Education

Unite both the head and the hand

Enver Motala, Salim Vally

We can overcome education models that still entrench social divisions.

Activities such as school meal services, if undertaken collectively by communities, have the potential to graduate into co-operative forms of production and distribution. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

If the many South African educationalists of the past, ­including IB Tabata, WT Thibedi, Olive Schreiner, AC Jordan, Rick Turner, Ruth First, Steve Biko, Matthew Goniwe, Fatima Meer, Es’kia Mphahlele, Abu Asvat, Dennis Brutus and Neville Alexander, who represent the diverse political traditions of this country, are to be taken seriously, then the narrow, reductive and economistic ­perspective that is today the dominant approach drowning out ­important ideas on education and society must be rejected.

Their legacy gave rise to vibrant and vital education social movements in South Africa’s recent past, intended to instil in society the importance of knowledge as essential to the development of a citizenry – for the fullest expression of civic rights and responsibilities, for such elementary rights as numeracy and literacy, accessing public goods, making informed choices and, most importantly, for ensuring greater levels of democratic accountability of public representatives and organisations.

The purposeful education their legacy embraced recognises that the role of education and training involves understanding the many cultures, values and belief systems in society, rebutting “race”, gender, ethnic and other stereotypes; the ability to evaluate ideas and systems critically for transformative and critical thinking; and the ability to communicate socially and to work for oneself and for society – and indeed to stimulate “intellectual curiosity”. This is a vision that entails a potential role of education and training systems in which a framework for state-directed support for working-class and poor communities can be achieved and a wide range of socially useful activities that are amenable to educational interventions exist.

These include interventions in healthcare, early childhood development, care for the aged, frail and disabled, locally based economic activities, co-operative development initiatives, cultural initiatives, small-scale enterprise and other activities specifically directed at engaging communities in the process of development.

Many of these activities could have direct benefits for such communities and reduce the expectation that reliance on market-driven systems would produce the conditions for “labour absorption” and “higher participation rates” through formal employment. For instance, such communities could (and can) be engaged in a range of projects relating to areas such as primary health, the local economy, housing development, service infrastructure, land usage, recreation and cultural activities and support for schools.

Useful activities
Indeed, there are examples of communities that support the unemployed through finding useful activities such as childcare, community and school meal services, school renovation and maintenance of public spaces. These activities, if undertaken collectively, have the potential to graduate into co-operative forms of production and distribution.

Much more has to be done to realise the potential for co-operative forms of production and distribution and to understand the educational requirements of such forms of production, because here too there is a valuable history of worker co-operatives that provide the evidence and the potential for humanising and creative approaches to the formation of skills and competencies in developing societies. We hold the view that education can bring together the worlds of intellectual and physical labour, and overcome the separation of “head and hand” that characterises so much of the present education and training discourse – one that privileges abstraction relative to action and separates the academic from the vocational.

The distinguishing approach to the chapters in this book is its orientation to the question of unequal social relations in all societies dominated by the power of “market fundamentalism” and its ideological battering ram, neoliberal approaches to all social, economic, political and cultural questions. These approaches have no regard for their damning implications for the majority in many developing societies, characterised by the reality of social disempowerment, landlessness, poverty, low-wage and cultural entrapment.

These “citizens” (so-called) constitute if not a majority of the world population, then a very significant part of it. In our view, present approaches to the (ostensibly uncomplicated) nexus between education and work are insouciant about the influence of social power – that is, the entrenched inequality in the social relations that are extant in all ­fragmented and divided societies dominated by the influence of global corporate interests.

A useless mantra
These approaches avoid any purposive reflection on the implications of their framing conditions and fail to recognise its deeply structural characteristics. They continue to speak only abstractedly about issues of poverty, inequality and unemployment without engaging with their fundamental implications for any meaningful conception of the idea of transformation and change. As they do not address questions of unequal social power and its impacts, such discussions about poverty and its effects have assumed the status of a mantra having no clear relationship to the underlying causalities or structural impediments that stand as impregnable barriers to change.

This inability to recognise that underlying any possibility for genuine social transformation is the question of how members of society – whether they be classified racially or in gendered, social-class or geographic terms – occupy vastly differing social places and roles and consequently have vastly differing allocation of “capabilities”: they occupy social roles largely transfixed in time and bequeathed to succeeding generations of disempowered communities.

The idea that socially fragmented and divided societies can, without reference to the problem of entrenched power, deal with the impact and social reality of structural, personal and social inequalities and their implications for freedom and justice is naive and disingenuous, if not deliberately ­misleading. In this regard it is also our view that references to the power of the Constitution are not particularly helpful because they seek to cede to constitutional fiat the possibilities for addressing the structural attributes of unequal power. Although the Constitution is a hugely influential document, and its moral imperative has resulted in some far-reaching improvements in the conditions of some poor communities, it simply cannot resolve the fundamental contradictions that abide in a post-apartheid capitalist society and the underlying relations of power that characterise such a society.

Discussions about “successful” economies, invariably approached on the basis of the continued social differentiation and “special zones of economic activity” – in which ideas about equal rights must be suspended – hardly address the underlying conditions. Similarly, “youth subsidies” in which social conventions begin to be entrenched to make the idea of “less than equal” become an acceptable norm, “flexible labour conditions” as the basis of economic stimulation touted uncritically as the panacea to competitive economic performance are extremely retrogressive and harmful for any conception of social cohesion and justice.

Limits of present perspectives
From all of the above one can conclude that a tendentious way of framing the issue has taken precedence and that its influence is ubiquitous. It is the simplistic notion that in South Africa at this time education and training will resolve the problems of unemployment both because they will build economic capability and simultaneously resolve the problem of job creation. We point to the limits of the present perspectives, the overt and subliminal impact of the standpoint of the corporate world, the enchantment of the public media with their point of view and even academic discourses that speak uncritically about the benefits of supply-side interventions and ignore almost entirely the problem of low and muted demand – a social phenomenon inseparable from market-driven economic systems.

The objective of this volume is to provide not only a constructive critique about the limits of the present approaches on this issue but also a wider, more responsive and encompassing conceptual lens through which to examine education and the economy or work and schooling/post-schooling. We emphasise a view of education consonant with a vastly different society from one that which bears the unnerving stamp of global corporate agendas.

In our view, conventional approaches are likely to entrench the bifurcation of society along the cleavages that are currently self-evident, increase the powerlessness of those who are so incapacitated and marginalised while simultaneously continuing the process of enhancing social privilege and deepening the continuities of the country’s colonial and apartheid past. In this there is no hope for any alternative for the majority, only the entrenchment of their “unfreedom” and underdevelopment.

Enver Motala is adjunct professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and a researcher at the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development, University of Fort Hare. Associate Professor Salim Vally is director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation in the University of Johannesburg’s education faculty. This is an edited extract from the introduction to their co-edited book, Education, the Economy and Society, to be published soon by Unisa PressUnite both the head and the hand

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