Education needs own Springbok

2008-10-21 00:00

What a fascinating furore over the slight springbok. Dare one remind those who are convinced that it’s actually not only a religion that we’re talking about, but the one true religion, that it’s actually only a game. Perhaps we’d best not go there. Rather let us look at the sheer passion that has been released by the rather unwise attempt to squash this symbol. Symbols have an incredible power to evoke and release such feelings and the volcanic energy that accompanies them.

Which makes me wonder why we don’t do more to harness symbols into the service of other, perhaps more important ends. Obviously for some Springbok supporters winning against the All Blacks isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. But even they would surely admit that there are other battles to engage in, even if they can’t imagine anything quite as earth stopping as a Wallaby-Springbok clash.

One vital local battle is that being fought against ignorance. When a colleague returns from teaching a course I will frequently greet her or him by a remark such as: “A successful day of doing battle on the front lines of ignorance, I trust?” The flippancy conceals a deadly seriousness. It’s do or die out there on the educational front and who can be confident that South Africa is winning on it? One’s impression is often that the ignorance front is advancing rampantly and is all over us.

Now if we had a symbol for education that could energise and galvanise people to the extent that a sporting symbol can, imagine what a contribution that would make in the campaign against unused minds and the resultant despairing idleness of unemployment.

What might it be? The all-seeing eagle? The ever-remembering elephant? There is no lack of symbolic African animals and all cultures use creatures as symbols for aspects of human nature and its potentialities. The Greek storyteller Aesop even immortalised the foresight and industry of the tiny ant in one of his fables. In our era even the humble tree has become a powerful symbol of environmental justice in Kenya and beyond. This is thanks to the heroic work of Dr Maathai Wangari and her tree-planting and tree-protecting campaign.

However, the example of Wangari illustrates the problem with symbols, namely that they do not work automatically. They require a context and a history to make them do their job. In other words, someone or some group has to imbue them today with the significance which makes them work tomorrow.

Take institutions. These include educational ones that can serve as symbols as long as their history is honourable and outstanding, perhaps even heroic. The problem with our older educational institutions is that they are perceived to have been contaminated by a historical collusion with racism — like the springbok — even though many have produced distinguished scholars and men and women of integrity.

Perhaps we need an unconventional institution such as Robben Island as a positive educational symbol. Robben Island was made into a symbol of the enduring human aspiration for freedom and for the freedom given by education to those whose were imprisoned there and who refused to be mentally and spiritually imprisoned despite being physically incarcerated.

Perhaps someone needs to write a history or better still, produce a film, on the “university” of Robben Island solely from the perspective of the educational triumph that occurred on that historic islet. It is one of our greatest local stories which should resonate powerfully with our present educational challenge of continuing disadvantage and the ongoing oppression of ignorance through the after-effects of the Bantu Education Act.

That the Robben Island prisoners were able to cultivate their minds, mould their mentalities and raise their spirits under such unpromising circumstances is surely a triumph that should be trumpeted forth.

And it could be emblazoned as a potent symbol all over our education system, constantly reminding teachers, pupils, students, administrators, staff and, of course parents, of what is possible in the realm of the human spirit.

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