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Rich ideas for education needed

Date Released: Fri, 25 September 2009 09:24 +0200

WE INHERITED an education system powerfully shaped by race, class, gender, institutional, and geographical inequalities.Recognising this, our Constitution declared the right of all “to a basic education”. It also committed us to the values of human dignity, the achievement of equality, and the advancement of non- sexism and non-racialism and the human rights and freedoms that the Bill of Rights proclaims.
The 1995 White Paper on education and training entrusted the State to “advance and protect” citizens so that they “have the opportunity to develop their capabilities and potential”. It also directed the State to “redress ... educational inequalities among those sections of our people who have suffered particular disadvantages” and the principle of “equity”, so that all citizens have “the same quality of learning opportunities”.
A year later, the National Education Policy Act of 1996 stated its goal of “the democratic transformation of the national system of education into one which serves the needs and interests of all of the people of South Africa and upholds their fundamental rights”.
The South African Schools Act asserted that a new schooling system will “redress past injustices in schooling provision, provide an education of progressively high quality for all learners, … advance the democratic transformation of society …(and) contribute to the eradication of poverty and the economic well-being of society”.
The Constitution and laws and policies direct us to realise wide-ranging imperatives and goals in, and through, education and schooling. It is hoped that their achievement will contribute to the transformation and development of education and society.
Today, however, there is a strong tendency to approach education and investments in education largely in terms of the promotion of economic growth.
Frequent stories on the supposed lack of responsiveness of educational institutions to economic needs, the alleged mismatch between graduates and the needs of companies, and the demand for a greater focus on “skills” reflect this tendency. This reduces education to preparing students for the economy and to be productive workers.
Education must cultivate the knowledge, competencies and skills that enable graduates to contribute to economic growth, since such growth can contribute to greater social equality and development. However, reducing education to its value for economic growth dangerously strips education of its wider social value and functions.
Education has great value as an engagement between dedicated teachers and students around humanity’s intellectual, cultural and scientific heritage (in the form of books, art, pictures, music, artefacts), and around our understandings, views and beliefs about our natural and social worlds. Education is undertaken as part of what it means to be human.
Education is also connected, as Martha Nussbaum argues, to democratic citizenship and to the cultivation of humanity. Nussbaum writes that “three capacities, above all, are essential to the cultivation of humanity”.
“First is the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions. Training this capacity requires developing the capacity to reason logically, to test what one reads or says for consistency of reasoning, correctness of fact, and accuracy of judgement.”
The “cultivation of humanity” also requires students to see themselves “as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern” – which requires knowledge and understanding of different cultures and “of differences of gender, race, and sexuality”.
It is, however, more than “factual knowledge” that is required. Also needed is “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have”.
If we seek to be true to our Constitution, laws and policies, and also advance educational and social transformation and development, we have to reject the idea that education’s only or even main role is to develop “skills” and promote economic growth. We must protect and promote a much richer viewer of education that allows it to play its citizenship and humanising roles.
There is a similar challenge related to our ideas of “development”. There are what we can call “thin” and “thick” concepts of development.
“Thin” concepts are mainly economistic, and reduce development to economic growth and better economic performance, as measured by various indicators. Reducing development to economic growth gives rise to policies and actions that focus primarily on promoting growth and reducing obstacles to growth.
“Thick” concepts of development value economic growth but are also concerned with wider economic issues as well as social, cultural and political issues. The concern is with policies and actions that bring about structural economic change and widen ownership; eliminate or reduce income inequality, unemployment and poverty; promote greater social equality, and create equity and redress for socially disadvantaged groups.
The concern also extends to expanding human, economic and social rights; deepening political and citizenship participation, building democracy and a vibrant civil society, and enriching intellectual and cultural life.
The economics Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, is a strong advocate of a “thick” concept of development. He writes that “development is a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as growth of gross national product, or technological advance”.
Again, as with the need for a rich and “thick” view of education, we have to choose a “thick” concept of development if we wish to achieve both educational and social transformation and development.
Without a “thick” concept of development, we will not eliminate the economic and social legacies of apartheid, redress inequalities in wealth and ownership and transform economic and social relations. It will also be very difficult to meet the basic needs of people and democratise the State and society.
Only rich and thick concepts of education and development can bring about development in South Africa that is economic and also intellectual, cultural, social and political.
>>Dr Saleem Badat is the vice-chancellor of Rhodes University. This is the second part of an edited, recent address to the Annual Conference of the Headmasters of the Traditional State Boys’ Schools of South Africa, at Queen’s College, Queenstown.