By Mitchell Parker
People attend university to receive an education. However, beyond the world of textbooks and seminars there is fundamental social learning taking place that influences the way in which students interact with each other and the world at large.
Rhodes University, as an example, is often compared to a melting pot of cultures and social structures. With 10% of the population falling in the LGBT community, a diverse racial mix and people from a variety of economic backgrounds all inhabiting the small, sleepy town of Grahamstown – it is inevitable that students here get exposed to people who are unlike themselves.
For many, this can be a culture shock. Some students might come from schools that were exclusively white or exclusively black. Some have never encountered members of the queer community so openly. Prejudices that may have been held strongly are challenged.
One such example is Richard*, a third-year Politics and Law student at the University. Having grown up in the socially conservative town of George, he arrived at Rhodes with a set of perceptions that mirrored his hometown and he had to work quickly to adapt to his new environment.
Despite having once held views that were considerably racist, sexist and homophobic, he is now a loud voice at Rhodes against prejudice of any kind among his friends.
While some people remain blithely unaware of their own privileges, many find that the University experience can be enlightening to the social dynamics that are pervasive in our society.
This should be one of the main functions of any University. During his tenure as Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Saleem Badat proposed regularly the idea of a common course that would deal with the kinds of ethics and social considerations that are so often missed.
One has only to look at the recent coming out of Caitlyn Jenner (previously Bruce Jenner) as transgender. Trans rights are a particularly new conversation happening in social spaces and as such people are not yet attuned to the finer details of the politics of such conversations. At Rhodes, arguably the most liberal tertiary education institution in South Africa, people are still propagating jokes and discourse that is inherently transphobic, but equally importantly, there are also very loud voices who are doing their best to educate people as to the best way to engage with this topic.
Essentially: there are two sides of the coin of social issues. One is aware and engaging and the other is discriminatory or unaware of the language. What spaces like universities, thankfully, do is give the side of the coin that is more progressive greater weight so that when people are faced with the coin-toss that comes with dealing with social issues there is a greater chance of people dealing with it in a sensitive and thoughtful way.
*Name changed to protect identity.