Over the past few decades vocational training has increasingly become the norm within our
universities. This, together with the demand for democratisation and “social” equality, resulted
in the eclipse of the classical ideal of a comprehensive humanist education (Lat. studia
humanitatis, German Bildung). This had a particularly detrimental (if not devastating) effect on
the teaching of the humanities. Traditionally it was accepted that a thorough schooling in the humanities was only meant
for the few. Not everybody was deemed equal to the task – not on grounds of principle, but rather
because of circumstance. Factors such as talent, interestedness, intellectual and cultural
background, as well as the level of aspiration and commitment together play a decisive role in
preparing a person for such a schooling. However, the idea of such an education as the exclusive
preserve of the few is now widely rejected as outmoded, too elitist and hence totally unacceptable.
Education should be accessible to all “because we are all equal”. And if the latter seems not to
be the case, everybody can and should be made equal by means of “progressive” and
“transformative” education. This is called the “democratisation of the university”, but in reality
it means a popularisation and even a form of demagoguery by means of which far too high and
unrealistic expectations are aroused among our young people.
At the root of this levelling process in education, and of the egalitarian dogma in general,
lies the fallacy of the zero sum. It rests on the assumption that if something or someone fails, it
is the result of another that has succeeded. The other’s success was the cause of my failure. All
gains are paid for by the losers. This fallacy plays an important role in supporting many a social
reform programme or transformation initiative and the false hopes it arouses. The makers of
current higher education policy (also those in university positions) increasingly appeal to didactic
principles and practices in order to make young people fit for and amenable to study at a university.
Thus they give expression to one of the most persistent superstitions of our time, i.e. the belief
that there is a technical solution for each and every conceivable problem. More than ever before
people believe that by applying the appropriate didactical techniques, somehow everyone can
be successfully schooled. This goes hand in hand with unprecedented forms of coercion and
manipulation that are completely at odds with a truly humanist education. Moreover, a humanist education in the traditional sense is regarded as useless and obsolete.
Under the influence of the ideology of economic profit-seeking and technical efficiency the
emphasis is on knowledge that has practical utility value, and this signifies a shift towards training
at the expense of a humanist education – training which is geared towards the mastering of skills
that are necessary for one’s job or profession. For this very reason there is a continuous search
for new and more efficient teaching methods. In contrast to this, a humanist education requires
a kind of initiation which cannot be accomplished merely by means of controlled methodological
Both types of teaching (humanist education and vocational training) have their own merits.
They need not compete with one another. However, an alarming tendency exists at universities
to become mere training institutions, providers of “high level manpower” that comply with the
demands of industry, the business sector and the professions. Thereby universities could find
themselves wholly in the grip of economic-technical rationality. This would result in the loss of
academic freedom and the rise of “educated philistinism” (Hannah Arendt).
The decline of a truly humanist education in our universities must be arrested. To my mind
this can only happen insofar as universities succeed in maintaining their autonomy. If our
universities wish to do justice to the name “university” in any credible way, they must provide
sufficient scope for free intellectual activity, thus allowing students to freely commit themselves
to the discipline of scholarship, with no other motive than their love for a specific field of study
which they deem important for their own cultivation as human beings. Universities must insist
on being islands of academic freedom, safeguarded against all sorts of illusions, unrealistic
expectations and interferences of interest groups and lobbies, and averse to any form of ideological
and technological expediency. However, the autonomous status of universities can only prevail
as long as they maintain strict entrance requirements.
Aan die hedendaagse universiteite het beroepsopleiding toenemend die norm geword. Dit, tesame
met die eis om “demokratisering” en “maatskaplike” gelykheid, het die klassieke ideaal van ’n
omvattende humanistiese vorming van studente na die agtergrond geskuif. Veral die
geesteswetenskappe (in die sin van die humaniora) word nadelig hierdeur beïnvloed. Hierdie
tendens moet gestuit word. Dit kan myns insiens slegs gebeur indien universiteite waarlik
onbevoogde (outonome) instellings bly. Dit beteken dat universiteite, indien hulle hoegenaamd
nog met enige geloofwaardigheid wil aanspraak maak op die titel “universiteit”, genoegsame
ruimtes moet verskaf vir vrye intellektualiteit – ruimtes waar studente hulleself vryelik aan die
dissipline van geleerdheid onderwerp, om geen ander rede nie as die liefde vir ’n (bepaalde)
vakgebied wat hulle vir hulle vorming nodig ag. Sulke ruimtes moet eilande van akademiese
vryheid wees – gevrywaar van allerlei illusies, onrealistiese verwagtinge en bemoeienisse van
drukgroepe, en wars van ideologiese en tegnologiese pretensies. Dosente en studente sou daar
byeenkom uitsluitlik om te studeer, om te lees en te skryf, om na mekaar te luister en diskussies
te voer in die gees van die ensiklopedie, die algemene vorming. Sodanige ruimtes sal egter slegs
in hulle doel slaag vir sover daar streng toelatingsvereistes gestel word.