Tuesday, March 27, 2012

South African education: still determined by the old geography of apartheid

THE stinging rebuke of our education system by Dr Mamphele Ramphele, former UCT vice-chancellor and struggle veteran, during her address at the sixth annual Solomon Mahlungu lecture at the University of Johannesburg is a timely reminder that all is not well in education.

Her widely reported remark that the state of our education is worse today than the gutter dispensation of 1976 is a damning indictment after 17 years of democracy. This is a system that many South Africans sacrificed their lives to overthrow.

The issue of enforced Afrikaans-medium education, and the inferior curricula dished out to non-whites via National Party policy over 30 years ago, would not only mobilise the anti-apartheid movement, but revitalise the ANC in exile, and lead to the formation of the United Democratic Front.

Education, regarded as the cornerstone of apartheid, was at the very centre of the South African uprisings of 1976 and 1985. It was the youth who took to the streets to face the Casspirs, the teargas and the live bullets.

Encompassing various race groups and administered by numerous education boards, apartheid education determined from birth your status, your level of employment and your social opportunity in an unequally weighted society.

Dr Ramphele’s assertion, that the current 30% matric subject pass mark degrades the value of secondary education and compromises further tertiary study, is given context via the dumbing-down of learning by the state for political gain.

Her statement that former education minister, Kader Asmal, had fallen victim to “micro-politics” bears truth. During his tenure the matric pass rate’s dramatic increase from 40% to 70% was loudly trumpeted as a success story for the new South Africa.

She also interrogated the 70%-plus pass rate of this year, pointing out that more than 50% of pupils starting in Grade 1 had not written exams for Grade 12. This meant that over half-a-million children had been lost to the system.

As someone who taught high school briefly under the Coloured Affairs Department during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, my encounters with our education system today (via the travails of my own children) have been illuminating, if not depressing reminders of the past.

This is because as much as things may appear to have changed, the reality is that in many ways they haven’t. More than 30 years ago, our school drop-out rate was too high. Today it is still too high. The existence of about four million unskilled and unemployed young people on the streets of South Africa, as Dr Ramphele comments, is a social disaster.

Admittedly, there have been attempts in education to redress past imbalances, but the reality is that most of the poorer schools are still as marginalised as they were before1994. How many schools, for example, can boast computer rooms, functional science laboratories, book-filled libraries and sports fields?

The hard truth is that education in South Africa is still largely determined by the old geography of apartheid.

The big observable change since 1994 might be more racially integrated classrooms, but the bigger one is that many parents in the townships have voted with their feet, sending their children to better schools in other areas. This has adversely affected township schools.

Then there is what many parents perceive as the privatisation of the education system by the state. One of the biggest grumbles from cash-strapped parents today is school fees, and as the economy bites, even privileged schools are going to suffer from shrinking fiscal bases.

During the apartheid era – and we’re not being sentimental here – schools received free stationery and text-books. The lack of free stationery today discriminates unfairly against impoverished communities where children often walk to school with empty stomachs.

An issue that has bothered me for some time has been the Outcomes Based Education (OBE) system that the Education Department rammed down the nation’s throat; this in spite of it being criticised by educators and being internationally discredited at the time of its application in South Africa.

Bureaucrats might now be in the midst of a strategic reverse strategy regarding this disastrous policy, but too few of us are aware that something suspiciously similar to OBE was already being introduced by the apartheid authorities in the early 1980’s.

I can remember having strong words with Subject Advisors on this new system they were trying to foist upon us during a time of great political upheaval. I have since discovered that our old 1980’s workbooks were almost identical to those I encountered as a parent in the 2000’s.

An educator once cynically told me that OBE called for perfect teachers in a perfect world. It demanded learning by random osmosis – impossible anywhere, let alone in post-apartheid South Africa. He added that economically, OBE “saved on the cost of text books” as the teacher was now, de-facto, the text book.

The lack of emphasis on rote learning of multiplication tables and the basic ABC in our education system (another widespread criticism) has led to a drastic drop in overall literacy. Linguistic facility is the bedrock of mathematical competence and conceptual thinking.

As an examiner and tutor at a tertiary institution offering correspondence media courses, I’ve seen first-hand the imperfect fruits of OBE – and the rapid deterioration of literary skills and our slide down the scale of being a well-educated nation.

At a tertiary level I’m now dealing with students who don’t even know where to place a capital letter, let alone construct a grammatical sentence. In comprehension exercises at least 60% of the students cannot identify a figurative expression.

The most redeeming aspect of this experience has been my personal interaction with the students. In spite of severe challenges and distractions they’re good kids, motivated and willing to learn. For most South Africans, education is the only way out of poverty. That is why there are stampedes at universities.

The point has to be made that the failure is our education system – not those subjected to it. There is nothing wrong with our youth. We can only admire their tenacity. But for them to achieve success, we have to realise that even if the legacy of OBE and apartheid is finally reversed, the state will never be able to do everything.

Dr Ramphele’s statement that the wounds of the past should not paralyse our communities bears great import. I agree with her that ignorance should never be an excuse, and that civil society – more than ever – needs to be a demanding and vociferous shareholder in the going-ons of government.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Way Things Are

IT is a truism that earlier generations were more sensitive than us to their natural environment. A cloudburst, for example, was a much weightier event than a whorl on a satellite image, or the opening of an umbrella on a wet pavement.

It is a truism too, that 21st century city life and scientism have veiled us from our surroundings. How much can we really see of the world if our living-room focuses on a plasma screen?

We hardly know what the weather is like because we live in an air-con bubble; and pollution and street-light refraction blot out the night sky.

The disappearance of cosmology (the discipline of understanding the world in all its dimensions), says the scholar Sayyid Hossain Nasr in Man and Nature, is due to our failure to acknowledge the hierarchies of existence.

Science as technologically useful as it may be, he writes, can only remain wholesome when it is cultivated in a metaphysical matrix that is centred on the Absolute.

The reduction of the metaphysical and the revelatory to mere cultural superstition, and the elevation of cold scientific hypothesis to the pinnacle of understanding have eroded the very idea of cosmology – or holistic knowledge.

I got to thinking about this after a weekend trip to the mountains recently. Away from urban dissonance and amongst the deep valleys and soaring granite peaks of the Western Cape, I was reminded that the world was indeed a complex, wondrous place.

It made me realise exactly why prophets have always been sent to preach the cosmology of the Supra-Real. In the cacophony and miracle of existence there is much to distract us.

Call it God-consciousness, Creational Unity, recognition of Lordship; it all boils down to the same thing. We cannot shrink the universe to mere cause and effect when we don’t even know where it begins or ends, or even what’s above and below it.

This is a profound philosophical lesson that Nabi Ibrahim (as), the patriarch of contemporary monotheism, learnt in his youth.

The Qur’an (6: 75-9) states that in his search for eternal truth, Ibrahim (as) first considered that a star might be the divine. But when it set and the moon rose, he conjectured that it was the moon. But when the moon set, he declared it was the sun. But when the sun set, he realised that the Absolute could not be partnered with something that obeyed it.

“I have set my face towards Him who created,” Ibrahim (as) is finally quoted as saying.

As I sat in a camp chair under the trees next to a chattering stream, I recalled that historic Abrahamic moment. The sun was busy setting. I could so easily have thought it was literally disappearing as it dropped behind the escarpment.

As dusk descended, Venus rose. Not before long it was accompanied by other stars until the Milky Way appeared and became a smear of fantastic light. I could easily understand how the ancient Egyptians had found gods in the night sky.

Shooting stars catch one’s eye; planets seem to have different colours and constellations appear to pulsate. Suddenly, you realise that everything is alive. Nothing stays in one place for any length of time.

I’ve heard that even the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) used to look up at the night sky, his Companions reporting that he did so to reassure himself of the grand mercy of Divine Diktat, the Heavenly Balance.

As a meteorite blazed across my vision, I was reminded of the verse in the Qur’an (72: 9) that spoke of “flaming fires” being hurled at mischievous jinn trying to eavesdrop on the Angels. Were the jinn, made of smokeless fire, trying to snatch snippets of Angelic chatter that night?

And whilst the phenomenon of meteorites (and other space debris) could easily be comprehended from both scientific and revelatory perspectives, something I’d seen at the same spot two years previously could not. This was when lights, moving in the region of Orion’s Belt, started to zigzag dramatically before disappearing.

They were moving extremely fast, and completely defied what I’d previously understood as the “laws of physics”. There were several witnesses who saw the same thing, and so I definitely wasn’t dreaming.

I have no idea what I observed, and use the word “UFO” guardedly. The Qur’an has also spoken about man and jinn “penetrating the heavens” (55:33), but not without the decree of the Creator.

Soon a moon rose over the valley. It was a half moon, and I recalled it had been about a month since the 10th of Rabbi ul-Awwal, the lunar birth-date of the Prophet (SAW). On that night I’d seen the crescent rising above Signal Hill to the east. It had seemed particularly radiant, a fitting metaphor of the Prophet’s (SAW) spiritual radiance.

Dark clouds began to scud across the sky. They blocked out the stars and masked the moon, which gave the cumulus a fluorescent fringe. Later that night it rained. As raindrops pattered into the trees and splashed onto the flysheet above my head, I was again reminded of Qur’an (56:68). It seemed to ask me directly:

“See the water… (Shafiq)? Do you bring it down from the clouds, or do We?”

By the following morning the skies had cleared. The birds came to life, foraging for insects in the undergrowth. A pair of francolin came into view, and a thrush tweeted from some low branches.

But what caught my attention was a clump of fynbos being visited by bees. The Chapter of the Bee in the Qur’an is a profound one that talks much about nature. But perhaps its most profound verse is the one that proclaims that all of Allah’s creatures prostrate to Him.

I don’t know why, but in my mind’s eye I decided to listen to the bees, rather than observe them. What I heard was astounding. Their buzzing was not buzzing, but the low drone of “Allah, Allah, Allah!”

The birdsong and the stream were accompanying this dhikr, this remembrance. Gusts of wind sweeping down the valley sounded just like “Hu, hu!” (He is, He is). Even a pair of water birds flying above seemed not to be quacking, but singing “Al Haq, al Haq!” (The Truth, the Truth).

For a few seconds I was completely mesmerised. It was an insight that I would treasure for the rest of my life, the enchanting occasion when I was allowed to momentarily see things the way they really are.