Groups of men, perhaps ten to twenty in number, practice under the leadership of the group director. Usually, they all affect the same uniform -- black pants and shirts, white socks, and black shoes, for example. They sing Zulu songs about life, love, work, and family, achieving keening, penetrating harmonies, to which they join fancy dance steps, a bit like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. There are very strict rules for the competitions, which are held all night in an available venue. [All night because the pass control laws made it illegal for them to be on the streets of the White cities after dark, so they would start when the work day ended, and keep going until dawn the next day.] Each group pays a small fee to enter the contest, and the pot thus accumulated goes to the winners. A random passer is recruited to act as judge, and his decision is taken as final, even if he falls asleep during the contest! The audience, which for the most part consists of the girl friends and wives of the singers, is forbidden to applaud or cheer, save for a small designated claque for each group, who get up periodically, applaud, and in general show their approval of their heroes. Each group warms up in the rear of the room, until their leader decides they were ready. They then dance in, singing as they come, do two or three numbers, and dance out again. The sounds are piercing and hauntingly beautiful, as only African singing can be. I spent all night filming with a video camera I had bought, and later on, wove selections of the isicathamiya contest into the half hour video I produced [myself!] as a fund-raising device for USSAS.

I have made a good deal, in these posts, about the punitive character of the South African grading practices. It occurs to me that before concluding this day's post, 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 this 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.

Tomorrow: USSAS Leaves UDW

Friday, August 21, 2009


This will be a quintessentially typical blog posting. I am going to react to Paul Klugman's op ed column today without having read it! I figure this qualifies me as a true pundit. By the way, before I begin, I hope you caught my son, Tobias, on Lou Dobbs' show, defending gay marriage and talking about the repeal of DOMA. He has guts, going on Dobbs.

So here goes.

I saw but did not read Krugman's column. Look -- it was never in the cards that Obama was going to govern from the left, and the fight he has had getting any sort of reasonable health care reform makes it clear why. I think progressives are being self-indulgent and foolish. If they don't think Obama's policies and actions are liberal enough, they should get off their behinds and put political pressure on their Reps and Senators to move to the left. THEN Obama will, I am quite sure, happliy shift to the left.

Remember, every hour of every day, Emmanuel and the political honchos are counting votes, trying to figure out where they will get a majority that can push through what they want. I for one do not want to see Obama stake out dramatic left wing positions and then fail to get them through Congress. That might feel good for ten minutes, but it would accomplish nothing.

I am really very angry about the passive, pundit-like sit-on-the-sidelines commentariat that is constantly judging whether Obama is left enough, but never creating the on the ground conditions that will make possible meaningful reform.

Remember what I said on my blog. When it is all over, it will be a major victory, but it will not be enough, and we are just going to have to recognize that and move on to the next fight.

An historical reminder: In 1905, after working in the underground for years and years, Stalin and the other Communists finally had their revolution -- and it failed. They didn't give up. They went right back into the underground and worked for twelve more years, not knowing [as we do in hindsight] that they would eventually succeed.

We need something of that commitment and will, if we are to undo what Bush and the Republicans have foisted o this country, and are to make good on the promise of the Obama election. Once again, I remind you what candidate Obama said: We are the change we have been waiting for. That means that it is we who must make the change, and not sit like children waiting for a parent to hand it to us like candy.

So much for radical rage. Tomorrow, I shall go back to the story of USSAS.


From the outset, I imposed strict guidelines on the selection of recipients of the USSAS bursaries, which have, with one revision, continued to the present day. There are six principles:

1. All recipients must be Black, which in South African terms means African, Indian, or Coloured. At Durban-Westville, an historically Indian school in transition to a majority African student population, we made an effort to balance the races, but there were very few Coloured students attending UDW.

2. We must strive for gender balance. This was rather easy to accomplish, and in fact over time, a slight majority of women over men have received awards.

3. We should try to strike a balance between urban and rural students. This has proved very difficult to achieve, and in fact, because of the bizarre distortions of population distribution imposed by the apartheid regime, has proved impractical.

4. We are NOT trying to identify the very best students. This is not a merit based program. In light of the stringent filter of the Matric system, I assume that every student who is eligible for admission to a university is capable of succeeding, given a decent chance. One sees here the influence of my American experience, and my long-standing hostility to the elitist system of university admissions in this country. [For an extended defense of this prejudice, see ] With our limited funds, we support the first students who apply, so long as they fit the guidelines and genuinely cannot continue in school without our help. Unfortunately, there is ever a shortage of students who fit this profile.

5. If one of our bursary recipients manages to do well enough in the end of year examinations to be permitted to return the next year, he or she will automatically receive a bursary, assuming that I am successful in raising the necessary money. This is one of the most important decisions I made in setting up USSAS, and seems to have played a very large role in the striking success of our USSAS scholars. I shall talk about it more below.

6. Finally, six or seven years ago, in response to the horrific HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa [the latest figures are that 20% of the population is HIV positive], I shifted the focus of USSAS, and decided to require that bursary recipients be involved in the struggle against HIV/AIDS in some way or other. In practice, this has meant supporting a group of students in the Child and Youth Development Program at Durban University of Technology who are being trained to work with street children and other young people who are HIV positive or have been affected by the epidemic [for example, by losing a parent to the disease], and also requiring the students I support at the University of the Western Cape to be involved in the extraordinary HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention program run on that campus by Dr. Tania Vergnani -- arguably the best such program in the country.

This is a good place to share a bit of wisdom that I have gained from my twenty years of experience with USSAS. 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 philosphers 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 that is really so small a number that it does not even constitute a blip in the South African national figures on numbers if Black students at universities. Even after twenty years, the 1400 or so students we have helped 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 along 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 would 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 the 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.

To keep this lesson vividly before my mind, I found it helpful on my infrequent trips to South Africa to spend time meeting with the students USSAS was helping. These meetings at Durban-Westville, then at Cape Technikon, UWC, MEDUNSA [The Medical University of South Africa, the only Black medical school], and the Qwa Qwa Campus of the Univefsity of the North, were always the high points of my South African trips.

The first thing I learned, not surprisingly, was that the students, scorned by the faculty as unprepared and even stupid, were fluent in three, four, five or six languages. Now, I must explain that I am, as we say delicately, linguistically challenged. I have, I flatter myself, a complete mastery of English, but my French is execrable despite my many trips to Paris, and my German is almost non-existent [a painful admission for a Kant scholar who has also written two books about Karl Marx.] A typical USSAS student was a very serious young woman at UDW, Benedict Zhivani, who was studying for the Ll. B. degree. I was chatting with her in English, needless to say, and I asked her what languages she spoke. "English," she replied with a smile, "and Afrikaans [which, incidentally, is required by anyone seeking to argue before a South African court], and French, and Zulu, oh, and Latin." In the United States, this alone would have been enough to earn her admission to Harvard, but at UDW, she was considered a marginal student at best because her English was a little rusty. A young man, asked the same question, replied "English, and Zulu, and Sotho, and of course. Xhosa." "Why of course?" I asked. "Well," he replied, "Zulu and Xhosa are almost the same language." I must have looked a trifle surprised, because he undertook to demonstrate the fact. He pronounced a word in Zulu. He then pronounced a word in Xhosa that to my untutored ear sounded utterly different. "You see?" he said, as though talking to an idot or a child. "They are the same."

There were less happy moments, enough to bring me to tears. Prem came to me on one visit with a special case -- a young woman who had applied for a USSAS bursary after all of the regular money had been allocated. Her mother was the sole support of an extended family, working as a household maid for pathetic wages. The young woman had no money at all for food or lodging, and had somehow put together enough for the registration fee. [Keep it in mind that she had earned a Matric Exemption, placing her in perhaps the top 2% of her age cohort. Without it, she would never have come to our attention at all.] She was sleeping on the floor of a friend's room, and subsisting on scraps brought back from the student dining room. Could we find the money to pay enough of her remaining tuition fees so that she could stay in school? Of course I said yes. She didn't make it, flunking out at the end of the year. But as I explained to Prem, that was perfectly all right. We had done the right thing. The purpose of USSAS was to give young men and women like her a chance, not to restrict ourselves to students who were sure to succeed.

Tomorrow: USSAS responds to the changing South African situation.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


I pause briefly in my telling of the story of USSAS to kvell. My younger son, Tobias, will be the Jesse Climenko Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School this Fall. Tobias is Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, and during the recent presidential campaign, was Chair of the Advisory Committee on LGBT Affairs to the Obama Campaign.



To create a scholarship organization that could help poor Black students in South Africa to get a university education, I needed to do four things: Choose a name for the organization, get it declared a tax-exempt charitable organization by the IRS, find someone in South Africa who was willing to select the scholarship recipients and look after them, and then RAISE SOME MONEY.

Susie and I mulled over a good name for the new organization. During our trips to South Africa [she had accompanied me several times, once to Botswana for a Sanctions conference and again to South Africa for a trip to Kreuger], we had noticed that many of the pro-liberation groups had similar sounding acronyms, because they all had the letters "SA" in them: NUSAS, COSATU, SASCO, and so forth. We finally came up with University Scholarships for South African Students, or USSAS, which had a very South African ring to it.

One of the lawyers who had given us informal advice during our trial led me through the paperwork involved in applying for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code [hence the familiar phrase, "a 501(c)(3) organization."] I intended to do all the work myself, but the law required that I list a Secretary and a Treasurer, in addition to myself as President, so I put down Susie's name as Secretary and an old HRAAA comrade, Joel Krieger, as Treasurer. Very quickly, I received a letter from the IRS granting USSAS provisional status as a tax-exempt organization. Permanent status would not come for several years.

On my next trip to South Africa, I made a grand circle of the country, starting in Johannesburg, and moving on to Cape Town, Alice [home of Fort Hare], Umtata, Durban, and back to Johannesburg. It was in Durban that I found my in-country coordinator. Prem Singh was a Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Durban-Westville. Husband of Mala Singh, Prem was a slender man of forty or so who was deeply committed to the well-being of his students, and willing to take on the responsibility of managing the South African side of USSAS, assuming that I could raise some money. Prem died some years ago, very suddenly, of a heart attack, and I have not, until now, had the opportunity to testify publicly to the absolutely essential role he played in the growth and success of USSAS. It was not merely a matter of choosing the scholarship recipients, although that was obviously crucial. Prem had to negotiate the Byszantine complexities of the South African banking system to set up the account into which the money would be transferred, and --equally tricky -- to get it out again at the appropriate time and transfer it to the proper account at the University. Prem served as the unofficial Mentor and Advisor to the student bursary recipients, who quickly came to number well over one hundred a year. He put me up in his home each time I came to Durban, and took me in charge as I visited the students, the new Rector, Jairam Reddy, members of the faculty, and also the townships surrounding Durban. My relationship with the students, inevitably, was distant and episodic, but Prem's was intimate and daily. As my story unfolds, it will become clear how central his role was over the early and middle years of USSAS.

So, everything was in place, but I still had no money. What to do? My only experience with fund-raising was my stint as HRAAA Executive Director, and that had been through mailings, so I decided to assemble the largest list I could of potential donors and send out letters. I had the HRAAA list still installed on my computer, and a Boston-based anti-apartheid organization agreed to lend me part of their list [all but the big donors], so that was a start. But since it seemed to me that academics were my best target population, I decided to buy sets of mailing labels from six or seven academic professional associations -- the American Philosophical Association, the American Economics Association, the American Sociological Association, and so forth. The next step was to draft an appeal letter and get famous members of each association to sign the letter to their colleagues. A sheltered workplace in Boston would handle the task of folding and stuffing and labeling the letters, for not too much money. In all, I planned a mailing of about 85,000 letters. [The number of American academics is vast -- something that is completely outside the experience of their South African colleagues.]

Sam Bowles actually managed to persuade a group of Nobel laureates in Economics to sign, including Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow, and future laureate Amartya Sen. I rounded up some philosophers, but ran into an odd problem when I tried to recruit John Rawls. Rawls and I knew one another, of course. We had been colleagues for a year at Harvard, when I was an Instructor and he a visiting professor from MIT. And he had actually had dinner at my home on two occasions, one in Northampton and the other in Belmont. But the letter I had drafted said that we were aiming to help "poor Black South African students who have been active in the struggle against apartheid," and the world's leading expert on social justice thought mentioning participation in the struggle was a bit too strong, so he declined to sign. [Rawls didn't like me, and I have often wondered whether that was the real reason for his refusal.]

Out went the 85,000 letters, and I waited anxiously for the returns. My expectations were absurdly overblown. How could any members of the Economics profession turn down a request from Samuelson, Arrow, and Sen?, I thought. In fact, experienced fundraisers will tell you that a 1% response to a letter of that sort is considered very good. In the end, I did a bit better than 1%, and managed actually to cover the cost of the mailing. No money yet for students, but I now had more than 1,000 people who had given once, and might be persuaded to give again. I was on my way. From then on, Susie and I did the mailings ourselves, at first twice a year and then later once a year.

Putting together a mailing for a thousand people is a rather complicated process, at least for someone with my limited computer skills and a modest PC. The donors were on a database -- a small program at first, later on Excel. Some of the letters would go to one person [Professor so and so], some to two people [Professor So and So and his wife, Professor So and So. Very early on, I learned the dangers of assuming that the wife or husband of the person on my list was NOT also an academic]. Some folks had one address, some two [i.e., Apartment X, or whatever]. And some people would be addressed as Dear Professor --- while others, whom I actually knew personally, would be address Dear Firstname. Thus, there were eight possible permutations, and therefore eight sub-lists to be broken out. [I know, I know, you are supposed to be able to do all of this at once with filters and sorts and if then statements, but I never figured out how to do it, and so twenty years later I am still going through the same tedious process.] Then, using my desktop printer, which can hold ten envelopes max, I had to generate eight sets of envelopes, taking care to keep them in alphabetical order. After this, I would write the appeal letter, limiting myself [for reasons of weight and postal costs] to two sides of one sheet. I would make two versions, one signed with my full name, the other [to be sent to the people I knew] signed "Bob." These would be xeroxed up, and then merge printed with the address and the saluation being inserted from one or the other of the eight files. Now we were ready to fold and stuff. Each Number 10 envelope got a letter, a return envelope [number 9], and a contribution card with suggested donation levels. [It was a major move when, after some years of offering donors a minimum contribution of $35, I dropped that and made $50 the minimum.] With a wet sponge, the letters had to be sealed, and then finally stamped. A thousand letters actually fills up several pretty big cardboard boxes. They would go off to the mailbox [or several mailboxes -- you can't stuff one thousand fat envelopes into the standard curbside mailbox.]

Tomorrow: We start offering scholarships.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I suppose you could say that it all started because my first wife was phobic about flying. Cynthia would not get on a plane, so we never went anywhere much. When our twenty-three year marriage ended, in 1985, I was pretty well ready to go anywhere in the world I was invited, so long as I had to fly to get there. The next year, during one of my very rare sabbatical leaves, an old friend, Debra Nails, came through Boston. Debra had been the Aide to Bob Cohen and Marx Wartofsky in their long-running Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, at Boston University, and she was now living in Johannesburg, teaching philosophy at Wits while her husband, Berendt Kock, taught physics. Debra asked me whether I would like to come to South Africa to teach Marx to the second year philosophy students. No one, it seemed, had ever taught Marx at Wits. I jumped at the chance, and on May 28th, at 6:55 p.m., I took off on Pan Am for Africa.

After a brief stopover in Kenya to see the wild animals at Amboseli and Treetops, I flew into Jan Smuts Airport [as it was then called] for a five week stay. [Travel tip: When going on safari, make sure it is the dry season, so that the animals will gather at the waterholes for easy viewing. I got to Amboseli, in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, after torrential rains, and the animals were scattered all over the enormous plain. On that occasion, I saw very little, but on later trips to Kreuger National Park and in Botswana, I had fabulous adventures. More of that some other time.]

I instantly fell in love with South Africa. During my five weeks, I traveled around the country -- to Durban, on the Indian Ocean, to the Homelands of Gazenkulu, Lebowa, and Bophutatswana, to the township of Soweto, and to the Afrikaaner capital of Pretoria. The country was the most politically alive place I had ever been, and I felt more at home with my new friends and comrades there than with my colleagues in the Philosophy Department at the University of Massachusetts. There are more stories to tell of those early days, but that will have to wait for a future post, for this is the story of the founding of USSAS.

Back in Boston, where I had been living since Cynthia had been appointed to a professorship in Literature at MIT, I fell into the habit of dining one evening a week with Richard Sens, a psychiatrist who was also going through the break-up of a lengthy marriage. For the most part, we commiserated with one another about the painful process, but one evening, Dick brought along a woman who was, he said, a former student of mine. Sure enough, it was Jean Alonzo, who as Freshman Jean Anderson had been a student in one of my discussion sections of Philosophy 1 in 1956. Jean was now a union organizer at Raytheon, and a member of an anti-apartheid organization called Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid, or HRAAA [pronounced Hurrah]. The goal of HRAAA was to pressure Harvard to divest itself of its investments in companies doing business with South Africa, and its principal tactic was to run write-in candidates for the Harvard Board of Overseers, a body of alums who play a quasi-admnistrative role at Harvard. However, Harvard's 350th anniversary was coming up [Harvard was founded as Harvard College in 1636], and HRAAA was planning a sit-in at a very toney formal dinner for big donors, with Prince Charles, no less, in attendance, to be held at Memorial Hall. Jean asked whether I would like to come along.

I asked whether there was any chance we would be arrested, and when she said yes, I agreed to join them. I had always been rather embarrassed by my failure to get arrested during the Viet Nam War era, and I thought it would make me look better in my sons' eyes if I did get arrested this time out. Off we went on the appointed day, to seat ourselves, arms locked, in front of the door to the Memorial Hall dinner, chanting, as I recall, "If you want to digest, you've got to divest." [I don't actually much like demonstrations, and as many of the guests were my classmates, I felt, I must confess, like a bit of an ass. But I chanted along with the youngsters.] The sit-in was such a total surprise to Harvard that President Bok, who was hosting the dinner, neglected to call the police.

It ended ok, however, Some time later, we held another protest at Fogg Art Museum. This time, Harvard was prepared, and a bunch of us were hauled off in paddy wagons to the Central Square Police Station, where we were booked on charges of trespass or disorderly conduct, and released on our own recognizance. I have always thought that the police, who were not too fond of Harvard, for reasons of class privilege, went easy on us.

After a quite unsatisfactory trial, during which the judge, whose son was a student at Harvard, refused to allow us to offer a "necessity defense," we were found guilt, and sentenced to some community service or a fine of $72.50 a piece. We undertook to appeal, but the tape recording of the trial was so bad that the court stenographer could not produce a usable transcript, and the whole matter died. There was one rather light moment. As we were defending ourselves ["pro se" as the law has it], we were called on during the sentencing phase to propose a suitable punishment for ourselves. Remembering Socrates' great speech at his trial, memorialized in Plato's dialogue, THE APOLOGY, I said to the judge that inasmuch as I had been serving the people of the Commonwealth for many years as a Professor of Philosophy, I thought an appropriate punishment would be for the state to give me a pension. Her grasp of classical philosophy was obviously inferior to her mastery of the law, and she hit me with the $72.50 fine.

In the next two years, I remained active in HRAAA, and we did actually elect several people to the Board of Overseers, including Gay Seidman, daughter of a famous anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, and Peter Wood, a distinguished historian of South Carolinian slavery. In 1988, when HRAAA fell deeply into debt, and the paid Executive Secretary, Dorothee Benz, left to pursue her education, I volunteered to serve as unpaid Executive Director, in an effort to salvage the organization. In the next two years, I raised enough money to put us in the black, and succeeded in getting Archbishop Desmond Tutu elected to the Board. Harvard did not divest, of course. Instead, it changed the rules for electing overseers so that nothing like that would happen again. By the way, the year that I resigned from the Executive Directorship, HRAAA recruited a young Black Harvard Law Student named Barack Obama to run on the weite-in ticket, but I was gone by then, and never met him.

In the Spring of 1990, shortly after Nelson Mandeela was released, I had my one and only meeting with Tutu, who had come to Cambridge for a Board meeting. He thanked me for my efforts, and spoke very movingly about the need for re-investment in South Africa, now that libration was at hand. I realized that the HRAAA effort was now moot, and that I needed to find some other way to work with my South African comrades. At that moment, quite by chance, the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Durban-Westville, Mala Singh, wrote to me with an urgent appeal. Her graduate students had no money to pursue their studies. Was there anything I could do to help? Very quickly, I sent an appeal to some hundreds of philosophers at American colleges and univerities, and managed to raise enough money to enable Mala's students to continue their studies. It occurred to me that this might be the shape of my new effort. I had learned how to raise money by mail, using my computer. Perhaps I could start a charitable organization to offer scholarship aid to poor Black students going to historically Black universities in South Africa. The idea would be to support them there, not bring them to the United States [which would have been prohibitively expensive.] If I worked out of my home and paid myself nothing, I could send virtually everything I raised to the students.

It was clear to me that I needed someone in South Africa to select the students and look after them, someone who would also do this pro bono. On my next trip, I decided to travel around the country, looking for an academic who would be willing to take on this essential, but rather burdensome, task.

Tomorrow: USSAS is Born

Monday, August 17, 2009


When I first went to South Africa in 1986, the country was still sweltering under the oppressive apartheid regime, but change was in the air, and everyone sensed that the old Boer dictatorship could not last much longer. In the circles in which I traveled, radical ideology flourished. The Communist Party was a recognized partner in the Mass Democratic Movement of those who had stayed in the country, rather than going into exile. The three pillars of revolutionary change were the ANC, the Congress of South African Trades Unions, or COSATU, and the Party. I was, I must confess, in radical heaven. The instant you met someone, you knew that he or she was either your comrade, with whom you could trust your life, or your enemy. There was no middle ground.

Conversations and journals of opinion were alive with radical proposals for changing everything. The Freedom Manifesto of the ANC, smuggled out of Robben Island, called for collective ownership of the means of production and thoroughgoing land redistribution without compensation. Even in the field of education, radical proposals were everywhere. The old leftist dream of breaking down the wall between hand work and head work was taken seriously by academics and reformers, and it was easy to imagine that once liberation was achieved, South Africa would leap to the forefront of the world movment for educational reform.

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 increasing the number of Black students at universities, increasing the number of Black academics and administrators in universities, and 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 and Castro, 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 tiny 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 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 the 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 Coulored 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 Coulored 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.]

My disappointment with the failures of genuine change in the South African higher educational establishment were eventually given voice in a speech delivered to the Faculty of Education of the Univetsity of Pretoria. If you Google "Tertiary Education in the New South Africa: A Lover's Complaint" you can take a look at it.

It was into this exciting, frustrating, bubbling mix of contradictions that I thrust myself, eagerly and somewhat naively, in the late eighties and early nineties.

Next: The complicated journey that led to the founding of University Scholarships for South African Students.


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.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


This morning, I begin a several part blog posting on the scholarship organization I founded nineteen years ago, called University Scholarships for South African Students [USSAS]. For more information about USSAS, and pictures of and stories about some of the students who have been helped by USSAS, you can go to .

I am going to start with a rather long account of the history and structure of South African higher education, which is very different from the American variety, so that you can understand exactly why USSAS was needed, and what it does.

I hope the readers of this blog find this interesting. It is, like my multi-part essay on the ideal college, a break from the political commentary that has taken up much of the space on this site since I started blogging.

By the way, Susie and I just saw the new Meryl Streep movie, Julie and Julia, which is, of course, a delight. Julia Childs fans will enjoy it for Streep's dead accurate portrayal of the inimitable Ms. Childs, but I was also taken by the story of the young woman [played by Amy Adams] who blogged her way out of an early life stalemate by undertaking in one year to make, and to write about, every single one of the more than 500 recipes in Childs' classic book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A great inspiration to apprentice bloggers.

I. The South African Higher Education System -- Some History and Background

The South African higher education system is a typical colonial education system, on to which have been imposed two distorting influences: the existence of two dominant colonial languages, Afrikaans and English, rather than one, and the complex system of racial segregation and domination known by its Afrikaans name, apartheid. When the two colonizing populations, one from Holland and the other from England, combined to form the modern Republic of South Africa, two groups of universities were established, one using Afrikaans as its language of instruction, the other using English. The first institution established was The University of South Africa, or UNISA, which was, and remains today, a correspondence or distance learning institution. The other universities started life as campuses associated with UNISA, although fairly quickly they gained independent status. Virtually all of the educational institutions in South Africa, until very recently, have been state supported, though the historically White universities, both Afrikaans and English, have very sizeable endowments. With the exception of UNISA, which now has more than 100,000 students, all of the South African unversities are small by American standards -- six or seven to fifteen thousand students, more or less.

In addition to the English and Afrikaans universities, one university was established very early on to educate Black students -- Fort Hare University, in what used to be called the Ciskei [meaning, literally, "this side of the Kei River -- the other side of the river was known as the Transkei.] Nelson Mandela was educated there, as were many of the men who eventually become leaders of sub-Saharan African nations after the post World War II wave of liberations.

The entire university system is not large, by American standards -- sixteen universities or so. The University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, and the University of Cape Town, or UCT, are the leading English language historically White universities, and the University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University are the principal Afrikaans language historically White universities. There is considerable competition among them to determine which is the academically best campus, with all of them fervently and mistakenly believing that they are the equivalents of Oxford and Cambridge, or Harvard and Berkeley. In fact, the strongest universities in South Africa can plausibly be compared with second tier State Universities in the United States -- UMass, UConn, maybe Ohio State, but probably not Michigan State, and certainly not UCLA or Berkeley.

In 1949, the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa, and a wide-ranging system of racial laws was put into effect formalizing, and also very much complicating, the segregation and exploitation that already existed somewhat more informally. Underlying the laws was a pseudo-philosophical theory of racial identity, claiming to find its intellectual rationale in the phenomenological school of thought established by Edmund Husserl. The people of South Africa, it was claimed, formed a collection of racial, cultural, linguistic, and intellectual unities that ought to be kept separate and permitted to develop, each in its own unique manner. In addition to the Afrikaans and English people, twelve other groups were identified. The first was the large number of descendants of the Indian workers who had been brought to South Africa in the nineteenth century to work in the sugar plantations on the Indian Ocean coast of Southeastern South Africa. This population, numbering more than one million, is native English speaking, and had maintained relatively few ties with the old country. The second group was the descendants of intermarriage between the Dutch settlers and the indigenous population of the Western Cape area. This population, called Coloured in South Africa, was [and remains to this day] Afrikaans speaking, and is located primarily in and around Cape Town. The other ten groups are indigenous African people, differentiated primarily by their languages -- Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Venda, Ndebele, and so forth.

A vast and extremely cruel program of relocation was undertaken to sort the African peoples into their "natural homelands." Ten quasi-independent nations were created, with puppet governments and ostensibly traditional lands carved out of the agriculturally least valuable farmlands and rural areas of South Africa, and individuals were required by official Boards, set up to determine their "true" ethnicity, to relocate to those areas, in many cases tearing families apart.

The Indian, Coloured, and African populations were forced into townships separate from the White cities that they served as pools of cheap labor. Stringent Pass Laws and Group Areas Acts made it a crime for a non-White person to be found within a White city after sundown, forcing the people who performed menial labor in the cities to travel each day to and from the townships. Since huge numbers of African men were required in the mines and the factories on which South Africa's growing wealth depended, single-sex hostels were built near the work sites, and the men were permitted several times a year to return to the Homelands to see their wives and children.

At first, Blacks were permitted to work only in the most menial of jobs, and an ideological justification was developed according to which they were intellectually incapable of work requiring more sophisticated understanding, or even literacy. A national system of Bantu schools, so called, was created to provide primary education for Black children, and Teachers' Colleges were set up to train the Black women who would serve as teachers in the Bantu schools. Drawing yet again on distorted and corrupted versions of Continental Philosophy, the Afrikanns intellectuals who served as rationalizers for the apartheid system developed an educational theory, called Fundamental Pedagogics, to justify the stringent discipline and rote learning imposed on the students in the Bantu schools.

Eventually, however, as the economy grew, and the White population shrank as a proportion of the total population, it became clear that some sort of higher education was going to be required to prepare the non-White population for a productive role in the economy, and so a number of new universities were created, along strictly racially segregated lines. By this time, there were thirteen separate Departments of Education in South Africa -- one for White schools, one for Indian schools, one for Coloured schools, and one in each of the ten Homelands. The Whites already had their universities. For the Indian students, the Univetsity of Durban-Westville was created, with a White Rector, of course, but eventually with some Indian as well as White academics. For the Coloured students, the University of the Western Cape was established in Bellville, a community not far outside of Cape Town itself [and quite near the airport, as it happens]. For the Black students, a university was created in each of the ten Homelands, ostensibly funded by the puppet Homeland government, but actually supported by the central government. Thus, there came into being a University of Zululand, a University of the North, a University of Venda, and so forth. Inasmuch as the entire South African governmental system was a vast works project for otherwise idle White South Africans, not surprisingly the Homelands university system became a place to locate politically connected Whites with marginal claims to academic qualifications.

Along with this now quite complex system of universities, there also existed a system of Technikons, modeled on the Continental rather than British system, in which a cross between technical and vocational subjects were taught. Parallel to the White Technikons, there now came into existence a number of racially segregated Technikons for Indian, Coloured, or Black students.

This, in somewhat simplified form, was the situation with regard to tertiary education in 1990, when the ANC was unbanned, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were freed from Robben Island, and the process of transition to a free South Africa began. It is the situation I found when I first travelled to South Africa in 1986.

Tomorrow: The curriculum, admissions, and the academic structure of South African university education.