An “underground seepage of anti-humanism” is “running through” universities across the world and should be addressed by creating an environment in which students are able to make their own discoveries.
That is the powerful message from Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who said that religious zealotry and intolerance have taken a “heavy toll on intellectual pursuit in ancient and recent times” and should be tackled by “weaning the young mind away” from dogma.
His comments were made during a keynote speech on the theme “reimagining the future university” at the Times Higher Education BRICS & Emerging Economies Universities Summit, being held at the University of Johannesburg.
In a Q&A session following his speech, Professor Soyinka said there is a “tendency” to think that only universities in Africa and the Middle East are affected, but the issue is “sweeping the world”.
“There is an underground seepage of anti-humanism running through institutions,” he said.
He added that while he believes in democracy and freedom of speech, “there is a limit” and “hate speech” must be recognised as “taking advantage of freedom of speech to erode our very communities that are founded on these principles”.
“It is time to forget political correctness,” said Professor Soyinka, who in 1986 became the first black African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has held professorships at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan and University of Ife (now known as Obafemi Awolowo University), and has also been a visiting academic at the universities of Harvard, Yale and Oxford.
Video: Wole Soyinka speaks to Times Higher Education
In his vision of a future university, “incoming students would be required to leave their books behind” but would be able to use the reference section of the library, which has a “multidisciplinary scope”.
He acknowledged that it would be difficult to envisage how students would be restricted from accessing material online, but said that it is “not beyond a solution”.
After one year of study, students would be able to relate their readings to “external origins”, such as religion.
Speaking to THE after his speech, Professor Soyinka said that reference books are “at least trying to be neutral, unlike textbooks” and enable students to “interrogate” what has previously been taught.
He added that “non-structured instruction”, as opposed to teaching being conducted by mentors with fixed opinions, would mean that “for a period, students are able to make their own discoveries”.
“There is a certain period in which the young mind is very vulnerable, and there is competition for that,” he said. “There should be instances where instruction or mentors take a back seat.”
He said that although these issues have been “provoked by what is happening” in Africa and the Middle East, they have become “a global concern”.
“The infectious nature of extreme doctrines has been underestimated for far too long,” he added.
However, he said that his comments were not intended as a critique of universities themselves.