By Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D. Emeritus Professor of Sociology
Millions of students are flocking to colleges and universities now for Fall term amidst tumultuous politics on college campuses and in the United States. What should the students learn on campus that might help the nation resolve this political crisis? This has reignited memories of the tumultuous student days I experienced as an undergraduate at University of Zambia in Southern Africa in 1972. This was fifty years ago. That’s so ancient. We are now in a new millennium with the internet. Most readers probably anticipate my revisiting the over used cliché of an older person recalling to their child; “when I was your age, I walked to school every day for 5 kms barefoot in sizzling October heat.” Most young people today roll their eyes in derision when they hear this cliché. This is not that kind of story.
When I finally arrived at University of Zambia as a wide-eyed freshman, I was primed to learn. I was consumed with curiosity. During my Form V year at Chizongwe Secondary or High School in 1971, the University of Zambia had been closed briefly due to student demonstrations and clashes with the police over the then racist apartheid policy in South Africa. I wanted to know about science, philosophy, politics, and most of all the exciting but mysterious world of ideas. Why was there racism? Why was there European colonialism in Africa? What was the Vietnam War? Why did America dominate the world? Why did men desire sex more than women? What was Marxism? What was capitalism?
Then there were the students and faculty of the University of Zambia. During my freshman orientation, the upperclassman or senior student who was showing us around campus stopped and said: “You are in university ….knowledge and ideas are neutral here. You can challenge existing ideas so long as you can create a convincing argument. Your professor is a mere mediator of this knowledge.” My jaw almost dropped to the ground. You mean “teachers” and let alone Professors or lecturers were not Gods? My lecturers or professors who were from Australia, USA, Britain, France, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, India and many countries of the world later reiterated this same significant message during the subsequent freshman lectures. The idea stuck with me throughout my academic career.
The notion that ideas “are neutral and you could think of persuasive well developed research and arguments to express different perspective” flourished on campus and was taken at heart by most students. We may not have known it at the time but those were the academic and social heydays among the University of Zambia students.
This passionate curiosity created an atmosphere in which we students felt empowered as what went on in class reverberated in student life most especially in student newspapers and campus politics as well as student participation in national politics. Before the reader creates the image of student zombies copying ideas from their Sociology, Psychology, Economics, or Political Science 101 essays and passively regurgitating and slapping them on to a student newspaper, I must hasten to add that some of the most creative use of ideas and command of the English language appeared in the student newspapers. Student written plays in the Chikwakwa Student theater society, often incorporated ideas from campus social life and politics. The student newspaper’s English, tone, and news, never read like that of the national mainstream newspapers which we students read every day. Our student newspapers had hard core campus news, editorials and lots of often provocative and also down right humorous frivolity. The student newspapers always sold out within minutes on campus. They were so popular. The mere memory of this gives me goosebumps. What did this all have to do with the serious objective of getting my college degree?
My suspicion is that all of this probably never added an iota to the improvement of student course grades or what income students earned after graduation. When I was a freshman there was only one student paper. When I was a Junior, a group of friends and I decided to start a second student newspaper. There were four student newspapers by the time I graduated; ranging from radical to more moderate. All of this extracurricular activity created excitement, gave students a feeling of empowerment, active involvement, and being part of a unique and special community. I remember and cherish memories from those experiences more than some of the Cs, Bs and the few As I got in my coursework.