Pupils Speak Out: Schools need to make us more aware of our privilege

The article you are about to read is part of a weekly series of comment pieces written by South African pupils about the problems they encounter in their schools. The series offers pupils a chance to be part of the debate about South Africa’s education system.

As a pupil at a religiously alligned, predominantly white, privileged, private school in Johannesburg, I have never been exposed to real hardship. I have lived my life in blissful ignorance of the social issues facing most South Africans – and that is exactly the problem.

Until I started high school and joined the debate club, I had no idea of the extent to which South Africa faces some of the worst social problems in the world. Our country is infamous for poverty, sexual violence and a poor education system. But because my community, my school, and my family do not have to personally experience these problems, we are not expected to know or even care about them.

The privileged minorities’ lives often revolve around making more and more money and spending it on as much as we can. When we do get involved in important issues, it is often only when we will benefit in some way, or if we are directly involved. We all sit back and sip our freezos while millions are deprived of any electricity whatsoever, but as soon as loadshedding deprives us of electricity, Eskom’s competency becomes a matter of prime importance.

It’s a harsh cycle: those with influence are the most capable of affecting change, while those who need change the most are the ones who are the least able to affect it. The root of this problem lies in what happens at our schools. While my school is extremely important to me and plays an invaluable role in providing me with a good education, I would be lying if I tried to claim that it is not partially to blame for my and other pupils’ lack of insight into our country’s struggles.

Our school is in a community where almost no one is underprivileged, and very few people have ever faced oppression or discrimination. Every pupil at my school is almost guaranteed to pass matric, the majority of us will be accepted into university, and it is highly unlikely that any one of us will end up unemployed. Because of this, the school has little need to educate us about poverty, illiteracy and oppression of the majority of people in our country based on the colour of their skin. Even the causes of issues that, statistically at least, could affect anyone in society, such as crime, are brushed over and swept under the rug.

Many would argue that it is not the school’s duty to make us aware of these things. We receive a good enough, technical education already, our pass rate being testament to that, so why press the school for more?

Well, the truth is that we spend most of our waking hours at school – up to seven hours a day excluding extra curricular activities – so I feel that our schools therefore have an obligation to teach us more than just what’s in the syllabus. If we are to rely on our parents or external sources to educate us in this sense, how do we know that every single pupil will actually be made aware?

Equally frustrating is the fact that schools with religious allignment often have extremely narrow world views, which makes it hard to even try to learn about anything even slightly subjective. All of this means that pupils are not actively encouraged to be curious and our questions are stifled, so that not only do schools not educate us about current affairs, but they also end up discouraging us from educating ourselves, albeit unintentionally. This breeds a culture of apathy.

Apathy is the biggest problem facing privileged South Africans today. While statistics for poverty and education look bad, these problems could be improved if a few rich and powerful people took notice and actually cared. Despite the obvious need for a shift towards equal opportunity for all in our country, many people choose to remain ignorant. They shut out the problems of others and choose to dwell in their isolated bubbles. While there are some people who are, in fact, genuinely unaware of the difficulties that so many people in our country have to face, the majority remain ignorant out of choice, due to laziness, demotivation or even just an inability to empathise with the realities other people face.

But everyone who can make a positive change, should. We need as much awareness as we can to ensure that everyone knows about our country’s social problems, and this awareness needs to be constant so as to bombard apathetic people with information and give them little choice but to contribute towards a better society. It starts with the youth, it starts with our schools. Until I feel that, as a privileged member of society, I am fully exposed to the problems facing the underprivileged members of society, I will not believe that apathy is not a very serious problem.

The author of this comment piece is 16 years old and asked that the name of her school is not published. The Mail & Guardian has consent from her parents to use her name in the byline.

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