Highlights of Saikat Majumdar: 'Autodidactic nation. Education and literary subjectivity in 20th century South Africa'

25 Apr 2023
Prof. Saikat Majumdar at the HUMA African Epistemologies Advanced Seminar, April 2023
25 Apr 2023

Have you ever considered the power of amateurism in the realm of education and literature? How do those who are excluded from formal systems of learning navigate their way through the world of knowledge and ideas? These questions were at the forefront of the recent HUMA African Epistemologies Advanced Seminar with Professor Saikat Majumdar 'Autodidactic nation. Education and literary subjectivity in 20th century South Africa'. In this blog post, we delve into the highlights of his talk and explore the concept of amateurism in the context of education and literary subjectivity in the postcolonial world.

A HUMA blog post | Author: Joy Marjawar

Majumdar's talk focused on a chapter from his book that delves into the lives of autodidacts, or self-taught individuals, in South Africa during the mid-20th century. He highlighted the challenges and limitations faced by black intellectuals under the oppressive Bantu Education Act of 1953, which formalised a culture of educational exclusion. Despite these obstacles, Majumdar shared moving accounts of the passion for learning and literary self-making among those who were excluded from formal education.
Through excerpts from the works of writers such as Njabulo Ndebele, Sindiwe Magona, Bloke Modisane, Peter Abrahams, Es'kia Mphahlele, and Lewis Nkosi, Professor Saikat portrayed the resilience and creativity of these autodidacts. They sought knowledge and engaged with literature and ideas in unconventional ways, often improvising and making the most of limited resources. Their determination to learn and make meaning from the written word, despite the challenges they faced, is truly inspirational.

One of the striking aspects of Majumdar's talk was the notion of amateurism itself. In a society that often values expertise and professionalism, the idea of being an amateur can be seen as a negative connotation. However, Majumdar's work challenges this perception and sheds light on the transformative potential of amateurism. These autodidacts, with their angular and adversarial relations to dominant patterns of knowledge, were able to shape their own intellectual journeys and later become popular intellectuals, activists, and writers of wide and popular appeal. Their amateurism allowed them to approach learning and literature from unique perspectives, free from the constraints of formal education and established norms. This shaped their distinct voices and contributions to society.

In relation to the African Epistemologies Advanced Seminar Series, Majumdar’s presentation addressed the dynamics of knowledge production in the Global South with particular reference to South Africa, India and the Caribbean. It also focused on the continuities and tensions within colonial and postcolonial knowledge production frameworks and how they are questioned, problematised and reproduced through various means and factors by active (post)colonial actors.

Read more: See event page Saikat Majumdar: Autodidactic nation. Education and literary subjectivity in 20th century South Africa for speaker bio and more details.

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