We need to ask awkward questions about our schools

If children are not treated with the respect that you demand for yourself as an adult, then the consequences can be criminally tragic. That, it seems to me, is just one of several inescapable conclusions that the Parktown Boys High School Grade 8 orientation camp — that left learner Enoch Mpianzi dead — compels us to confront.

The story is capturing the imagination of the entire country, and justifiably so. Many of us have teenagers who could have been Enoch. Many of us, when we were at school, could have been Enoch. Some of us have childhood friends who were Enoch.

And so the tragedy has triggered the memory of our own vulnerabilities, survivor’s guilt for some, anger in many South Africans about schools not being places of safety as they should be, and has led to a necessary debate about the institutional values, cultural norms and practices that are routine within our schools.

When I started high school in 1992 at Graeme College Boys High, there were aspects of the school’s traditions, some mercifully now discarded, that baffled me. We did cadets every week. That was a chance for some overzealous older students to do drills with us on the school field, shouting at us as if we were in the army. Some had ranks ascribed to them, swelling their power over us young ones.

We did not respect these older students. We feared them. The difference is all too often lost on us, including by adults who have “fond memories” of how such activities taught them “resilience” and other traits they imagine have turned them into well-adjusted adults.

But actually, upon reflection, these activities — and many of the excursions we went on — were simply part of a long tradition of preparing white kids to be conscripted into the army, and to slot into the world as militant, assertive, masculine “leaders”.

The hidden curriculum was one infused with toxic patriarchal values and regressive politics that connected with the old apartheid state’s inherent addiction to various kinds of violence. Most of our top schools were not nurturing individuals but responding to a nationalist project to produce a certain type of pawn that could be used for nefarious political ends.

You might feel slighted by this description because you feel sincerely well-adjusted as a 40, 50 or 60-year-old. But if we did candid interviews with friends, family and colleagues who interact with us men who attended these schools, their perceptions would differ sharply from how we perceive ourselves as healthy adult men. So, where did it all go wrong?

I think we all missed a historical moment that has now come back to haunt us beyond 2000. We were so excited by the aesthetic of black and white kids going to former Model-C schools in the 1990s, the image of and yearning for an integrated post-racial middle-class to come, that we didn’t want to or refused to (depending on how kind you want to be in your self-examination) ask tough questions about the institutional values, cultural norms and practices of these schools.

My mom was never going to ask my school for details about what we were going to do at Boknes or Kenton-On-Sea. She was still too chuffed that her child was playing with white kids and attending a white school. My aunts or grandparents were never going to ask why we were, on another occasion, going to spend a night out in the army base on the outskirts of Grahamstown, including being dropped off in the bush to be alone for several hours at night. They deferred to the great institutional histories of these schools and simply felt gratitude they were able to give their children opportunities they never had.

But the leadership of these schools also failed to come to the party. Not once was I asked, when we were walking through a river on a coastal outing, whether I could swim. And, because teenagers want to belong and not feel ashamed, we wouldn’t volunteer facts that could result in us being teased by classmates. Even during the summer, I would secretly fear physical education classes because we would be swimming, and I knew I couldn’t but was never going to say so.

My teacher did tell weaker swimmers to stay near the shallow end, and even I quietly chuckled at how, from the deep end to the shallow end, the boys’ skin colours got darker and darker!

But that should have made the coach recognise that the new Model-C schooling system should answer the question: “Can it be business as usual now that we have kids from all walks of life here, and apartheid is coming to an end?”

Not enough schools have grappled with this question.

Other norms, similarly, went unchallenged. To this day, when rugby matches happen in my hometown, you can hear war cries from one side of the city aimed at instilling fear in another school on the other side of town. Why am I going to war? What is the psycho-social developmental benefit of getting me aroused like a soldier going into battle, complete with language to that end?

And so, when we get stories surfacing of our children being let down by schools in myriad of ways, including the apparent gross negligence surrounding the death of Enoch Mpianzi, we are called upon, collectively, to take a long and hard look at our schooling system, again.

First, no one is saying that institutional identities and heritage must be completely abandoned. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with outdoor activities that seek to develop friendship and to enable a group, a new cohort, to bond and to learn vital life skills, off-site.

But it is important that the ways in which we achieve those noble outcomes are critically examined.

How does building a feeble stretcher and letting children try to float it down a river with a strong current achieve these outcomes?

How does not providing children with life vests teach “resilience”?

How does not being worried about a missing child role-model “leadership” to the boys you’re looking after at camp?

In that case we are simply reproducing the militancy of the 1980s and 1990s while pretending to be doing progressive work by stealing the language of feminists, and of men’s organisations doing good work.

All parents should be vigilant about the details of what schools do, and guard against the appropriation of the right words and phrases in the emails from schools, and the brochures they hand out during open days. Do not be afraid to ask tough questions.

Second, we shouldn’t be afraid to let go of traditions that no longer serve us. Just because you think you are fine, does not mean you are not maladapted to the demands of a modern society. Many of our most toxic corporate executives have leadership styles that were formed by their experiences at schools which did not think progressively about how to shape future leaders for a world that is anti-racist, pro-poor, committed to equality and to dismantling patriarchy.

This brings me to a crucial third take-away. We must stop obsessing about our schools as “old boys” or “old girls” and stop protecting their reputations above all else. Our schools are public institutions that must answer to the standards of a new constitutional order.

The battle to keep the reputations of our beloved schools intact will stop us from doing the radical work required to ensure our schooling system becomes one that is fit for the demands of 2020.

It is insane how precious many older people are, not wanting to hear any criticism about schools — or tertiary institutions — that they attended. We must learn to let go and listen to critiques from the experts carefully, rather than being easily offended or responding, ironically, with verbal and physical violence that simply demonstrates the miseducation so many of us received.

Last, I think that when we reflect seriously and deeply on love — yes, love — and what it might mean to centre love in our pedagogy, then we will be beginning a productive process of assessing what can stay, what must go and what should be added to our curricula, teaching approaches and extra-mural activities.

Authoritarianism, disrespect and lack of regard for dignity have dominated our schooling systems for too long.

We will become a healthier society if we grapple seriously with what it means to love children, and to infuse our teaching philosophies with a serious commitment to raising them lovingly.

Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.
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