DEMANDING TRANSFORMATION: UCT workers and Rhodes Must Fall members march to the Bremner Building to hand over a memorandum to Vice-Chancellor Max Price seeking transformation at the university. Photo: David Ritchie

Those demanding "transformation" and "decolonisation" of South African universities rarely define their terms, or they do so imprecisely. The resultant ambiguity may facilitate the halo effect that surrounds these terms.

Academics and students alike, piously intone them. But slogans are no substitute for real argument.

If one wants to establish some conclusion, one must use key terms as unambiguously and precisely as the underlying concepts permit.

A "transformation", for example, is "a thorough or dramatic change". Not all such changes are positive. Thus those who seek particular changes need to demonstrate that they are desirable ones.

One demand is for the transformation of the student and staff profiles to reflect the racial demographics of the country. However, it is not enough to endorse that goal. The means to attaining it must also be appropriate.

Admitting, on the basis of their "race", students who are not at all prepared for university would set them up for failure and squander limited public resources.

To be clear, the university can, should, and does provide support to those students who have been educationally disadvantaged, but it can do so only for those students who are moderately disadvantaged and could succeed with remedial help.

Universities cannot compensate for 12 years of appalling primary and secondary education in South Africa's dysfunctional schools.

The sad truth is that the pool of qualified university applicants is only a small proportion of school-leavers. Without improved schooling, the student demographics at universities simply cannot resemble the national demographics. It is wishful, delusional thinking to imagine otherwise.

Similarly, in hiring academics, universities can draw on only a very small subset of the entire population. The quarry is not all adults or even those with PhDs. The aim is to appoint the best scholars and teachers from the pool of suitably qualified applicants. That pool bears very little resemblance to the country's demographics.

In response to this, many advocates of "transformation" argue that we have to alter our conception of "excellence" which, they say, is "Eurocentric".

They might make a more persuasive case if they could explicate the ways in which the current standards of "excellence" are questionable. Should we, for example, not be seeking academics who have finely honed analytical skills, a command of their field and who can publish articles in excellent international journals, and books with prestigious academic presses?

Advocates of "transformation" also claim that the curriculum needs to be "decolonialised" or "Africanised". It is very difficult to understand what exactly this is meant to imply.

Sometimes the suggestion is that African ways of thinking should be affirmed and that "European" ways of thinking should not be privileged.

One problem with this suggestion is that it oversimplifies "African" and "European" ways of thinking. For example, the ways of thinking that characterised European universities several hundred years ago have changed. If European universities had insisted, as conservatives might have wanted, on preserving traditional European thinking, there would not have been the advances in knowledge that there have been.

Similarly, if advocates of "decolonisation" insist on injecting traditional African ways of thinking, there would be similar stultification.

The success of modern universities is not based on self-consciously pursuing or affirming traditional or ethnicspecific ways of thinking. Instead, the goal is to pursue knowledge as a common human endeavour. Thus we should be interested in whatever methodologies and innovations work, and adopt them irrespective of their origin.

Europeans did not reject Indo-Arabic numerals on the grounds that they were not of European origin. (This is one illustration that not everything brought to South Africa by Europeans was European in origin.) The process is never complete, which is why change should be welcomed - but only if change improves what universities do.

Change for the sake of fitting an ethnic or nationalist agenda is unlikely to have that effect. Thus, Africa should demonstrate that it has something valuable to add rather than arguing that it has something African to contribute.

This is not to say that Africa can offer nothing valuable, but rather that the selling point should be that it is valuable rather than that it is African.

One possibility is to investigate scientifically whether some traditional African medicines have therapeutic value. However, it would be a mistake to reject the scientific methodology as a "colonial epistemology" and to teach medical students to prescribe traditional remedies without scientific evidence that they are safe and effective. It is only through advances made by the scientific methodology that European medicine shed itself of such errors as miasmatic theory and humorism. No doubt there are lingering (and new) errors in modern medicine that still need to be expunged by advancing knowledge.

Parts of the university curriculum are already Africanised in some sense - African languages and literature, African customary law and African religion are taught. That is entirely appropriate, but not all disciplines lend themselves to Africanisation.

It is not clear, for example, what it would mean to "decolonise" physics or mathematics. There is only mathematics - not European or African mathematics.

What about my own discipline, philosophy? The main source of confusion with demands to Africanise a philosophy curriculum is the ambiguity in the word "philosophy". Many people use the term to refer to any system of thought. However, that is not the way it is used in the academic context.

Academic philosophy is not even merely the study of thought systems, for that would not differentiate philosophy from areas of anthropology and religious studies.

Philosophy is characterised not only by particular questions, but also by the methodologies it uses in answering those questions. These methodologies, like those of mathematics and physics, are imports. Even if they can be applied to African thought, that would involve a kind of "colonisation" - African thought would be subjected to non-indigenous academic tools.

But indigenousness is no more a marker of value than non-indigenousness is a marker of disvalue.

Ideas, innovations, methodologies should be evaluated on their merits rather than on their provenance.

One psychological factor that impedes the recognition of this is the misplaced ("colonising") pride of some people and the misplaced ("colonised") insecurity of others.

Peoples' intellectual capacity and promise is not a function of what has been achieved by their forebears.

In any event, not all "white" South Africans are descended from either colonialists or from the great centres of European learning. Some are descended from non-colonial immigrants. They are first or second-generation university graduates.

Universities and their curricula were not part of their own "cultural heritage", but they embraced university learning -because it is valuable and despite its "cultural unfamiliarity".

Most "blacks" in South Africa are not immigrants. Nevertheless, we should all be heartened by the words of the eminent Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, who asked whether it was absurd for him, "someone just one generation from the shtetl, a pisher from… Brooklyn", even to touch on the work of monumental thinkers. He replied: "Of course it is. Yet it was ludicrous for them too. We are all just a few years past something or other, if only childhood. Even the monuments themselves… must have been children once… - so they too are immigrants to the realm of thought."

* Benatar is Professor andHead of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town