Lesotho Times

There is value in all forms of knowledge

FINANCE Minister Timothy Thahane recently visited the National University of Lesotho (NUL) to speak about the Public-Private Partnerships (PPP).

In his speech, Thahane told students that Basotho ask too many questions, and get very little done as a result.

I think asking questions is  human and is not just a Basotho trait. It is also the duty of universities, where he was speaking on that day, to encourage the asking of questions. We encourage students to think and ask questions in order to get answers and solve problems. 

People do not ask questions when they have answers and solutions. People who ask questions do so because they do not have answers and solutions.

If they persist in asking questions it is because answers and solutions continue to elude them.

Sometimes we persist in asking questions, and ask even more questions, when we have found a solution but do not have the means to apply it.

It follows from this that poor societies have more questions than richer ones. They may be questions that those who have found solutions (and have the means to apply them) find to be of poor quality, or low level questions.

That’s the way of life.

As for the rest of Thahane’s speech, I can only say that old-fashioned types like me still tell students that a true entrepreneur is one who takes, and manages, risks.

The PPP is an arrangement by which people invest in enterprises underwritten by the government.

In other words, all risk is shifted to the public, i.e. taxpayers. Some governments have abandoned the PPP for that reason and when they found that those who authorise the government’s underwriting are also beneficiaries of the arrangement.

In this country we tend to embrace ideas just when others are abandoning them.

There are connections between all issues raised above, on the one hand, and plans to ‘overhaul’ NUL, on the other.

Regarding Thahane’s reservations about questions, it needs to be said that all change must start with questions, and if more questions become apparent as change proceeds, they must be asked, answered, and solutions applied where means allow. 

If there are no means by which to apply solutions, more questions should follow.

At the heart of the kind of thinking that dominates the world today, neo-liberalism, is the assumption that everything that human beings need to know has been discovered, and is known. 

For that reason, all thinking, and asking questions, is unnecessary, and disciplines that equip students with critical thinking at universities must be dropped.

It seems to be the case that beneficiaries of the current world social order do not want questions asked of this order.

It may be a coincidence that some of the change that is to be introduced at NUL will target disciplines that encourage critical thinking.

Dropping learning programmes on grounds of costs, or relevance to the economy, as the NUL vice-chancellor suggested in an interview published in the Sunday Express of May 15-21, 2011, has its own dangers, and misses the point about learning.

There is value in all forms of knowledge and all forms of thinking. Denying individuals the freedom to choose the kind of knowledge they would like to acquire (or which they have the aptitude to acquire) is very anti-neo-liberal.

Those who want to put cost on everything should remember the English expression: A cynic is he who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

I need to end by expressing the hope that what will emerge out of the contemplated overhaul will still be a university, or an academic institution, as most of us understand it, and not a doughnut factory where the prices of sugar and flour are known, and the contribution of each towards profit is direct and verifiable. 

This is neo-liberal wisdom. It has no place in a university.

To be clear, we are all agreed about the need for change at NUL. And we all recognise the need to improve and assure the quality of the knowledge we strive to offer.

There are many other issues on which it is difficult not to agree with the vice-chancellor — things we have known were wrong, and which we have long asked authorities to put an end to.

However, some of us are just sceptical about the premises and principles that influence the VC’s thinking as she embarks on NUL’s overhaul.

Lesotho Times

Lesotho's widely read newspaper, published every Thursday and distributed throughout the country and in some parts of South Africa.

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