South Africa: Reimagining liberal learning in a post-apartheid curriculum

Michael Cross, Fatima Adam

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Central to the project of liberal education in its Western sense are the concepts of individual freedom, independence, and autonomy through the enculturation of the mind. This process gives rise to the widening of opportunities for self development, self enrichment, and self fulfillment in society. Content knowledge and specific pedagogical approaches-very often associated with learner centeredness and critical thinking, particularly in the area of arts, the humanities, and the social sciences-have been privileged as instrumental for the achievement of such an ideal. However, while celebrated in the Western world, this concept’s success in the developing countries requires conceptualizing curricula and pedagogy grounded in “an appreciation of the contemporary experience of the self in its social world and embedded in its deep historical roots�? (Quicke, 1996, p. 1). It is essential, in understanding the nature of liberal education in these countries, to think outside the box of the traditional universalizing approaches to grasp the variety, complexity, and significance it assumes in these settings. This requirement is particularly true in South Africa where liberal educational ideals have been either absent from the curriculum (Afrikaans medium and historically black universities) or highly contested across the political spectrum where they have been attempted (English medium also known as “liberal�? universities). In recent times, these ideals have been underlined in the context of attempts to identify the defining characteristics of the knowledge, curriculum, and educational experiences that translate into an improved awareness of the principles and values of social justice, equity, and human rights without making direct reference to “liberal education.�? Attempts are being made to explore the ways in which higher education content could be reformed to take into account appreciation of the discourses of democratic citizenship, human rights, and social justice (Enslin, 2003). Against this background, we argue that our understanding of current academic practices that could well lay claim to the notion of “liberal education�? has deep historical roots that allow us to speak of the pursuit of the same or similar ideals through alternative pathways. While such pathways embrace individual liberties, they do so with reference to the discourse of “group rights�? and “cultural diversity�? that is deeply embedded in the South African politics, including its constitution. In this discourse, the individual appears somewhat decentered or thought about, not as an egocentric subject unable to engage with the surrounding social world in other words and other worlds, but rather as a reflection or individuation of this social world. Put differently, such pathways imply socialization into liberal ideals insofar as these are for the public good or rooted in the African communitarian ideal of education. This ideal is frequently termed ubuntu, which is captured in the maxim “a person is a person through other persons�? (umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu). Little emphasis is put on the self, the individual, and individuation in contrast to the liberal education tradition in which “the individual’s experience of himself becomes more real to him than his experience of the objective social world�? (Berger, Berger, & Kellner, 1973, p. 74). The South African communitarian focus makes the individual more aware, reflective, and accountable to the wider society both discursively and in terms of practical consciousness in response to the legacies of apartheid and to avoid falling into asocial and reductionist individualism. In this perspective, “selfidentity cannot be taken as given, but has to be accomplished and sustained through reflexive activity�? (Quicke, 1996, p. 366), which requires social responsibility and an understanding of wider social narratives beyond the narratives of the self. The implication is not that of the “homeless mind,�? as suggested by Berger et al. (1973), but rather of the critical mind that finds its home in the social world and which is not blind to the embeddedness and social character of its self conceptions.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationConfronting Challenges to the Liberal Arts Curriculum
Subtitle of host publicationPerspectives of Developing and Transitional Countries
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9781136461880
ISBN (Print)9780415506069
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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