Your academic accolades have taken you around the world, haven’t they? The Fulbright Scholarship to Stanford University, and then the University of Edinburgh awarded you with an Honorary Doctorate in Education. How has time in especially these faraway places, America and Scotland, changed and influenced you?
My studies in the USA (MSc and PhD) changed me in several respects. It gave me an enduring respect for freedom to speak with courage no matter the consequences; it gave me a sense of what it really means to work hard as a scholar; and it taught me to set ambitious goals for myself, being comfortable with criticism, and that standing out was a virtue especially in the quality and originality of your research.
You’re a proponent of intellectual freedom – what does that mean?
It means daring to stand alone, to think for yourself rather than hiding in the crowds, and to be fearless, like Joshua Broomberg of King David, Victory Park.*
You’re a reader and a writer. Which books have influenced you the most, what’s the most important book you’ve authored thus far and which books do you still mean to write?
I know why the caged bird sings, by Maya Angelou, had a profound effect on my life, as did Eva Hoffman’s After Such Knowledge. My best book is Knowledge in the Blood, but I have a better book for next year called tentatively Nearness By Resemblance, about how young people at universities, UFS in particular, transform themselves under difficult conditions.
How are South Africans doing in the global knowledge economy now, compared to say, five years ago? Are we getting better?
Individuals do better than the country, especially those who leave and place themselves in the centre of places like Silicon Valley where innovation and risk are vital components of success .
In South Korea there is a culture of reading and a culture of study, and it’s very disciplined. As a result the South Koreans have enormous human capital. How do we begin, in South Africa, to achieve a culture more oriented towards esteeming education – and educators?
There is something to be said for discipline (South Korea) but more for innovation (USA); if we can combine the two, we have an ideal situation. The problem with discipline, conventionally understood, is that it inhibits risk-taking and free-thinking required for entrepreneurship and original thinking.
What are your thoughts on corporal punishment?
It is the work of cowards, whether as parents or teachers. You do not beat up on those smaller or more vulnerable than you, and it is especially dangerous in a violent society not only on the streets but in marriages.
When Oprah visited the Free State University campus, what was that experience like for you? Did she share anything interesting with you personally?
It meant a lot for our staff, students and the surrounding community; I had met her before, and respect her deeply. What she did share personally was her appreciation and respect for the role of forgiveness and reconciliation at the university.
Who are your mentors? Who do you – and did you – look up to?
Chabani Manganyi, a retired professor and clinical psychologist who is probably one of the wisest and most insightful South Africans you will meet any day. And then my mother, who taught me courage and hard work, and my father, who taught me humility and service. I am blessed because of them.
What are you reading at the moment?
About 15 different books and a box load of printed journal articles for my new book. A duet of books by Annette Gordon-Reed on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the slave owner and the slave in the American South, and what it teaches us about intimacy, nearness and transformation in a rainy season.
You once observed that we do not teach young people to doubt. In that sense, our entire society is fundamentalist in character. On almost any contentious issue, the world is divided neatly into black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Evidence comes second to emotion. Logic gives way to anger. There are no grey areas, no room for doubt.
Wouldn’t you say our beliefs play a large role in the generalised fundamentalism we see in South African society? And how do we dismantle that? How do we become more open, and more human, and more able to admit our own mistakes?
By teaching with our lives. This could and should be done by all leaders in how we approach complex matters whether it be the Pallo Jordan PhD saga or the Joshua Broomberg stance on Palestine, show nuance, complexity and uncertainty rather than shoot off right and wrong answers as in a multiple choice test.
Do you think the ghost of Apartheid will haunt the South African narrative forever? When will we be rid of it?
It will for a long time, but it can come to be buried in the future depending on how leaders talk about that past in the present.
Where do you see signs of hope in South Africa?
The youth, and I mean that.
What do you do for fun?
I watch the Bulls demolish the Stormers, and then I read and play piano where I can find one.
As a youngster, did you always want to be a teacher, or an educator? Who or what inspired you to take this path?
It came after being influenced by an inspired Latin teacher who taught me what I could become.
Do you consider yourself political?
Not in the sense of party politics, but in the sense of everyday life and choices, we all are.
Not at all. I am only labelled this way because few other people take a stand on anything. I do not like standing out for my views; in a healthy democracy I would be invisible.
Is technology doing more good or harm, in terms of arming or equipping youngsters for the working world? How should parents deal with the access young people have to so much unfiltered information?
We should stop trying to shut down things we do not like; at the same time, we need to teach young people that abusing technologies can destroy real lives.
You’re also quite active on Facebook. How do you use Facebook to engage?
I use Facebook and Twitter to convey a sense of connectedness to my students first, and to many others who look for guidance on education and life; it takes very little time, and it fills a hole while waiting for the delayed flights to or from Bloemfontein.
What’s next for you?
Back to high school teaching.