/ 24 September 2010

Bravely tackling a new world

Bravely Tackling A New World

The Brave ‘New’ World of Education: Creating a Unique Professionalism by Johannes A Slabbert, Dorothea de Kock and Annemarie Hattingh (Cape Town: Juta Publishers, 2008)

The pre-1994 apartheid education ideology was an intolerant Christian National Education philosophy delivered through a pedantic, self-righteous fundamental pedagogics. To a large degree the bearers of the legacy, through no fault of theirs, are many current school managers and teachers who imbibed the philosophy, the epistemology and the pedagogy from the old dispensation. It is fair to say the value or contribution of The Brave ‘New’ World of Education can be measured only against the weighty backdrop of the old apartheid order.

The authors’ aim is quite ambitious: it is premised, rightly, on the notion that the world is in a state of continuous change; that education in the contemporary world has to equip students with proper intellectual tools that will foster critical thinking skills, inquisitiveness, adaptability, and so on.

They embark on a journey of critical assessment of a series of paradigms from pre-modern to post-modern educational theories and, in the process, suggest the inadequacies of earlier forms. A thick body of research and scholarly works is marshalled to advance their argument. This critique is accompanied by associated methods of teaching and learning, ranging from the now-debunked rote learning to independent learning and critical thinking skills, for example.

Critical contemporary issues such as environmentalism, rapid scientific and technological changes and their impact on societies, governance and accountability systems are addressed (as they should be). The book is laced with an abundance of supporting quotes, chapter introductions and summaries that put the material in perspective; it has a vast bibliography and comes with a helpful CD-ROM. This is the right diet for 21st-century citizenship required by knowledge economies and learning societies.

In reading this broad yet detailed critical assessment one cannot avoid sensing that the Christian National Education project and its handmaiden, fundamental pedagogics, were fatally flawed. The fundamentalism of the apartheid education project has left a deep imprint in the minds and behavioural repertoires of generations of educators whose general philosophical bent and pedagogical practice are informed by this history. And that is one of the greatest challenges of post-apartheid South Africa.

The book’s exposition of the modern education discourse makes it eminently suitable for use in education faculties. Although complex and comprehensive in its sweep, it is able to maintain a well-organised structure and employs a reader-friendly style appropriate for teacher-training institutions if accompanied by creative adaptations.

There are, however, three serious concerns. The first is that utmost care must be exercised to ensure appropriate and mediated delivery bearing in mind the needs of particular communities and contexts. If care is not exercised, the book’s otherwise well-crafted design and rich content will suffer the same fate as OBE, which largely ignored South Africa’s realities.

The second concern is that, despite claims to the contrary, the book has an overly Western orientation. One example of this can be found in the references (on pages 20-21 and 43) to Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Woodstock experience. There is certainly nothing wrong with that except that in so doing other equally important practitioners of this particular art form who inhabited the same space and time are excluded. In this particular genre there were the likes of Chuck Berry, Jimmy Hendrix and Buddy Miles, to name a few who had great influence on the cultural landscape, despite the prevailing racial discrimination of the times. Such exclusion is contrary to the book’s declared spirit and a commitment to openness that is implied if not explicitly pronounced.

The third concern is that despite the major global shifts in power centres that have seen the BRIC quartet (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the Asian Tigers emerge as formidable international players, the book seems strangely oblivious of the remarkable contributions these countries are making to the world knowledge system. These countries are gravitating towards the centre of the brave and new 21st century. Interestingly (or is it tragically?), African contributions to knowledge hardly make a flicker on the screen. Is this a case of innocuous oblivion or a fundamentalist occidental orientation?

Contemporary education texts specially designed for teacher training are obliged to address the daunting realities of our times. Among other imperatives, education should be seen as the cradle of humane sensibilities, fairness and inclusivity in all respects.
All things considered, The Brave ‘New’ World—, is a significant contribution that should be on the compulsory reading list of teacher, and even school management, training programmes. It is an antidote to the toxic pre-democracy diet of unreflective texts.

Mokubung Nkomo is extraordinary professor at the University of Pretoria. A longer version of this review will appear in the forthcoming issue of Perspectives in Education