Words fail: A decent education needn’t be rocket science

Ideas

Words fail: A decent education needn’t be rocket science

There is no point in the politicking, the shouting, the planning, the hedging – if children cannot read or add

Columnist

“When the generation that survived the war is no longer with us, we’ll find out whether we have learned from history.”
It wasn’t quite Cassandra wailing from the ramparts, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement on Friday certainly sent a chill through the wires, echoing the sentiment, ascribed to everyone from George Santayana to Winston Churchill, that those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
It is an idea that exerts a strong pull on the modern psyche. As everything goes faster and more shallowly, knowledge of the past feels like an anchor. Context brings relief. Even in anti-intellectual South Africa we are toying with the idea of making History compulsory until matric.
I enjoy a historical tome as much as the next pedant, but I must confess that I’m not convinced of its doom-averting powers. Of course I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t read about history. But how about we first, you know, read? I mean, yes, let’s explore the past and see how events add up to our current circumstances, but what’s say we first explore some basic arithmetic and just learn to add?
This is not to dismiss the warnings of Merkel et al. I agree that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But how about, before we worry about the past and the future, we just get the present half-right? Because I’d bet folding money that the reason we endlessly repeat history’s bloody failures isn’t because we don’t study history. It’s because we don’t study anything.Right now, South Africa is grappling with its future by wrestling with its past. There is talk of a New Dawn, some way off in the future, being delayed by forces that want to drag us back into the recent past. We are discussing how our descendants will own land, a problem greatly complicated by how some of our ancestors owned – and, in some cases, hijacked – land. We continue to ping between the past and the future, between history and potential, all the while refusing to confront the fatal flaw in all the talk and planning: the very present, very current catastrophe we call education.
If that felt like a jarring segue into an unlikely topic, you’re not wrong. Education hasn’t been in the news. Because, of course, education is only in the news twice a year: when the matrics start to write their exams, and when the results of those exams are released. Only during those short weeks do we get alarmed about how few Grade 1s make it to Grade 12, about pass marks being lowered to absurd levels, and about the future prospects of the children being thrown into the meat grinder that is our education system.
Which is why I don’t blame anyone for not having given education a second thought for ages. For God’s sake, it’s only July: it’s still three or four months before we start remembering that the entire thing is monumentally screwed. And I really wouldn’t have brought it up now, what with it being July and all, except that, as we try to figure out how the New Dawn is going, it might be worth remembering a few little facts.The first is that teachers’ union Sadtu – a militant opponent of enforcing teaching standards and resolute and tireless foe of education in this country – is still effectively in charge. The second is that this union – one of the chief perpetrators of an immense crime against South Africa’s children – is besties with Cyril Ramaphosa.
Indeed, just last year he lauded this factory of poverty and hopelessness as a “great and powerful” union that was “militant, progressive and revolutionary”. In return, when Ramaphosa took power, Sadtu was quick to congratulate him, its official praise-poem including the radical suggestion that the “issue of development of teachers and reopening of colleges of education is something we should continue to ponder on as education remains our apex priority”. Continue to ponder… Yes, if only there were some way to know if we should train more and better teachers?
All of which brings us to the immediate present.
Right now South Africa is resounding with R-words: Ramaphosa, restitution, recovery. But until the Three Rs are put at the top of that list, none of those really matter.
There is no point arguing about job creation if we are only training children to keep seats warm long enough for robots to replace them. There is no point debating ownership of land if nobody has the skills to make the land productive. There is no point in any of it – the politicking, the shouting, the planning, the hedging – if children cannot read or add.
It’s not rocket science. It’s Grade R.

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