The middle class rules, but can it lead?

It is no surprise that calls to decolonise the curriculum occur as awareness increases of the unintended consequences of a supposedly middle-class and Western education. (Madelene Cronjé)

It is no surprise that calls to decolonise the curriculum occur as awareness increases of the unintended consequences of a supposedly middle-class and Western education. (Madelene Cronjé)

In the past 20 years, South Africa’s middle class has burgeoned – and rightly so. Aided by broad-based black economic empowerment and related employment equity legislation, the beneficiaries of this system have bought wholeheartedly into middle-class education, sending their children to middle-class schools, with aspirations for them to either graduate from one of the top five higher education institutions locally, or from a university abroad.

Not surprisingly, the schools to which these children go, and the higher education institutions they aspire to attend, are almost all historically white institutions, staffed by highly educated white and black middle-class professionals.

It comes as no surprise then that calls to decolonise the curriculum occur as awareness increases of the unintended consequences of a supposedly middle-class and Western education. Some of these shifts, which started as minor tremors, have since become seismic.

For example, as the demand for English has grown, African languages, which many people expected to grow in the post-apartheid period, began to shrivel in terms of student numbers, bolstered only in education degrees where teachers were required to develop some competence in African languages.

English has become the golden highway to success, but accessing quality literacy teaching is almost impossible for the majority of South Africa’s children. Furthermore, how valuable is such access if it doesn’t develop a disposition towards civic responsibility, care and inclusion?

I wouldn’t be surprised if graduates, even those with education degrees from our top universities, move into positions where English (or Afrikaans) continue to be required as the main languages of communication.

Thus one small aspect of the transformation project, begun 20 years ago to develop African languages, has been smothered under the cushion of comfortable middle-class English or Afrikaans.

Even those graduates who emerge with degrees in medicine, engineering or science move into industries where what it means to be African sits in uneasy tension with what it means to be part of the middle-class English-speaking ­cosmopolitan elite.

Education specialist Linda Chisholm pointed out in her inaugural lecture at the University of Johannesburg in November that calls to decolonise the curriculum are ambiguous: in South Africa, since the 1940s, there have been frequent concerted attempts in mission and then Bantu education schools to Africanise or “localise” the curriculum. But Africanisation of a curriculum does not translate neatly into decolonisation in the same way that race does not equate with a Western curriculum.

At the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa conference at the University of North-West in mid-November, quality assurance expert Liz Lange of the University of the Free State, academic development expert Jenni Case from the University of Cape Town and others questioned the extent to which curriculum development took the starting point of students’ experience (lived) and knowledge (irrespective of which school background the students came from) into account.

Is such consideration to be regarded as curriculum transformation? If so, is it restricted to bridging programmes, academic development or intensive literacy development courses? If Africanisation and localisation are insufficient, then perhaps it makes sense to focus on the extent to which Western epistemologies dominate.

Lange argued that policy reform in the past 20 years omitted to focus on disciplinary content and the world views of students.

Although this might indeed be an omission, the assumption that the content of the school curriculum (whether measured in terms of teachers’ let alone learners’ know-ledge) is adequate has also been exploded repeatedly in our nonperformance in international benchmark tests of numeracy and literacy.

So who benefits most from what education is offered in South Africa? Clearly, the outstanding beneficiaries are our already enabled middle- class black and white children. And, if they succeed, they move globally or ease into high-paying jobs in the private sector, often with large multinational corporations.

What happens to the other graduates from our remaining universities? Does education whether at UCT or the University of Zululand prepare, and make it compelling for, graduates to work for the poor, or more critically, to see that their role is also to build a new society and reconcile the schizophrenic notions of what it means to be South African?

In the absence of focused leadership on curriculum reform in South African universities, do taxpayers (who are from the working and middle classes) feel the benefit in terms of the quality of civil service, healthcare or education systems? Or does success at universities engender ­forgetfulness of context?

If recent graduates represent new generational thinking about what it means to be South African (the way that happened three generations ago, albeit with a much smaller black intellectual elite: the Jabavu’s, Dubes, Plaatjes, Mphahleles), one might be reassured that calls to decolonise the curriculum have substance.

But it seems as though the students leading the #FeesMustFall protests are not in general middle-class young people whose affordances of class enable access to better education. What leadership does this latter group demonstrate?

Philosopher Anthony Appiah, who focuses on cosmopolitanism and globalisation, suggests that cosmopolitanism refers to a disposition in which a highly skilled and disengaged middle class becomes global and aspire to economic, intellectual and social mobility.

How do we define neo-apartheid in a post-apartheid state? If apartheid was defined by limitations of mobility (areas to live in, education to access, professions to pursue, labour to undertake) and exclusion in terms of race, then neo-apartheid may be defined as those same limitations arising from class.

The opportunities middle-class privilege affords should exist in ­relation to a deep commitment, developed through education, to heal and address inequality.

To be sure, the revolutions in France or Russia did not obliterate the aristocracy as much as render that class totally irrelevant.

When class privilege enables class forgetting, do we help to foster the circumstances leading to our ­irrelevance as members of the ­middle class?

Robert J Balfour is the dean of education sciences at North-West University.



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