A Rhodes Trip

A university education, like a road trip, is just as much about the journey as the destination.

By Tim Jarvis


I dropped my son off at Rhodes University recently. This involved some tears (mine), some raised voices (mostly mine), a substantial amount of money (entirely mine) and an awful lot of driving. The problem is that between most of KZN and Grahamstown stands the inconsiderately placed Kingdom of Lesotho. On hearing that the routes to the East of the mountains were beset by a raft of Stop/Go roadworks we decided to take the long way round via Clarens and the Free State.


It was a wonderful journey. We travelled through National Parks, up mountain passes, past fields of sunflowers and cherry trees, ate at farm stalls and crossed the wonderfully swollen Orange River. The road was a little potholed but there were no blow outs, unless you count the one when I lost my cool at a Stop/Go (“average wait +/- 40 mins”) in 38 degree heat. Upon arrival at Grahamstown, we decided, as scenic as the journey had been, we would take a more direct route home.

Thereafter began the business of settling him into the University and in particular Res. My wife and I are extremely mindful of the #feesmustfall movement and the impact this has had on university life around the country. Rhodes itself had some quite nasty incidents involving police firing rubber bullets in one of the residences last year. So as we drove up to the road to the residences we were dismayed to see a group of placard waving students blocking the road. “What are they protesting about?” my wife asked and as the cars slowed to go past there was a lot of hooting and shouting and I could feel her anxiety increase. As we closed on the mob it became clear they were mostly female. “Oh no” my spouse exclaimed, “it must be #free the nipple”.

It turns out it was neither a fees must fall protest or a free the nipple demonstration (much to my son’s disappointment), but merely a group of students gathered to welcome the Freshers into their new home. This scenario was replicated all the way up the hill leading to the university residences, creating a carnival vibe on campus. The welcoming atmosphere continued as we entered the assigned Hall of Residence. Sub Wardens, Student Support and IT reps all came and paid their respects, introduced themselves to my son and explained their various roles. The Res Committee reflected a diverse intake into the halls of residence. Different races, different walks of life, but all overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming.


Nerves calmed and anxieties settled, the next day we headed to the formal parent orientation which included an address by the Vice Chancellor of the University. As he approached the podium, a student dressed in a headband and carrying a knobkerrie rushed onto the stage and grabbed the microphone. I sunk lower into my seat, exchanged an ‘I knew it glance’ with my wife and resigned myself to the inevitable #feesmustfall speech. The young man unleashed a torrent of rapid fire Xhosa of which I could not understand a word. However as he continued it became quite clear that this was a praise singer, who had got up to sing a hymn extoling his Vice Chancellor. I worked this out from the snippets of English considerately thrown into the speech and the fact that he and the VC hugged each other at the end.

When he was finally able to speak the Vice Chancellor made much of the difference between education and schooling and the dangers of seeing education purely as a commodity. The idea that you can simply purchase a degree of knowledge as fast as possible is an anathema to the Rhodes philosophy. Jonathan Jansen recently tweeted, “There are few things worse than to be overschooled and undereducated”. Rhodes espouses the idea of formative degrees (as distinct from programmes) which facilitate greater flexibility, allowing for example, a Humanities student to study Science courses or a Commerce student to take some Humanities subjects. This approach together with a healthily diverse residential life and an encouragement to engage in extracurricular activities, means the students have the opportunity to be thoroughly educated. “Education as opposed to schooling”, concluded the Vice Chancellor, should be a journey of self-discovery for your sons and daughters. If they leave the same person as when they arrived then we have failed.” Such is the transformative nature of real education.

Then it was time to go.

We left feeling reassured about our son, inspired by the young people we had met, and overwhelmed by the beauty of this land and its people. In my son’s educational expedition I know there will be pot holes and plenty of Stop/Go works along the road. The fees must fall movement, rooted as it is in legitimate concern, if not expression, has yet to run its course. And yet is it not in being exposed to, and overcoming, such realties that we are truly educated? As one of the students paraphrased in his welcome speech, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” JF Kennedy. This experience is as much about the journey as it is about the graduation.

After all that, my wife and I travelled home the long way round again. I hope my son does the same at university.

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