South Africans invest billions of rands each year in the country’s future professionals hoping for well-equipped, appropriately skilled all-round professionals ready to contribute to society.
Armed with different backgrounds, race, ideals, attitudes, assumptions, practices, students are thrust into the same lecture halls, expected to share the same learning spaces and same residences and expected to make merry – a recipe which has proven disastrous in the past.
In his work as a social justice education academic and activist, University of the Free State Dean of Education, Prof Dennis Francis, has looked at the need for tertiary institutions to play a central role in minimising the effects of this culture shock, and dismantling the social constructs held by students.
In his keynote address titled “Teacher Education: Enacting a vision for social justice” at the Walter Sisulu University Research Conference, Francis delved into how institutions can begin transforming their students’ views and ideas about multiculturalism in schools, by transforming views and ideas held by teachers and lecturers first.
“Dealing with diversity in education is always loaded for students and teachers. Creating a classroom environment that promotes safety and trust so that all students are able to confront and deal with prejudice and discrimination is essential for this endeavour,” says Francis.
He says if learning to change deeply held attitudes, assumptions and practices is difficult for students, this should be equally true for staff. It is thus imperative that institutions start sensitising teachers about societal issues, so they can begin to play a role in dismantling oppression and generating a vision for a more socially just future.
“What’s the point of producing racist doctors, sexist lawyers, bigots for economists, professionals who steal, rape, kill, oppress, all because of the social ideologies they hold? Our graduates should be upstanding citizens who advance the fundamentals of social justice, and it’s up to our teachers to play a role in this,” says Francis.
He says society needs to understand that this country’s multicultural education is determined by its specific socio-historical context, both post-colonial and post-apartheid.
“Multiculturalism needs to be understood within our broader national context of racial redress following apartheid, and thus of the struggle to achieve access to quality education for the majority to whom this was previously denied,” says Francis.
He says as an intervention, multiculturalism should enable young South Africans to understand the past from which the country is still emerging, as well as the values and principles which are entrenched in the current constitution: democracy, social justice and equity, equality, non-racism and non-sexism, ubuntu, and an open society which upholds respect and principles of reconciliation.
“In order for our young people to know where they’re going, they should know where they’re coming from. This understanding could help create a favourable climate for social cohesion,” says Francis.
He says his understanding of social justice education as a process and goal which allows full and equal participation of all groups in a society has meant he’s been thrust into a position as a teacher and activist, where he must prepare children and communities for participation in an anti-oppressive society.
“Teaching for social justice is teaching that arouses students, engages them in a quest to identify obstacles to their full humanity and freedom, and then to drive and move against those obstacles. These are the all-rounded South Africans that our organisations should invest in, and these are the products our institutions should produce,” says Francis.