by Dani Kreusch
The name of any object is highly significant to us humans. It’s why we name our pets and sometimes our cars and appliances, and why names are the first things taken away or altered by slavers, jailers and oppressors. As humans, we are symbolic beings, and names connote deeper meanings. If you are terrified of dogs, the word will evoke fear and distrust. If your everyday life is a struggle to get at the things colonialism first stripped from your ancestors, a name like Rhodes could symbolize this struggle, the lack of access and the ongoing discrimination.
Changing the name of this university, then, is a meaningful pursuit.
But, my problem with the ongoing name change debate is that all of the issues that people want addressed and changed have been reduced to the fight to change the name. People are convinced that a name change will effect deep changes to curricula, straddle barriers to epistemological access faced by disadvantaged students and democratise institutional cultures and the demographic profile of faculty and the university leadership.
All of these hopes have been invested in a symbolic name change.
Time to address the elephant in the room: There’s a very good chance changing the name will change nothing at all.
That’s what happened in Japan, and it’s a story that we can learn from right now as we fight for transformation on our campus. Today, Kyoto University is one of the world’s top universities, especially with regards to research and “satellite education”. The latter refers to the practice of pumping funds into other universities so that certain fields of study will not fade into obscurity. One small example in a sea of them is Kyoto-U’s pairing with Osaka University to create an African Drum Club. Members of this club learn, as the name suggests, African drumming, dancing and culture, and funnel back to the communities that let them experience and recreate this art form in a number of ways.
In other words, Kyoto-U is trying very hard to embrace the world, empower those that need empowerment and keep their main focus on their heritage and not that of Europe’s. Japan respects European culture, certainly, but there are very few that cave into Eurocentric mindsets. Those few certainly don’t set the university curriculum.
Arguably, Kyoto is where Rhodes students want to be. But its path to getting to that point has a few lessons for us South Africans to learn.
First called Kyoto Imperial University, the institute ran under strict imperial rule for years. There is unfortunately little data about exactly what imperial rule dictated, but the murky picture that is painted is one of strict regulation that privileged the monarchy and its friends, males and few others. Imperial rule saw large parts of Asia invaded and taken over by a strict and brutal military. Imperial rule saw children being taught that this way was good, and curricula centred around the ideals of imperialism and obedience. Imperial rule also saw textbooks that detailed very specific versions of the truth about Japan. The rest of the world contested these accounts, citing Japan’s appalling record of atrocities in World War II.
The end of this war saw Kyoto University moving away from imperial rule and opening its syllabus to influence from other cultures while, importantly, remaining true to itself. The loss of the imperial stamp in the university’s title was intended to signify a move forward into a new age of enlightenment, and the number of departments at the university increased as existing faculties expanded.
The name change was not enough.
Japan does not have a culture of protest; in fact working hard despite the odds to give to your community and family while staying within the rules is a countrywide drive that has come from generations past. So when students at Kyoto University protested in the 1960s, it was not something done or taken lightly. The students, however, stuck to their guns; they were unhappy with the way the university was run, going as far as to call it totalitarian. And the people had finally had enough of the “culture says” and “but history changed already” excuses.
Their protests helped little, and it was only in 2004 that the standards of equality and sensitivity to other cultures that the university ascribes to have changed.
We are not going to be able to get anything out of changing the name of Rhodes University unless we sit down and talk about the deeper, more personal ideals we symbolically attach to the name changing. Do I want the name to change so I no longer have to read Shakespeare for my degree? So I no longer have to worry about how to understand what the lecturer is saying because it is in a language that is unfamiliar to me? So I no longer have to hear about Apartheid in a way that does not let us move on? So I can rest assured that I have a place to stay for vacations?
If we continue to make these issues just a question about a name and the amount of money it will take to change that, then we will fail in doing anything worthwhile with the opportunity we have to truly change things.