Sunday, May 20, 2007

Africa's Major Universities in Decline? + Writers' Rooms + Littlemilk on Late 90s NYC + Bellow's Neocon

One of the most depressing things I've read in recent days is this Lydia Polgreen article in the New York Times on the dreadful state of some of Africa's major universities. Now I don't know how accurate it is, because I do know that at least in a few cases outside of South Africa that some of the major African universities are doing okay, but if it comes anywhere near to a reasonable assessment of some other institutions, it bodes ill for the future of many countries there, and Africa's future generations as a whole. Polgreen describes a situation of horribly underfunded, overcrowded institutions whose infrastructures are crumbling and which cannot accommodate the students to crave to attend them. She focuses on Cheikh Anta Diop University, once the University of Dakar, in Senegal, which was build originally to handle 5,000 students but now has a student body of around 60,000, but she also cites similar problems at flagship institutions in Nigeria, such as the University of Ibadan, and Tanzania, like Makerere University. The universities were the among the institutions to suffer the worst from the waves of corruption and neglect that struck many of these countries in the late 1960s and afterwards, and the article suggests that they have not recovered. The result is that students who can gain a university education overseas strive to do so, but for those who cannot, these universities are they best and worst hope. Another issue she notes is that the student unions at some institutions have proved incubation tanks for radicals who seek to challenge the governmental and societal status quo, and while this obviously can have positive effects in certain cases, it also represents possible sources of political and social instability.

One institution I used to be closely affiliated with was seeking to partner with Cheikh Anta Diop University, but I took another job before that potential project came to fruition, so I'm not sure how it turned out. (I believe this institution did develop a program with another university in another sub-Saharan country.) It strikes me that in addition to attaining better and more consistent governmental support where possible (as well as potential corporate support in those cases where foreign corporations are extracting resources from these countries), two small steps to address the situation might be by strengthening (or, in cases where no links already exist, establishing) non-colonialist links with state and private institutions overseas, such as major research universities, small private liberal arts colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities, to foster exchange of scholarship and resources wherever possible, and also generating foreign support both from alumni and from those interested in the necessity of human and intellectual development in these countries. The future not only of these countries, but of the planet, depends upon a drastic change in these institutions' fortunes.


Where writers write is often important. Many articles and books have focused on this topic. As an itinerant writer, I can say that my writing spaces tend to be more internal than one set physical place, which means that I'm always having to find ways to protect and preserve them. The Guardian Online has links to the writing rooms of some important contemporary British writers. Most are neat and well-appointed, which makes me think they're all either very well organized or had a week's notice before the photographer popped around. Hanif Kureishi's room is below; he explains the lovely wallpaper. I'd love to see what books are lining those shelves and tables!

Kureishi's room


A friend of mine who doesn't read blogs--or my blog, though he's fond of one written in Santo Domingo!--was telling me this afternoon about how somnolent, dreary and warzonish so much of Manhattan's 8th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues was looking these days. Once upon a time, it was still a hive of human excitement, and, because of its position as the novelty shoe mecca of the East Coast, was a magnet for people both within and outside the city. (I once heard tell of a Southern scholar who came to spend a few weeks at a university in New York, and, instead of whiling away her free moments in the libraries or taking in the city's hundreds of sights and sites, managed to visit the stores on 8th Street every day and burnt through most of her summer stipend and then some more because of all the gravity-defying, never-seen-before pedal accoutrements she kept coming across and could not deny herself.) He said that he'd heard that the landlords were hoping to evacuate every shop that had made that street unique--which is to say, the shoe capital of the Eastern seaboard, as well as all the head shops, funky clothing stores, and so on--so that the high-end stores which have now colonized most of SoHo, Chelsea, parts of the East Village, and Bleecker Street between Christopher and W 12th could move in, I guess to take advantage of the disposable dollars of all those wealthy nearby undergraduates (though this article suggests that some of them might not have a dime to eat or pay for lodging), or even wealthier people snapping up every piece of surrounding real estate, turning the West Village into a high end arrondissement. Perhaps the only thing that would remain would be the former Whitney Museum, now the New York Studio School, which I doubt is going anywhere. I told my friend that I'd actually taken pictures of the transformed 8th St. and posted them, and that in my non-enabling nostalgic mode I'd bemoaned the changes that were happening, fully aware that New York is always in transition and that things could change rather quickly if the economy hit a serious glitch. It's strange to think of mid-to-late 1990s Manhattan, when some of the trends that have now come to fruition were just beginning, as a minor golden age, but my friend suggested that it was still a special moment in New York time. Of course those were also sometimes very difficult days, especially under the supremacist regime of Rudolph Giuliani, who is again masquerading as a moderate something or other, but there were many things to recommend that era. In particular, I think of how several friends found themselves integral participants in the frenzy around the burgeoning new media culture, which culminated in a few unforgettable, truly remarkable years when those many phantasms we called Silicon Alley companies created jobs and visions of the future that would evaporate as quickly as our national sanity in 2000. One friend did not find another fulltime job for five years, and others rue the disappearance of what proved to be the some of the most exhilarating working experiences they ever had. I've tried to write about it more than once, but with no success. At any rate, I forgot to tell him to read Unbeached Whale's recent entry on this topic, so I'm forwarding the link to him, but sending J's Theater's readers there directly. O youth and halcyon days, oh memories and vanities!


Sometimes it pays to read a book twice, or at least not so quickly (though when on earth does anyone have the time anymore? I surely don't). Several years ago I did read Saul Bellow's late hatchet job novel Ravelstein--or rather I skimmed it from cover to cover--mainly because of the controversy surrounding his fictional depiction of his deceased, conservative friend, the ideologue and pedagogue Allan Bloom. I was curious to see what all the brouhaha was about, and I concluded, as more than one reviewer already had, that the text contained as much acid as honey. I should add that I read the book despite strongly disliking Bellow's racial politics, particularly as expressed in his books from the 1960s on, but nevertheless, I learned more than a few things from that novel, even though it is nowhere near his best work. But I missed one characterization in it, of a figure who has loomed quite large in our recent history, one of the arch-neocons, then only an underling but enough of a presence to imprint himself on Bellow's imaginative canvas. Who am I talking about? From Sarah Baxter's TimesOnline article "Decline and fall of the neocons":

Wolfowitz taught himself Arabic in the 1980s and had a walk-on part in Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein as an official in the first Bush White House who was disappointed that Saddam Hussein was left in place at the end of the Gulf war.

His recent downfall is deliciously Bellowesque (or is it Bellovian?), if you think about it.

1 comment:

  1. Did you hear? Someone identified Banksy based on the article in the New Yorker!