Friday, September 18, 2015

We transform together - the high road towards a deep #Luister

Most universities, in South Africa, have become places of intense and (often) bitter struggle. It would seem that (mostly) students, want their voices to be heard – they want Higher Education authorities to … #Luister[Listen]. This is a valid call. Universities cannot remain spaces where the institutional culture, aims, practices and content of the teaching are decided in ivory towers and then simply dictated and delivered (from on high) to students. (This is no reference to the fact that we as Unisa are situated on a hill). The challenge of Higher Education transformation is (again) thrust on the public agenda – this time with urgency, and students want us all to #Luister [Listen].

There is however a few considerations that I wish to suggest as we embark on this crucial, yet complex journey. I offer this as simply another voice to a much bigger and I know highly sophisticated conversation. Yet again, graduandi and your relatives and friends, I do this also to invite you, as part of the broader Unisa family, to confidently take your place as we seek a way forward which will strengthen our quest and resolve to go beyond being a very good university (which we know we are!) towards being a great university!
Now, as a good Reformed dominee I wish to suggest 3 points:
1.   Firstly, we need to acknowledge, as noted already, that this is a complex journey. Progress cannot simplistically reduce only to the measurement of one indicator, whether it be appointments, language policy, institutional culture, only. When Allister Sparks, veteran and award-winning journalist wrote of the education challenges that South Africa faced in 1994, he referred to it as a ‘bitter inheritance’ (2003:220). On Higher Education he stated, the ‘system produced a wicked and wasteful distortion’ (:225). All the expertise and experience are needed.

These challenges also need to be put within a broader, African framework. Unisa is self-consciously a leading African university. When sociologist Professor Herbert Vilakazi sketch the challenges that African intellectuals must engaged in, in order to lead in building a new Africa, he speaks of a ‘massive and serious process of re-educating ourselves about the principles and patterns of African civilization’ (1999:204) (and I would add, knowledge systems). He continues, ‘The biggest spiritual and mental challenge to African intellectuals is that in this massive re-education process, the only teachers that they have are ordinary African men and women who are uncertified, and who live largely in rural areas’ (:204)….

He is however of the view that most African universities have not lived up to this, ‘their responsibility’. He calls this responsibility to be the dominant guiding light to the continent and to the societies in which they are located (:205). Indeed, this remains a daunting, complex challenge and journey in which all of us must confidently play their role.  

2.    Secondly, currently we face the reality of rapid change. Some would argue that in fact change itself has changed. Our quest for transformation, need to take into account this fluid reality. Stephen R Covey, the author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, in his book, “The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness”, argues that the changes we face, towards an Information/Knowledge Age is ‘one of the most significant shifts in human history’ (2013:12).

He illustrates it in this way,

‘Imagine for a moment that you take a step back in time and are a hunter and a gatherer of food Each day you go out with a bow and arrow or stones and sticks to gather food for the family. That’s all you’ve ever known, seen and done to survive. You are the best! Now imagine some-one comes up to you and tries to persuade you to become what he calls a “farmer”. What do you think your response will be?

You then see him go out and scratch the earth and throw, what he calls, seeds into the ground and you see nothing; you see him watering the soil and removing weeds and still you see nothing. But eventually you see a great harvest. You notice his yield as “farmer” is fifty times greater than yours as a hunter and gatherer, and you considered yourself to be the best. What do you do? Now the farmer is so productive that you see him making enough money to send his children to what he calls “school”. Little by little you are drawn to go through an intense learning process of becoming a farmer….

Several generations pass, and along come the Industrial Age. People build factories and learn specialisation, delegation and scalability. They learn how to take raw materials through an assembly line with very high levels of efficiency. The productivity of the Industrial Age goes up 50X higher over the family farm – What do you say?

The question is: What would you need to be a player in the industrial age? You would need a completely new set of skills- new tools. More importantly, you would need a new mind set – a new way of thinking.

Currently, we are in what some call, the Information/Knowledge worker Age. Sociologist Manuel Castells speaks of the Network Society. Much of the job losses in the Industrial Age jobs, they argue, have less to do with government policy than they have to do with the dramatic shift to the Knowledge Worker Age.” 

Indeed, our students know that knowledge, information, is available at our finger tips. I know as I speak here, many of you are in Facebook or Twitter to see what is happening in the (your gf’s or BFF’s) world – many of you Googled, “Stephen Covey”, “The 8th Habit: “From effectiveness to greatness”; But then (maybe) you’ve tweeted in 140 characters, “what a boring speech! Just let me get my paper and be gone. #mygraduation”

The point is that we are in the middle of rapid change. Unisa itself is on the cutting edge of this revolution in making it explicit that as an ODeL university we aim “to harness the new and emerging potential in information and communication technology to catapult the university into a truly digital future.” Any agenda of transformation in Higher Education need to take account of this fluid reality.

3.    Lastly, in all our endeavors, we must never lose sight of our common humanity. The College of Human Sciences in particular deals with disciplines, like Anthropology, Sociology, Development Studies, Linguistics, Political Sciences, Religion, etc. We don’t do this in isolation, but with other colleagues and the world.

Recently a team of paleoanthropologists, led by Professor Lee Berger, research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at University of the Witwatersrand, and a team of researchers, cavers and explorers announced the remarkable discovery of new species of a what they call ‘a human relative, who they named Homo Naledi.’This is remarkable and we congratulate our colleagues. When we think about it, then we realise that this again underlines the strategic place of our continent in the origins of humanity. It points to our common ancestry, our common humanity ...

The disciplines of Humanities, alongside our colleagues in Natural Sciences, are intrigued by the complexity, interplay, and mysteries of our common humanity.

Let me return for a moment to Homo Naledi. What is significant about this discovery, our colleagues, explains, is that the researchers argue that ‘this primitive-looking hominin may have practiced a form of behaviour previously thought to be unique to humans.’ which‘suggests the possibility of a form of ritualised behaviour (or repeated behaviour) previously thought to be unique to humans’[1]

Indeed, the interest in, study of and the discoveries of the mysteries behind the ritual, the connections with the transcendent realities, with our common ancestors alive and those who have gone before us, our interaction with our environment, will remind us that that the “I” am, because the “We” are – also often expressed in the notion of Ubuntu.
Let us consider for a moment all who share this common humanity; let us consider that all of us come from Africa, and we are here to share in the journey of transforming Higher Education to serve all of our continent and the world. 

As I conclude, I wish to remind us here that while the challenges of Higher Education, of building a new Africa are daunting; while the speed of change calls towards the quest for life-long learning in a Knowledge/Networking Age and while we recognise that we are doing this with each other, in recognizing our common humanity, let us continue on this road as partners in the common pursuit of knowledge, of truth. Indeed, we are growing as a Unisa community; we grow in community, we grow towards a new African community, as we are shaping futures, in service of all of humanity.
I thank you!

(This is an extract from my Chancellors Address delivered on 17 Sept 2015 at a Graduation of Unisa, in Pretoria)

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