Q&A with Johan Muller


The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the fifth interview in the series. Johan Muller is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Education at UCT


1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

 Short answer – by accident. I did my Masters in Organisational Psychology, discovered pretty quickly I didn’t want to work for Anglo, studied in Leiden where I drifted into sociology. First academic job back was in psychology at Turfloop (now Limpopo), when fate lent a hand: A mate of mine asked me whether I didn’t fancy coming to Wits to lecture in Education, about which I knew virtually nothing. To my amazement I was offered a job, teaching social/ educational theory. (He then went farming). This was the middle of the dismal 1980s and politics intervened, I became involved with the NECC, headed the first Education Policy Unit at Wits and never looked back. When UCT offered me a chair in education, I still had only my Masters in psychology. Does that say something about UCT or about education? (Don’t worry, I did the PhD since).

 2)   What does your average week look like?

 Ah well now, I’m retired, so I spend a lot of time reading, writing, and talking to the passing graduate student. I do odd jobs for Higher Education South Africa and UCT’s Research Office, and various universities around the country. Can’t complain.

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

Althusser’s ISA article lifted the lid on the deviousness of culture and its connivance with education; Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks told me you could get into trouble if you took policy too seriously; Durkheim’s work on religion showed me that science was religion (the ‘sacred’) by other, vastly more sophisticated, means; and Bernstein’s work tied a knot in it all that I haven’t been inclined to undo, and that proves vastly generative for me, day by day.

Not many educators in that list, you might say, but not many educators write very well, or with the combination of wit and passion that the above do. Reminds me why education was not my first choice. But I’ve learnt not to hold that against the learners bent on epistemic ascent.

  4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

I consider my field to be sociology of education (that’s the discipline) and curriculum and educational policy as the applied domains. So the most important sociologists have to be Bernstein (experiencing a resurgence of interest), Bourdieu, currently Andrew Abbott and Randall Collins. These are important because all of them have written synoptically about how education ‘works’ in the social body of the nation state. Then more directly education, Stephen BallSteve RaudenbuschDavid Cohen, all of whom are smarter and more interesting than many others. Then there’s Martin Carnoy … and a longer list. My own focus is on knowledge, which shears me off a little from the mainstream.

 5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

 We have no idea what it will take to make knowledgeable teachers out of clueless ones, at least not while they are actually on-the-job. And I think the neurosciences will pretty soon say some surprising things to the educational enterprise, but I know of no-one in this country working there.

  6)   What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?

 Write that book!

  7)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

  Teachers, teachers and teachers. And, unlike most of my colleagues, I don’t think it’s what the teachers can’t do that matters; it’s what they don’t know that makes the critical difference. (Of course those are connected).

8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

 Law, probably, that’s what my mother wanted me to do. Or writing novels.

9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

 Look, if 5% of educators said they were fans I’d be surprised. We’re natural Luddites, you see. But technology is going to advance very quickly, and prostheses that are some sort of extension of our brains is just around the corner.

 10) If you were given a R5million research grant what would you use it for?

 Doing neuro-social investigations of kids that succeed against the odds.


I have included a few of Joe’s articles below and a full list of his research can be found here,


Some of the other academics/policy-makers on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Martin Gustafsson, Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Eric Atmore, Linda Biersteker, Jonathan Jansen and Jon Clark. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

2 responses to “Q&A with Johan Muller

  1. Dare I repeat myself…. same people, same club, same thinking

  2. Pingback: Q&A with Wayne Hugo | Nic Spaull

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