Philosophy curriculum ‘not detached from continent’

UCT’s Benatar slates ‘distorting responses’

The publisher of The Journalist, Zubeida Jaffer, last week entered the fray following a public spat between two UCT academics, David Benatar and Xolile Mangcu, over issues of transformation and decolonization at the university. The pieces have appeared on the pages of the Cape Times, including this response from professor Benatar to the piece authored by Jaffer.

Dear Ms Jaffer

Thank you for your open letter. The civil and temperate tone of your communication is a welcome change. However, I am saddened that Professor Mangcu has so muddied the waters with his misrepresentation of my views that you appear to be taking issue with me on a general point on which you and I do not seem to disagree.

In my original Cape Times piece on decolonizing the university, I explicitly endorsed the inclusion of African content in the curriculum. What I did, though, was place some nuanced qualifications on that widely accepted idea. For instance, I said that not all disciplines lend themselves equally well to the introduction of African content. In the case of Philosophy, I said that the methodologies of this discipline were imports and thus even if they were applied to African content, a kind of “colonizing” would still be taking place.

This does not mean that there is no scope for African content. From the distorting responses to my article, readers of the Cape Times may have the impression that the Philosophy Department at UCT has a curriculum thoroughly detached from the continent in which it is located. That is simply not so.

Our teaching in Applied Ethics, Business Ethics and Bioethics all draws on local issues and contexts, even though that is not the exclusive focus. Even courses in more theoretical areas of philosophy have sometimes drawn connections with the local context. We also offer a course on the Philosophy of Race in which African thinkers, and thinkers of African origin feature prominently. This is a relatively new course, but over the years we have run other courses with special local interest. For a few years from 1990 a course entitled “Philosophy in a South African Context” was offered, and African Philosophy was taught for a while.

Our teaching offerings do change over the years and this is partly a function of staff research and teaching interests. (For example, we offered a course in the Philosophy of Religion for many years, but no longer do so, although some philosophy of religion features in other courses.)

In response to this it might be asked why we have not hired new staff members who are interested in teaching a course in African Philosophy, for example. The reasons are complex, but here is some background.

First, had I relied on UCT’s “wisdom” about the teaching of philosophy, UCT would not now have a Philosophy Department at all. I returned to South Africa in 1997 to take up a lectureship in the small Philosophy Department. A few years later, as departing staff members were not replaced, I found myself the sole permanent member of the Department. The University attempted to “merge” the Philosophy Department with the Political Studies Department. Given the differential size of the two departments, this would have been a take-over rather than a merger. The future of a robust Philosophy curriculum would have been in serious jeopardy.

When the Vice-Chancellor at the time was publicly confronted about the prospect of a University without a Philosophy Department, she said that the university could not excel in every area. I refused to accept that Philosophy at UCT should be doomed and succeeded in resisting the “merger”. In the approximately 15 years since then, the department has steadily grown. We now have eight academics in permanent posts teaching in excess of 2 500 students each year. We do have teaching assistants, but an eight-member Philosophy department, while not unusual in South Africa, is exceptionally small by the standards of quality tertiary institutions abroad. It is also small in comparison with most departments at UCT. Yet we have produced exceptional students. One marker of this is that our Honours and Masters graduates have been admitted to masters and doctoral programmes in the world’s finest universities. Others have become top students in their LLB classes.

Thus our size has been one impediment to broadening the range of our courses. As we have grown we have been able to expand our range of offerings, including the Philosophy of Race.

Another problem is recruiting philosophers who have research and teaching interests in areas in which we would like to grow. African Philosophy, like Bioethics (one of my areas of interest), is a branch of philosophy in which plenty of academically inferior work is done. This is not to say that there are no excellent philosophers working in these areas, but given the relative dearth of them, they are harder to find and hire. We came close on a few occasions to hiring a second specialist in Bioethics, an area in which we have a serious need for growth, but each time the successful applicants had other, more attractive options. We have declined opportunities to hire bioethicists whom we believe are not up to standard.

It is very easy for the uninformed and the malicious – and I am certainly not referring here to you – to respond inappropriately to my careful comments about “transformation”, “decolonization” and “Africanisation”. They misconstrue my comments, rush to judgment, assume the worst about me, and spew forth inflammatory and scurrilous demagoguery that is, quite frankly, irresponsible and dangerous. Instead of having made this debate personal, they should have focused on what I actually said, and engaged with its nuances. While I do not agree with everything you wrote, perhaps your polite letter will set them an example in good-mannered engagement.

David Benatar
Philosophy Department
University of Cape Town