A graduation ceremony is one of the best tonics for pessimism

2011-07-23 14:14

Ours has become an era in which pessimism regarding education is overwhelming and the best minds in the country are rushing to be the most eloquent prophets of doom.

Given that, no less an authority than Nelson Mandela says: ­“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Placing education at the centre of our ability to transform our world, the stated collapse of our education system is a cause for genuine worry. But it turns out that even though South Africa’s dialogue of failure around education can be quite overwhelming, if not altogether deceiving, there are pockets of very real and dynamic successes.

It is important that these ­successes are highlighted as much as ­possible before we all start ­believing that it’s all doom and gloom.

I am very glad that I accepted an invitation to attend a Wits ­University graduation ceremony because it punctured some of this powerful narrative of total failure.

Attending a graduation ceremony is, of course, one of the most moving experiences of all because one gets to see a group of truly ­remarkable youngsters honoured for their achievements.

But one also gets to see how, ­beyond the headlines and the pub talk, there are many young men and women who are earning ­degrees in some of the most difficult areas of study.

Wits University’s Great Hall, was the venue this week for graduation ceremonies that ­recognised the hard work that goes into earning a first degree or even a PhD.

I attended ceremonies for 23 PhD degrees, which were awarded by the faculties of science and commerce, as well as many master’s, honours and bachelor’s ­degrees.

As each graduate walked up to be capped by Wits vice-chancellor and principal Professor Loyiso Nongxa, you could sense the magic of the moment; the many hours of sacrifice and study encapsulated in that one moment of recognition.

You could sense the great pride in the deans’ voices as they called up each student, and this ­reinforces the fact that the success or failure of education depends not just on systems and resources, but also on the ability of teachers and lecturers to motivate and inspire their students.

This sense of collective effort and pride is what is missing in so much of the reporting on our ­education that captures only the most dire situations.
There is no denying that our education is in deep trouble and it needs fixing quickly, but it will not do to just turn a blind eye on those parts of our education that reflect excellence and achievement.In these ­situations, we may well see the ­solutions to our most urgent ­problems.

It is true that universities are hardly representative of our education system, but principles of ­excellence tend to apply with equal effectiveness when transplanted from one situation to another.

One of the highlights of the ­graduation ceremony are the speeches, usually delivered by people of great accomplishments.

While there are no rules for what kind of speech has to be delivered, most speakers tend to dispense wisdom of the hands-on type to ­advise the new graduates on what lies in store for them in the world.

In Steve Jobs’s famous address to graduates at Stanford University, he spoke about “connecting the dots”, in reference to what lies ahead for them.

It is part of the sense of magic of graduation ceremonies that makes so many parents want to send their own children to their
alma mater so that they too can go through the magic of a graduation ceremony.

It is often said that learning ­never ends, and this week I learnt that even a simple graduation ­ceremony can be a timely reminder of the many extraordinary things achieved by ordinary people. 

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