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My Taxi Driver Reads Chomsky: Reclaiming the Liberal Arts in South Africa

02/25/2015 03:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

If you have to get lost, I recommend doing it at the top of Table Mountain. That's what I did. In the few minutes I'd sat down to jot down some thoughts, my group had hiked on. I didn't have a map, and my sense of direction has long been the butt of jokes in my immediate family. So I just started walking.

Eventually I found a path, and next to it a view, and with it a twenty-something South African engineer named Stefano. He was with friends -- two Canadian college students who were couch-surfing in his apartment -- and asked me what I was doing here. I told him I was studying history. He scoffed.

That happens a lot. About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article about being a liberal arts student in the pre-professional milieu of my university, and getting the sense that people think me a lost puppy with no way home. (In a word, I think American pre-professionalism is the result of tunnel-vision and a blind drive toward "success" that are leaving the young workforce without a broader understanding of our place in the social and historical narrative.) When I talk about my history major, it often feels like speaking to a wall of derision: Good luck with that, man. So Stefano didn't faze me.

But Stefano's was a different kind of scoff.

I've come to understand South African pre-professionalism as being of a different flavor than its American counterpart. It is motivated not by gross opportunism, but by necessity. (Or, at least what feels like necessity.) The push to send a steady flow of CPAs, engineers, and number crunchers down the higher-education conveyor belt isn't the result of narrow-minded expediency; rather, it's the reflection of a nation who sees itself as many decades behind developed economies and in desperate need of catching up. This era of doing is the panacea to a century of waiting.

That seems a more noble rationale for unbridled pre-professionalism than the one we're often given in the United States. The South African argument makes sense: There is no place in a developing economy (and a country just beginning to recover from its marred past) for history or historians, philosophy or philosophers, ivory-tower intellectuals who gaze with sanctimony upon the plebeians below. As Stefano put it, South Africa doesn't yet have time for "vocations of leisure."

That seems about right. Until you read the newspaper here.

This country is still bleeding from gashes that are historical in nature: President Jacob Zuma is finding an all-too-convenient bedfellow in Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and many fear that Beijing will suck up South Africa's abundant natural resources; there's an energy crisis going on; there's an education crisis that's been going on for about four hundred years; and the country's social institutions are still largely segregated de facto, even if they're legally integrated. Many of these wounds remain as raw as they were in 1994, and the ones that have been ignored have become infected. (At the risk of irritating some of my Emory professors, I use the passive voice here because the list of neglectful parties is too long for this piece.) Math and science and the impulse toward "real-world skills" will be meaningless in South Africa without social context.

Two encounters last week proved to me that the will to actively seek out that social context exists here, despite the perhaps more powerful will toward the purely-"practical."

The first was with a taxi driver named Paul. Within a minute of stepping into his van, Paul had told me that he was in a mixed marriage; that he's white and his wife is "coloured" (a separate racial designation than black in this country). By the highway on-ramp, he'd also given me a concise history of military conscription in South Africa. And by the time he dropped me off, Paul had delivered a soliloquy on ANC corruption through the prism of Noam Chomsky's 2006 Failed States. "You're going to write home and say that you met a white taxi driver who reads Chomsky," Paul said. He was right.

The second was with a group students at a high school in the Philippi township, where I've started to coach after-school debate. Another coach (a year-round UCT student) posed the question of whether black South Africans should have to learn English, or whether the rest of the country should learn their own "indigenous" languages. (There are 11 official languages here.) I flashed with foreboding to my own high school: students would have tuned out at the mention of such an esoteric topic.

But not these kids. This group of students -- each of them black, originally Xhosa-speaking, and between the ages of 13 and 20 -- argued with vigor (and in English). "Of course we need to know English today," said one young man in a flat cap. "Maybe it's not the way it should be, but we need it to engage with the rest of the world." One of his female classmates took issue with that: "But we were born into our own culture, and that's all we have. We need to protect where we came from." I was struck by one thing in particular: they were listening to each other and responding, not just unilaterally spewing their own thoughts. I wasn't surprised because it was happening in a township; I surprised because it was happening with teenagers. And if was happening with teenagers (most of whom who will -- statistically -- finish their formal education after senior year), it can happen with college students.

They knew it mattered. And intellectual history agrees. In the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment, Matthew Arnold -- considered one of the founding fathers of modern social theory -- wrote that people and societies would be on the road to prosperity if they were "possessed by the scientific passion as well as the passion of doing good." He was talking about the balance between Rationalist thought and Romantic zeal; ambition and morality; the flow of UCT engineers and UCT history students. About 150 years later, the leading developmental psychologist and Harvard Professor Howard Gardner said in a video for The Atlantic's website: "An education devoid of arts and artistic and humanistic endeavors is a half-brained, empty kind of education." An eminent and successful culture lives in the spaces between those dichotomies. Advocates of a purely technical South African future would do well to read Arnold and listen to Gardner.

South Africa had (and in some places still has) a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The country aired out its dirty laundry in Town Square, with cameras rolling and the world watching. That was a formal, top-down attempt at reclaiming context and understanding historical realities. It was the liberal arts swallowed as a pill.

But here's my point -- and please remember that these are just observations, pieces I've picked up along the way, not financial calculations or deeply researched theses:

I think that if this country wants to make real economic, political, and social progress -- if it wants to see true racial healing and substantive social change -- its critical engagement with the past needs to come from the bottom up. Shouldn't all the taxi drivers have a critical understanding of whom they're driving and why they're not the ones being driven? Shouldn't all the schoolchildren -- across the racial gamut -- know why they're learning calculus in English, but speaking Xhosa across the dinner table? We know that the will for these conversations exists at the humblest echelons -- why not encourage them with dynamism in the high school and university setting?

South Africa needs engineers and people who know how to run businesses. It needs doctors and architects and land developers. But I think South Africa needs more taxi drivers like Paul, and kids like the ones in Philippi. I think it needs more sociology and international relations majors. Because if you don't know why things are the way they are, it's going to be difficult to push with any impact toward the way they ought to be. Stefano told me that this country can't afford more people who take on careers of reflective inquiry; I wonder whether it can afford to exist without them.