Work hard, think big and make mistakes.
This was the advice Professor Jonathan Jansen had for young people facing the gruelling challenges of education and employment in South Africa.
Speaking to financial business leaders in Johannesburg on Tuesday, Jansen tackled the topic: The moral underground – how ordinary citizens change our futures.
He followed this talk with suggestions he said could make an “incredible difference”.
“My feeling is that we underestimate the impact of this moral underground on what they call social cohesion,” he said.
Jansen encouraged middle class employers to take charge of the future of the country through actively participating in the educational development of those with less resources.
“You might be a mother in a home with your domestic worker and her child. Why not in addition to you paying your domestic worker, you put that kid in the same school as your child?” he said.
“Start with where you are and make that impact according to your capacity.”
Having worked in a number of universities in South Africa and visited others abroad, Jansen shared his concerns about the direction the country’s education system continues to take.
“So much of our education here is focused on correcting the past – I call that corrective knowledge. Very little of what we do is perspective knowledge. How do you prepare kids for a future in which the kind of technologies we now have are going to be obsolete?” he said.
On free education, Jansen said: “If by free higher education you mean gigantic welfare systems that not only pay for your fees but pay for your accommodation, pay for your books, pay for your experiments, pay for your transport to university, pay for your food and your stipend, we are going to go down that road it’s not feasible. It’s not sustainable even if it’s only for a percentage of students.”
But he said if “it is genuinely free fees and even some accommodation with the understanding that you work for the other parts, even if it means five hours a week in the library or it means tutoring first year students, then I think you achieve two things. One is you make it more affordable, but secondly you also develop a sense that higher education is not just there to give you stuff, it’s also there for you to work for stuff.”
Free education, together with models of transformation, remain contentious issues in the country.
“For me transformation is drawing on the best available talents of all our people in the shortest time possible. This is possible. Every industry has to work it out for itself,” said Jansen.
He said while students he came across were smart, often they did not have “cultural capital” to get an internship, and he said corporate companies can play a big role here.
“Give them internship experiences ... I think being able to get talent in that way as opposed to simply [seeing] who shows up in the interview is a wonderful way in getting to these transformation codes,” said Jansen.
He also had some tough advice for students, saying firstly the youth had to learn to work hard and secondly learn to think big.
“I look at ordinary people across the world – whether it’s Indian software engineers or Silicon Valley kids – and I’m always amazed by how simple they are but they ask big questions,” he said.
Thirdly, Jansen said young people must be prepared to make mistakes.
“We have a culture as you know that is anti-failure – you get beaten by teachers if you get a wrong answer, etc. We really have to figure out in general understanding that actually failure is good, failure is a way to learn and to do it better next time,” he said.