• May 28th, 2020

Is higher education creating critical thinkers or zombies?

Job Shipululo Amupanda

In 1986, the United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN) published a study titled ‘Namibia: Perspectives for National Reconstruction and Development’. 

Submitting this book to United Nation Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, then UNIN Director Hage Geingob stated the following in his 30 April 1986 letter: “This study will contribute significantly to the body of knowledge for use by the policymakers of independent Namibia – both prior to and after the attainment of independence”. 

The book discusses education in colonial Namibia, from missionary education, through Bantu education to education after independence. The book saw post-independence education policy function as that of correcting the educational wrongs of the colonial state. For the University of Namibia –  then representing higher education – it envisaged the following:  “One of the many functions of the future University of Namibia would be to articulate and confirm the aspirations of the society it is intended to serve. Symbolically, a university adds to the status of the country by being the centre of liberal intellectual pursuit while its functional value would significantly contribute to the growth of the nation by identifying and meeting the functional requirements and fixing the priorities”. 

“The planned university must”, it directed, “aim at training people who are capable of participating in the process of decision-making and independent judgement for the service to their community and to Namibia as a whole”. 
In 1990, some of these ideas found expression in the Constitution – with Article 21 (1) (b), on Academic Freedom reading as follows: “All persons shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief, which shall include academic freedom in institutions of higher learning”. 

Thus, academics must teach, communicate ideas or facts - including unpopular ones with authorities - without being targeted, losing their jobs or face banishment. In 1993, Ministry of Education and Culture published a document called ‘Towards Education for All’, articulating the post-independence philosophy of education with democracy being one of the major objectives.  “To develop education for democracy”, the document reads, “we must develop democratic education…our learners must study how democratic societies operate and the obligations and rights of citizens. Our learners must understand that democracy means more than voting… our learners must also understand that they cannot simply receive democracy from those who rule their society. Instead, they must build, nurture, and protect it… to teach democracy, our teachers – and our education system as a whole – must practice democracy.” 

It went on to state that “the basic principle of governance at the University of Namibia is academic freedom. This is a fundamental characteristic of Namibian society entrenched in Article 21 of our constitution…These rights guarantee the university the basic conditions necessary for the pursuit of excellence. 

They assure the ability of teachers to teach, learners to learn and researchers to investigate and publish without external interference…our national university must be a beacon of learning…It must be willing to address difficult issues and ask unpopular questions, systematically, thoroughly, and persistently”. 

What is the status of higher education 28 years after independence? Is higher education producing individuals capable of independent judgment as UNIN envisaged in 1986? Are higher education institutions democratic and promoting academic freedom? Are they willing to address difficult issues and ask unpopular questions, systematically, thoroughly, and persistently? 

Are academics able to investigate and publish without external interference? I argue that the sector has reneged, with few exceptions, on its historical mission and aspirations as articulated by UNIN (1986), the Constitution (1990) and ‘Towards Education for All’ (1993). 

Those who argue that a lot has changed since 1993 must benefit from this 2007 conclusion of this government policy, the Education and Training Sector Improvement Programme (ETSIP):  “The expected economic and social benefits of education notwithstanding, recent analyses have characterised Namibia‘s education and training system as a very weak tool for supporting the realisation of national development goals, especially the intended transition to knowledge-driven growth and equitable social development. In a nutshell, the current education and training system is not able to rise to the call of Vision 2030”. 

If still unconvinced, a recall of a 2013 discussion organised by the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE), held in the context of the 2011 higher education review, is warranted. Then Unam Pro-Vice Chancellor Osmund Mwandemele, NUST Vice-Chancellor Tjama Tjivikua and South African higher education expert Rolf Stumpf all admitted that the sector is limping. 

While these problems are acknowledged, there exists scant debate on the causes. I argue that reneging on its historic mission and the principles of academic freedom, democracy, institutional autonomy, independent judgment and intellectual pursuit are part of the causes. 

Instead of being mediums of development, decolonisation and intellectual pursuit, higher education institutions have become undemocratic autocratic zones – rewarding submissiveness and punishing intellectual vibrancy – at the caprice of politicians, business elites and higher education executives. The outcomes of such an environment is one; zombies. 
In his book, ‘The Mis-Education of The Negro’, historian Carter Woodson buttresses this point profoundly: “If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told”. 

Indeed, for zombie-like students and staff whose thinking is controlled similarly do not need to be told to be silent in meetings and to accept injustice therein - it automatically occurs.  

How can a higher education leader - under whose supervision land and housing crisis research takes place - decides to become a property mogul to profit from the crisis caused by property moguls as unearthed by research under his watch? 
How does an  academic teaching administrative law sits in a meeting, participates and accept an unlawful/irregular conduct and thereafter run to a lecture hall teaching students to never allow their rights, contained in Article 18 (Administrative Justice), to be trumped upon by the powerful? 

How does one explain management of a higher learning institution accepting instructions from a politician to get rid of a fellow academic? How does one explain professors (labour law and finance) represented, in salary negotiations, by a teacher holding a Basic Education Teaching Diploma? 

How does one explain academics giving up a democratic opportunity of voting for departmental heads in preference of auctioning this opportunity to a single individual? How is it possible that students at South African universities protested and successfully won the decolonised higher education debate while Namibian students takes interest in ‘black Friday’ and smuggling alcohol on campuses? 

How is it possible that in a meetings of hundred academics across the sector, lasting for hours, only about 8 to 12 academics actively participle?  Answers are simple: higher education is not creating critical thinkers but zombies as staff and students. 

The sector has effectively become an undemocratic autocratic zone – rewarding submissiveness and punishing academic vibrancy – at the caprice of politicians, business and higher education executives. 

While one can sympathise with zombie-students, for they may be unsuspecting, can one sympathise with academics who willingly accept to be zombies? Frantz Fanon warned us in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’: “Zombies, believe me, are more terrifying than colonists”.

* Job Shipululo Amupanda is a decolonial scholar and activist from Omaalala village in northern Namibia 

New Era Reporter
2018-11-30 10:17:34 | 1 years ago

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