Interview with designated Dean of Arts and Social Sciences
Prof Johan Hattingh of the Philosophy Department has just been appointed by the University Council to succeed Prof Hennie Kotzé. He spoke to Stephanie Nieuwoudt about his new post.
What are the biggest professional and personal challenges of your new post?
For the Faculty I think the biggest challenge of our time is to help articulate how the crises being experienced by the world, our continent and our country are undermining, hollowing out and limiting our humanness and common humanity. We need to come up with proposals to ensure that we maintain our dignity and are able to flourish as people in togetherness with each other.
In this regard I am referring to the worldwide financial downturn, and the associated savings crisis and security crisis; I am thinking of the development crisis and the survival crisis of Africa; the service delivery crisis and the democratisation crisis in our own country.
For me, personally, the biggest challenge will be to keep open the space for independent and critical investigation, teaching and service provision – which are the three core functions of the university as institution – to such an extent that the academic staff of the Faculty can do their work properly, without interference, and with imagination and inspiration.
To what extent are the environment and the social sciences dependent on one another?
We are dependent on the natural environment not only for our survival, but also for our quality of life and our welfare. It affects the interrelationships between individuals, groups, societies and nations, and even our freedom and the choices that we make to fulfil ourselves.
Besides the fact that the conservation of the natural environment is a human necessity, the natural environment also has an intrinsic value, independent of all the uses that people make of it. The humanities and the human and social sciences are by definition involved with trying to understand all of this and explaining its meaning.
What is your view of the place, role and function of the Faculty, against the background of how you view the global university and more specifically SU?
The world is increasingly falling victim to the model of instrumental rationality. Everything we do is in the service of the ideal of becoming as rich as possible as quickly as possible, and to remain rich for as long as possible.
In such a world, knowledge becomes a commodity – something that can be sold to the highest bidder in the market like a consumer item. The university is easily corporatized – in a harsh way like a business is run and in which all the attention is paid to the products that have to be produced, the efficiency of the processes by which this is done, and the profits that are made. In such a university we lose sight of what happens to the people who work there, and of the ultimate purpose for which they are working there.
To me, one of the primary functions of a Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is to point out the limits and even dangers of a model of instrumentalist rationality, from the modus of a mode of sharp, critical inquiry.
On the basis of the disciplines that are grouped together in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences an image is formed of a university as an institution that rather should be in the service of human dignity and our common humanity.
Our Faculty has played a central role in putting the University and society in service of a rationality of values. This entails an open and unfinished agenda. We must enter into discussion with each other, and keep on helping each other not to elevate the values that we set for the fulfilment of our humanity to absolute truths, which will achieve the opposite of what we maintain that they stand for.
What is your message for the people of the Faculty?
The “People of the Faculty” comprise academic, administrative and maintenance staff, and above all our approximately 5 000 undergraduate and postgraduate students. All individuals in each of these groups jointly form one big team that constitutes the framework that makes the functions and role of the Faculty possible.
I would like the Faculty to be a space where each one of these Faculty members, as people, can realise their excellence and ideals, and realise their full potential as individuals who rise above the platform of the collective.
I therefore also would like the Faculty to be a space of transformation and diversity, in which all South Africans feel comfortable and at home, and in which we can enrich and sharpen each other from a variety of ideas and experiences.
As someone pointed out to me recently, we need to know that things such as information and planning and facts and subsidy and figures and statistics and quality are all extremely important dimensions of our work, but that we also need to know that we are busy developing knowledge that is essential for the welfare of society.
I am particularly proud of the fact that we are already performing excellently, and it is a privilege and a pleasure to be able to help build on this.
You did your MA on technology and metaphysics. Since then, technology has increased with rapid strides. How does one remain human in the midst of this explosion?
In 1980, when I completed this MA, I understood very little about nanotechnology and stem cell manipulation. Today we are reaping the benefits of these things, among others in the tea bag water filter that was developed here at Stellenbosch and will have a revolutionary impact on the health of people who do not have access to clean water, and in the skin transplants that could recently be done on little Pippie Kruger.
But technology is not only an instrument in our hands with which to satisfy needs. It also changes the way in which we think about what is humanly possible, and the ways in which can fulfil ourselves. We have become fundamentally different people from one hundred or fifty years ago.
How do we remain “human” under such circumstances? This is not something that we can determine in advance, and achieve with a recipe, a logarithm, a decision matrix or a technique. We will only be able to remain human if we can continue to talk and ask questions about what we want to achieve with our technology. Technology is a human undertaking that always displays human dimensions and motives and values.
What are the challenges facing academia on our continent? And how can structures such as PANGeA help us in this regard?
A month ago I was talking with a dean of a faculty of arts at a respected university elsewhere in Africa, and he was despondent about a number of things: that the budget with which he had to work was completely insufficient; that the infrastructure at his disposal was completely inadequate; and that most of his time was taken up by the endless stream of complaints, frustrations and stresses of students and staff. Relative to these circumstances, Stellenbosch and our Faculty are placed very well, although our budget and infrastructure are still a big tight in some respects.
In this context, the PANGeA programme is a remarkable and forward-thinking initiative. It makes good infrastructure, excellent academic leadership and a relatively well-funded budget available every year to 10 to 15 PhD students from Africa to the north of us. Through this beginning we are hoping to make a difference that will have a ripple effect in the years and decades ahead to become something quite big.