Brain meme

My father's letter to "Varsity" about student hazing, 1970.

My father Dr. Michael Apthorp

My dad has Alzheimer’s disease now, and it has been slowly but relentlessly taking away his words. This is particularly painful because he always had such a love of words. Here’s a picture of him a few years ago at my parents’ Golden Wedding family gathering in Noosa.

Dad, June 2016

His letter to “Varsity”, dated May 6th, 1970

A little background - Dad was a lecturer at the University of Cape Town in the late 60s and early 70s (when I was very small). His area was (and remained) Classics, with a specialisation in Homeric manuscripts. Lately he’s been somewhat obsessed with offprints of his manuscripts, and Mum has found him carrying around stacks of them in the hope of giving them to people. Recently, however, she says he “found” this copy of a letter he wrote to the paper, and has been carrying it around in his pocket. She writes: “Here’s your brilliant father at his best - campaigning against initiation practices at UCT. He was a member of the WA-WA-WA - Whisson, Atkinson, Wilson, Apthorp, Welch, Archer - who banded together against this bullying of their students.”

Mum has scanned it for him, and I liked it so much I’m posting it here. It seems Dad was well ahead of his time in speaking up for students’ rights and welfare.

The original letter

A transcription of the letter

Sir,

A letter from “Mentor” (Varsity, 15/4/70) complains that while having “relatively little contact with Residence initiation” I make “fatuous statements” to the press on the subject, “besides hearing the exaggerated and often untruthful reports of overwrought first-years”; he adds that “last year’s results in Latin I hardly warrant complacency in the Classics Department or encourage its members to fritter away their time”.

First, “Mentor” has less than “relatively little contact” with my conversations with first-year students; how does he know precisely what they have told me, let alone whether it was “exaggerated and often untruthful”? (I note, however, that he seems to take it for granted that initiation has the ill-effect of making the victims “overwrought”.)

When speaking to the press about what was actually happening to first-year students this year, used very general terms (e.g. “I have evidence that even this year, students are being made very unhappy by initiation practices” - Cape Argus, 14.3.70 ), and “Mentor” has no right to infer from this, and to state categorically, that first-year students have “exaggerated” to me about what they have been undergoing and that they have been “often untruthful” If “Mentor” wishes, in a future issue of Varsity I shall elaborate and substantiate the general statement just quoted.

Secondly, in connection with my “fatuous statements”, “Mentor” refers to me as “a regular contributor to the local Sunday newspapers”. I contributed only twice to the Sunday Times: the purpose of my second contribution (a letter) was to criticise their initiation article of 15.3.70: in correcting a point where I was misquoted, I wrote, “I know of no case of a Smuts Hall student opting out and then, as a result of pressure, changing his mind.” I then went on to query a point which did not even purport to be a quotation of my words: I wrote, “The report also refers to ‘the shaving of heads by force’ in a context which implies that this has happened at UCT this year. I doubt very much whether this is so.” I may add that, as far as I know, the only criticism in the public press of this year’s Cape Argus or Sunday Times initiation articles has been my own letter to the Sunday Times. And yet “Mentor” in his sweeping assertion seems to call even this “fatuous”!

Thirdly, “Mentor” implies that when a student approaches me with a complaint about initiation I should tell him, “I cannot fritter away my time by listening to you, because I must work 24 hours a day on my Latin I lectures, and because what you, in your overwrought state, want to tell me will be untruthful, or at any rate exaggerated”; and that when the press phones me to discuss the subject with me I should say, “Because of our high Latin I failure rate, I cannot fritter away my time talking to you. Goodbye.” To react in this way would be inhumane, gratuitously insulting to the person approaching me and, I believe, a failure in my duty to the University (its first-year students in particular) and to “the public of South Africa”, which has a right to consider whether initiation promotes the welfare of students at this University, which is financed largely out of public funds. And “Mentor’s” letter contains (besides unsubstantiated allegations) a gratuitous insult in his presuming to dictate to me how I shall spend my time.

But all this is merely what one expects of the pro-initiation faction; this, after all, is what initiation itself consists of: inhumanity, insults, disregard for the welfare of first-year students and a dictating to them how they are to spend their time. And does “Mentor’s” recourse to a pseudonym reflect the cowardly anonymity of the initiator who submerges his inadequate individuality in the phoney security of a group of bullying thugs?

I suspect that examination failures (in all Departments) will be caused less by my participating in a joint effort to end initiation (and thus eliminate the concomitant unhappiness and time-wasting and so free students to concentrate on their academic work) than by incidents such as College House “seniors” keeping their “newmen” up till 2.30 a.m. on the night of April 2-3, 1970, in a humiliating and barbarous (I repeat: humiliating and barbarous: any College House reader like to challenge this?) “detieing ceremony” in a frenzied effort to get in the maximum amount of sadistic enjoyment before the Principal’s statement of April 2 was made known to their Residence’s “newmen”. One of the first-year students kept up so late was due to write an important Latin I test later the same morning.

But I have frittered away enough time on “Mentor”. Returning my academic work, I find in Homer’s Odyssey (Book ll, line 243) an appropriate remark addressed to the original Mentor: “Mentor, you insolent lunatic, what a thing to say!”

M.J. Apthorp (letter to Varsity newspaper, published 6th May, 1970).

Mic drop

I’m proud of you, Dad.

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Deborah Apthorp
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

My research interests include visual perception, Parkinson’s disease, postural sway, and EEG.