A responsibility to educate

2012-11-03 10:53

Has South African society abdicated its responsibility towards education? This was discussed at the education conversation at the University of Johannesburg on October 30.

Gillian Godsell, an education activist and former chair of the school governing body at Parktown Girls’ High, agreed with Matakanye Matakanye that society has abdicated its responsibility.

Matakanye, the secretary of the National Association of School Governing Bodies, prefaced his argument with a description of a state of social cohesion in which education is the preserve of none and the responsibility of all.

He explained that in precolonial times education was the locus of society – children learnt from all its members and in an open village-like terrain, not in classrooms within a linear system. Children learnt about past generations, the ethics of social conduct and the values of collective good through the oral transmission of knowledge.

During the struggle against apartheid, youth were rightly more concerned with ending that system, and led the fight. Since 1994, the struggle for parents has been to reign in the youth and “redirect their attention to education”.

We lack a common and shared vision for education, argued Godsell.

For the past 18 years we have not spoken about what we want to achieve through schooling. We have not defined a common cause and aim, the purpose of which is to “produce a vision of education that fits with who we are as South Africans”.

Godsell argued: “The consequence of not knowing what we want to educate for is the polarising, vitriolic discourse that currently surrounds education.”

The effect of this discourse, which tells a story that has more villains than heroes, is we suppress the truth. At least, Godsell argued, we need to be honest about the power of discourse. Polarised discourse is mostly one-sided and we need to raise voices about what is going well in education.

Godsell said the emphasis is now on quantifiable output, such as the number of A’s and the matric pass rate. But we are in danger of missing the learning opportunities democracy has afforded us, such as the value of diversity.

“Why are our smartest children encouraged to do Afrikaans and not Zulu? Because they have a better chance of getting an A?” she asked.

This conversation reminded me of Ken Robinson’s explanation that Western education was created in the climate of industrialism and modelled in the image of it. Colonialism brought a particular idea of education, in conflict with the precolonial model.

Our schools are run like factories. The emphasis on quantifiable outputs define what we expect from our education system, when perhaps we need a return to the village model. The education system is not closed, cohesive and capable of taking care of itself.

We can change it.

» Dampier is a lecturer at the ­University of Johannesburg

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