UKZN’s Old Main Building and the importance of the Humanities

Here’s a question: should all university courses that don’t directly guide students into a professional career be abandoned?

This came up at an humanities meeting I attended recently, and all academics there, myself included, were suitably horrified. I’ve always believed that practical, career-orientated skills are essential, but if you can’t think critically about what you are doing and why you are doing it, you will never reach your full potential.

And that’s what university, especially the humanities, should be about. The languages, the arts, philosophy and sociology, media and politics – all these disciplines and many more help students analyse the world and distill issues into abstractions that resonate with ordinary people. They help students “express our fundamental humanity – our creativity, ingenuity and compassion” – in short, they teach students to think critically and creatively.

Take that away, and you remove all passion from tertiary education, and leave students with the belief that the only thing that matters is getting a job and making enough filthy lucre to afford the newest iPhone or Rolex. All the beauty and mystery of the world we live in disappears.

I work and teach in a beautiful and mysterious building. The Old Main Building on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus was completed in 1912, and is a Heritage (protected) building. Red brick with a clock tower, wooden floors and stone staircases, it also contains a wonderful central hall (for decades the main meeting space for our campus and the stage for theatrical productions), an almost hidden wooden spiral staircase reminiscent of Hogwarts, and two enclosed brick courtyards.

The bricks ooze history. During my undergraduate years, I remember some chaps during Rag climbing up the outside of the clock tower and hoisting a mountain club flag from the pinnacle. On another occasion, someone nicked a garden gnome from a random garden. The owners of the gnome sent home postcards for nearly a year from all over the world, and then eventually ended up on top of the clock tower as well (I am not sure the gnome ever made it home, but it certainly had an interesting life. Neither am I sure who removed all these things once they reached those exalted heights).

Old Main was used as a military hospital during World War I. If you scramble up the ladders inside the clock tower, you can still see some of the names and messages scribbled there by recovering soldiers, as well as students over the centuries. And adding to all this is the fact that the “dungeons” (below ground level in the front of the building) were used as a morgue.

Myths about the building about, not least that it is haunted. I have to admit that I won’t go there alone at night – once was enough. Doors in an entirely locked building slam, and I’ve heard footsteps when I’m there alone often enough to rattle me. One colleague told me he had heard crying, and trolley wheels, but he also had a tendency for a whiskey of an evening, so I’ve never been sure whether that was just the blarney speaking!

If only those walls could speak! Old Main has watched the birth of brilliance and the death of apartheid, with rebellious academics and students holding “secret” meetings to bring down the former government. It has sheltered the homeless and nurtured the ill. It has been the location for a number of student films, just one example being “Rosebud and the Chamber of Secrets” ( It has closeted dozens of illicit romantic liaisons as well, not least on the spiral staircase, which became so frequented by student lovers at one stage that one academic posted a notice: “These stairs are for perambulation, circumnavigation and peregrination, NOT copulation”. (It didn’t help much).

All these stories aren’t necessarily very useful if you want to be a millionaire someday, but they all, in some way, make students think. Narratives remind us who we are, where we come from, and where we might want to go. They are part of what makes us human.

My course outlines all contain explanations of how, although I teach skills alongside theory, one of the main aims is for students to learn how to think creatively and critically. I’m not interested in churning out good little robots: I want to unleash independent thinkers on the world, who fight for what they believe is right, and can create a logical argument if they disagree with something.

Universities are globally cash-strapped, and the first casualties are always the humanities, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics always the privileged and protected. As Hamilton argues, this is an unsustainable and dangerous model: a society that repeatedly undermines the humanities will not only eventually preside over its death as a vibrant and important locus of research and innovation, but will also be a society that presides over its own dissolution.

“As many studies the world over have shown, a healthy humanities sector is necessary for a healthy society and, in extremis, its very preservation.”

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in May 2018.


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