Learning can’t prosper in a broken society
Various studies in the sociological aspects of education have for some time advanced pertinent, yet often neglected, theoretical positions that may enable a more rational, comprehensive and informed understanding of a range of issues associated with children’s education.
Faced with so many seemingly insurmountable problems, South Africa has much to learn from this field. One of the most rudimentary, and widely accepted, (though not so widely contemplated) sociological assumptions is the following: education systems broadly mirror and replicate the social system in which they function.
In the most basic terms this means that if our social system is “unhealthy”, then our education system is bound to be frail as well. Conversely, if things are going great in our society, then our children are destined to flourish in their schooling.
But what does this mean for South Africa in real, tangible terms? And what are some of the more clamouring implications for stakeholders concerned with changing the present, frightful situation?
If discriminatory attitudes and practices are rife in our society, as they certainly are, then the chances are high that they are also prominent in our schools and institutions of higher learning.
Think about, for example, our young and courageous girls who stood up to — often quite effectively — their schools’ outdated hair policies.
More pronounced, arguably, are various unresolved university student campaigns, which seek to challenge and replace archaic curriculums. When we cast our gaze to the broader social sphere, we encounter acts of open, brutal humiliation and systemic exclusion.
What our children are encountering at school they may very well encounter elsewhere — perhaps right in the heart of the city while enjoying a meal at a renowned restaurant or in a remote rural hinterland, where many farmworkers remain abused, often in most shameful ways.
If gender cruelty, substance abuse, criminality and violence are endemic in our communities, then prospects are near certain that our spaces of learning have not been spared either. With one of the highest murder rates across the globe today, South Africa has yet to take stock of what this really means for our children’s schooling.
Although acts of murder at schools remain rare, in the Cape Flats dozens of children have lost their lives while travelling between home and school. The recent spate of political killings is another pertinent illustration, as is the murders of school officials, which have on occasion happened within the confines of the school itself.
Fact-finding studies conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention confirm how acts of violence have steadily encroached into public schools. Four years ago it found that one in five secondary school pupils had experienced violence while at school. Physical assault was widely reported, with “assault” defined as “incidents where learners may have been attacked or hurt by someone physically, using any kind of weapon or their hands”.
Robbery at schools also sets alarm bells ringing, because theft often occurs with violence or the threat of violence. The centre indicates that pupils are typically robbed of money, school stationery, electronic items and even, at times, of food and clothes. And if this were not enough, more than 20% of young people reported being cyberbullied.
Most worrying perhaps has been the recent rise in shocking claims of rape and sexual molestation. Neither university students nor schoolchildren have been spared that crushing experience.
But as we know too well, the extremes that reside in our places of learning have been pervasive throughout South African society for some time.
Nelson Mandela’s contribution towards instituting a public school feeding scheme highlights the fact that a hungry child at home is bound to suffer the pains of hunger at school.
Further problems are widespread and multifaceted, and unmistakably substantiate the basic premise that education systems by and large imitate and reproduce the social systems in which they function.
Appallingly low attainment levels, particularly in core learning areas (reading, writing, maths, science and language education), coupled with the lowering of standards, could so easily lead to illiterate and uninformed communities.
The most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study indicates that the literacy crisis in South Africa is far worse than presumed. Close on 80% of grade four pupils have difficulty in deriving meaning from basic reading material.
These pupils are poorly equipped either to locate and retrieve plainly stated information, or to draw uncomplicated conclusions from simple texts. To put it bluntly, their capacity to think and reason in rational terms is poorly developed.
It is hardly shocking then that a 2016 study conducted by the Central Connecticut State University ranked South Africa as one of the most illiterate nations on Earth.
Conversely, inasmuch as even relatively unschooled communities may seek to uphold their children’s right to educational facilities, including well-equipped libraries and laboratories, and safe and secure playing grounds and ablution blocks (hamba kahle, young Michael Komape), they may not have much to say when the decree is made that 20% is deemed satisfactory to get their children into the next grade.
Uninformed societies tend to just go along with ill-advised policymakers and may well become conditioned into thinking that mathematics education is best suited for the so-called “clever child”. Had they been better apprised, they would know that the wholesale neglect to induct their children into critical reasoning lies at the heart of the impasse. More informed communities know that the problem does not lie with their children per se, but with a system that obstructs and diminishes thinking.
Admittedly, certain social ills are not reflected precisely in the immediate learning environment but their horrific effect is there for all to see. Thousands of especially rural pupils will struggle forever to learn basic concepts. Such are the penalties of the dreaded foetal alcohol syndrome, a direct outcome of the type of socialisation habitually “adopted” by many struggling communities, because of the lack of insight that usually comes with quality education. Coupled with poor nutrition, which, likewise, can have a ruinous effect on brain functioning, many of these children may have lost the ability to learn altogether.
So where does all this leave us?
It is incumbent on the scholarly community to subject fairly well-known issues to more in-depth, critical scrutiny to bring about a real measure of relief. Equally, pertinent findings need to be shared with the broader educational community, as well as with all organs concerned with education in the country.
Although journal publication remains infinitely important, online and print media offer far better chances to reach those who may not necessarily have the luxury of turning to journal articles written in often complex academic language.
The target should include those who stand right at the vanguard of our children’s education: parents, teachers and principals. As perplexed parents more and more seem to indicate, they learn much about their children’s education and how they can contribute towards it from reading interesting, well-pitched educational reports.
Although it remains crucially important for the teacher to be well trained, on time, prepared for the task at hand and to be managed and supported by good leadership, we can no longer ignore the fact that such an “ideal learning situation” may very well not be enough for the child deprived of basic necessities. Insofar as the provision of nutritious food is requisite to healthy brain functioning, the perpetually poverty-stricken child remains robbed of human dignity and progress remains but a ceaseless aspiration.
Our somewhat half-hearted attempts to advance trans-disciplinary scholarship need to be bolstered. Historically insulated, pedagogic-specific studies should be complemented by studies in sociology, community development, ethics, philosophy, history, critical thinking, culture, the arts and more to generate a fuller picture of the situation on the ground. (The word is out, incidentally, about impending governmental funding cuts to the humanities.)
And although ongoing, often embedded issues of discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion at school level have certainly been brought to light in recent times, few studies have looked at the effect this deeply rooted illness may have on the psychological dimensions of the South African schoolchild.
Now combine this with the destructive effect that violent crime and physical and sexual abuse have on all and sundry, and then we may begin to see how meaningful, productive learning can so easily be destroyed. When the child’s emotional and perceptual dimensions become fractured and contaminated, then the entire learning process may be harshly compromised.
In sum, if we agree that our educational and social systems are intricately and inextricably interconnected, then it stands to reason that our quest for more meaningful, productive education, ultimately, is contingent upon genuine social change.
But significant social change, in turn, can only really come about through a fundamental adjustment to our political system, given our present dreary, rotten state of affairs.
If we contemplate the prospect that political change may only occur in the post-2019 era — and that this period may be accompanied by sweeping partisan-political turmoil (new alliances could inspire large-scale political instability, in the sense that the present-day ruling party may not relinquish power that easily) — then it is only within a decade and a half or so that teaching and learning will really take off and truly blossom for the majority of South Africa’s youth if we include a period for potential political volatility to subside.
Couples and individuals contemplating having children may want to keep such projections in mind. But with twittering, tactless Mr T at the Western helm and our northerly rocket man now brooding with vexation, anything is possible.
DVDs can help beat the odds
Readers interested in gaining a deeper perspective of South Africa’s frightful educational situation may consider watching Stefan Göttfried’s well-researched and compelling documentary Some Children Are More Equal than Others.
“Highly recommended for university education faculties” — in this instance by Professor Tania Morales de la Cruz, a scholar at the University of Matanzas, Cuba — and subjected to critical review by local academics are my own educational documentary film projects, which explore how a selection of indigent rural schooling communities from the Cederberg, West Coast and Overberg regions have managed to “really beat the odds” through often creative processes.
These regions have practised communal support and direct parental participation in tackling impediments to learning, and thus offer some very valuable lessons to their struggling peers.
DVD documentary production offers an effective, socially powerful tool that can enhance our understanding of, as well as our responses to, the distressing state of South Africa’s education system.
Dr Clive W Kronenberg is the recipient of the 2015 Contribution to the Cuban University award. He is a transdisciplinary research scholar, documentary film producer and lead co-ordinator of the South-South Educational Collaboration and Knowledge Interchange Initiative (Africa-Latin America-Caribbean region)