Why humanities remain relevant

“All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion” (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenin).

THIS opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin came to me as I was reading the article in your newspaper’s issue of May 4th, titled “Fresh start for NUL”.

Your argument in that article reminded me how unhappy we have all come to be as a society, and how, like an unhappily married couple, we are quick to find fault in the other person.

The problems that currently face our nation will not be solved by pointing a finger of blame at certain disciplines, and suggesting that they should be “ditched”, and implying that we should all become “engineers, medical doctors and pharmacists”.

Now, if the country is in such dire need of these professionals, why do we have so many science graduates sitting at home, unemployed, or unable to go on to do higher degrees?

Obviously, the problem lies with the economy. NUL produces hundreds of these kinds of graduates each year, but the economy is saturated and cannot absorb them any longer.

You lament: “We find it unfathomable that 40 years after independence Lesotho still does not have a medical school to train its own doctors.” Have you attempted to find out how many medical doctors this country requires, and whether that number would justify creating a medical school? The fault does not lie with the knowledge — it lies in our inability to use our knowledge properly.

It does not help to have people like yourself making rash conclusions and prescribing misinformed solutions.

National development requires holistic and complex action. The social, economic, and political challenges facing our nation are each the cause and result of each other.

They are connected to each other, so that one cannot attempt to solve the political without addressing the economic, and vice-versa; one cannot achieve economic development outside of cultural considerations.

Science is meaningless outside of the culture within which it is deployed. Consider, for example, the widespread belief among Basotho that condoms actually cause HIV/Aids and lead to complications of the kidneys!

The scientist finds him/herself completely confounded and stymied by these kinds of contradictions, and this is where science should step aside and allow the humanities to take over!

In almost all cases, when someone says that something is “useless”, it is usually because they do not know or understand it properly.

Many people’s opinions of literature, for example, derive from their experiences at high school. They, therefore, consider literature to be about reading “fiction”, or “made-up stories”. 

All they remember is that Okonkwo was a fierce warrior, dogged by feelings of inadequacy; or that Macbeth was an over-ambitious coward.

Such people look back on their “knowledge” of literature, and decide that it is clearly “useless”. However, how useful is my high school “knowledge” that water boils at a hundred degrees celcius?

Largely useless I can assure you, as my electric kettle switches off automatically! And I can’t reinvent the electric kettle!

You may have already guessed that I am a Literature professional. Indeed, I teach Literature in the English Department of the National University of Lesotho.

Literature, I can assure you, has much more to teach than “fiction”. The work that I do, for instance, is based upon the firm conviction that without a strong and vital culture there can be no political or economic development.

Thus, my work is always focused on teaching my students to be alert to the cultural constructions of power.

I always try to draw their attention to the need to unravel the textual and narrative form of the nation-state, and to be alive to the power implications of such constructions. At the same time, my work is geared towards the development of a coherent and vital ‘national’ culture.

Unfortunately, in societies such as Lesotho, such coherent meanings and understandings are lacking. What exists, rather, are two discrete and largely incoherent cultural visions, indigenous and western, which continue to strain against each other, and to frustrate our developmental efforts.

More people are needed in this country who have a “proper” education, that is, people who have a global view of the world in which they live, and who can unravel the conundrums of our present post-colonial situation. 

Scientists, I am afraid, on their own, are largely ill-equipped to deal with such issues.  Unlike Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times, we must not aim to cram our students with “Facts, and Facts alone”! Ironically, Dickens recognised this over 100 years ago, when the bourgeoisie in Britain was attempting to usurp national education for its own interests.

 In your article, you suggest that “any programmes that are out of sync with the demands of industry must be ditched with the resources being channelled elsewhere.”

Yours, indeed, is not the first time that such views have been expressed concerning the “value” or otherwise of certain types of ‘knowledge’.

Such views are rehashed and propagated throughout the world in which we have come to live, directed mainly from the capitalist Western world.

The notion that some “disciplines” are worthless and contribute nothing to “national development” has become common enough. We are constantly advised that we live in a world where the “market” is supreme; that our education must be geared towards serving this so-called “market”.

Within this worldview, we are nothing outside of the market. We have no culture, no history, no personality; our very humanity is defined by the market.

Karl Marx noted, a long time ago, that: “Women’s incessant reproduction, their perpetuation of the labourer, is the sine qua non of capitalist production. The maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital”. In short, we raise children, fatten them, and feed them to the market. We are slaves to the market. But who benefits from this market, in the final analysis?

It is the capitalist hegemony.

The main problem here derives from the reflexive ways in which you and those of your ilk conflate the needs of the market with the needs of the nation.

I do wonder, indeed, whether you ever give enough thought to such issues before you make your pronouncements.

Your article shows, at the very least, that you pay scant attention to the power implications of these kinds of issues, and how they actually undergird underdevelopment.

National development can never be defined nor attained solely in terms of the market. Culture is actually at the core of national development.

The most advanced nations of the world value their cultural heritage, not because they can afford to, but because they have always recognised that it is the foundation of their success.

Where would China be today if it had sold its soul to the marketplace? It would probably be a deformed monstrocity at the mercy of Western capital.

In the interest of space and time, please allow me to move on to more constructive issues.

Firstly, instead of pandering to the dictates of the so-called “marketplace”, we should define our own needs, and create our own markets.

For instance, Literature is an area with huge economic potential. Just think, for instance, of the amount of money generated by the “Shakespeare industry’ over the centuries, and how many livelihoods it has sustained.

It has spawned the books themselves, critical books and journals, stage performances, DVDs and CDs, not to mention the value of Shakespeare to the English language and culture itself.

Where would English culture be without Shakespeare’s aphorisms? What would the English have in common, which gave them a common identity and vision?

Do you imagine that the English are daft for holding their writers and artists in such high esteem! And that is just one writer!

When you think that bands such as Coldplay and Radiohead each make more money than is generated by our entire national economy, you have to ask yourself what kind of thinking goes on in certain people’s minds!

 Do we support our musicians and artists? Clearly, disciplines such as Literature, performing arts, music, visual arts, etc, do not teach “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”, as your article would have us believe.

The problem lies in people’s mindset, especially of those who have the power to decide on what to prioritise, such as the minister of finance.

Like yourself, the Honourable Minister over there is clearly of the school-of-thought that the only “industries” are those traditionally defined through science, technology, and economics.

I would, therefore, urge those in authority to think outside the box and consider a wider range of possibilities when addressing issues of entrepreneurship development, job creation, and poverty alleviation, especially within the framework of the envisaged SMMEs Loan Guarantee Fund.

We can’t all be scientists!

In your article, you quote NUL vice Chancellor, Prof Siverts, as saying: “(o)ur job is to continously improve the quality of education we offer, making sure the programmes we offer are relevant and demand-driven, that students graduate with professional and entrepreneurial skills”. (Note that she does not say “market-driven”, and there is a huge difference).

No one in their right mind would argue with this; this is what all of us want to see. Your problem, however, is that you are unable to see beyond the “traditional” disciplines serving this purpose, and you immediately assume that she means some programmes “must be ditched”.

In your article, you  also say: “(a)s Siverts correctly put it last week, the university should be “a place for discovery, dialogue and discussion on all aspects of life”.

However, your rancour against the university, blinds you to the significance of this. She clearly recognises that all “aspects of life” must form the core business of any university.

Let me draw your attention to the fact that students who graduate from my department in the university go on to excel in their postgraduate studies in universities all over the world.

Many of them find employment in South Africa, where they are greatly valued, unlike in their own country. This is a fact.

At least, speaking for the Literature programme here at NUL, we still offer a good-quality education, this despite the fact that I have to buy my own printer cartridges!

Admittedly, we also produce a lot of deadwood, but, as you know, “gabbage in, gabbage out”! However, we shall not allow ourselves to be diminished by faceless scribes like yourself, hiding behind the power of their pens.

You do not know half the story about the NUL, but you assume to direct its future course. I challenge you to offer a position of internship to one of our Literature students and then tell us what you think.

I wish to conclude by asking what authority you, as the Editor of Lesotho Times, have to intervene in these issues. Are you, for instance, a professional in issues of education and development, or are you an expert on everything by virtue of your being a journalist?

What is becoming increasingly clear to me, after reading several of your paper’s pronouncements on the NUL, such as one from a columnist of yours referring to NUL as the “National University of Laziness”, is that you are, perhaps, a bunch of repressed academics.

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