Sunday, 29 March 2015

A black week

"Extra Yarn" by Marc Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

It's been a week of ear infections, visits to the doctor, sleepless nights, crying little ones, all happening under the cloud of the unfair dismissal of a dear friend and colleague. A week left hollowed-out and pale with dark rings under its eyes.  Fingers curling around mugs of coffee and tea, trying to stay awake, trying to think my way into the disturbing notion that "it is reckless of lecturers to challenge thoughts about religion." It's a phrase that still haunts me. Is it reckless in the same way that it would have been to challenge thoughts about racial inequality during apartheid? Or reckless to challenge sexist thinking around issues of culture? What about challenging religious beliefs that are hurtful towards others? Where is the line with what we're comfortable with and what we're not and who decides on it?

It's been a week where cereal has been poured into bowls, little ones bathed and dressed and even stories read with the monotonous, halting motions of an automaton. My mind has been elsewhere, clouded with disgust and anger and disillusionment.

Teaching and learning is about the open exchange of ideas. It's an arena that allows ideas to be kicked around a bit and it's an arena where ideas shouldn't be protected from becoming a little bruised. If there is no such space where our personal ideas and beliefs can be met with a fair round of knocks and dents, then how do we ever get the opportunity to know who we really are? How do we ever see beyond our own ways of thinking, our limited, immediate world?

In her very apt article, In college and hiding from scary ideas, Judith Schulewitz writes, "People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they'll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They'll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they've learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?"

The same sentiment that carves out universities as separate spaces from the everyday, is echoed by Prof Jonathan Jansen, whom I greatly admire, "In this state of being open and ready to listen to new ideas, students and professors come to university because they believe that in a democracy based on decency and respect, reason is our prime currency. A university is not a place where you throw tantrums in public, or storm out of lectures on topics you do not like, or hurl insults at ideas that clash with your own.

This means, therefore, that a university must be different from its community when what happens outside a campus is often marked by dangerous conflicts in which libraries are burnt down, tyres set alight in the streets, foreign nationals robbed and killed, racial and tribal bonds formed, and brutal acts of mob justice meted out.

To the extent that a university produces future leaders in a democracy, students must learn to be counter-cultural - forming habits of the mind and learning acts of duty that run in the opposite direction to what happens in the broader society.

A university does not bear allegiance to any external authority. It is not a church, even though many of the inhabitants of this place of higher learning might come from church communities. Nor does a university owe any allegiance to a political party or a government."

And just like that a wonderful teacher disappears. Years of stimulating discussions, open debate, of finding pathways into knowledge and experience, of first steps navigating the maze of tricky, uncomfortable topics present in our world, have all been sacrificed for the safe, the mundane, the watered-down, the non-offensive.

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