Feb 13, 2010

The University of Pretoria

During my last trip to Pretoria I had the chance to take a tour around the campus of the University of Pretoria and attend a couple classes. These students represent the elite of South African society, and here’s why: out of the about 1.5 million students that enrolled in Grade 1 twelve years ago, about 550,000 actually sat for the matric test (the final high school test that determines whether a student receives a diploma), and of those, only 330,000 passed. Of the passing group, only about 110,000 scored high enough to qualify for university training, ~7% of the original group.

I met a friend from the village there, the same daughter of my ex-principal that I have mentioned before, so I ended up hanging out mostly with a bunch of black girls for the afternoon. There was a pleasingly diverse mix of people at the university—though I’m sure that whites and Asians were vastly over-represented in terms of population. Like most similar places in the US, different racial groups tended to stick together. Even in this Rainbow Nation stew, a white guy talking with a bunch of black girls was enough to get more than a few stares. Of course, it could have been my unfashionable clothes (no one wears Carhartt shorts in South Africa).

The classes were terrible. I suppose it’s not fair to judge them just yet as school has just started, but man, they were bad. I went to a sociology class that was the kind of thing that gives science majors the idea that soft sciences are a bunch of crap. Vague, boring, grotesquely over-generalized (quote: “Nazism happened because people were down, you know?”), projector notes that the back of the room couldn’t see, etc. At one point someone asked the professor what the difference was between fascism and Nazism, and she farmed the question out to the class before saying she’d Google it. Not knowing if I should answer or not, I choked back a trademark Reed College disquisition—and I’m a damn chemistry major.

I don’t mean to be cocky, either. At Reed I was decidedly middling in terms of intelligence—it was my history professor that gave me whatever I know about fascism and Nazism (again, not to say I'm capable of holding forth on any subject you can dream up. Of course there are massive gaps in my knowledge--the point was more even a silly science major picks up those kind of details at Reed). When I left Reed I was roundly sick of the place, but as I get some more distance from the experience I increasingly recognize how unbelievably lucky I was to go there. I think most people do about the average amount of work at school (especially myself), it's just at Reed that average is quite a lot.

The philosophy class was, if anything, worse. The professor was one of those philosophy professors whose sneering condescension was matched only by her inappropriate name-checking of famous thinkers. Example: “This classroom [which was very full] can be your first example of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as what the administration considers big enough is not what we consider big enough.” WTF?

Still, it's probably not fair to judge the whole school by those two random intro classes. Hopefully next time I can have another tour and get a more thoroughly grounded opinion.


  1. What was the "Reed College disquisition"?

  2. Basically that Nazism is an offshoot of fascism with all the major characteristics like a repressive totalitarian dictatorship, a cult of national identity, wars of expansion, and a corporatist economy, but with a few more concepts grafted on. You've got the "lebensraum" business (which is probably why Hitler invaded the Ukraine), the belief in the superiority of the German race, and extreme antisemitism (to a degree not seen in fascist Italy). It's probably a bit more complex than that but I think that's a decent executive summary.

    Again, it's not like I could write a book on the subject. I was just a bit surprise that a sociology professor who talked about fascism and Nazism in a lecture couldn't at least BS something.

  3. Oh I see, I thought you were implying that there was a standard Reed College response/rant to the question when, in fact, you meant "in the style of a Reed College disquisition". Probably best that you held back, being a visitor and all, but on the other hand waking up a few students with a discussion might have been an eye opener (for the professor).