Great expectations


nt grade

This week activity starts on university campuses around the country, when mothers and fathers tearfully wave their children off to start on an exciting journey in study and self-discovery, all the time unaware that they are set up for failure.

There is a developing culture in South African society that places extraordinary emphasis on our children going to university when they finish school. It’s fuelled by a blinkered ideology that entrance to university is the key to unlocking a better life – a life that was denied most parents. Children are sent off to university with this knowledge either subtly or passionately embedded in their heads.

On top of this, the high fees come at great personal and economic cost to most parents battling to meet the financial demands of living even day-to-day. “Sacrifice” is a deserved term that is unsaid but understood. It provides impetus, with added pressure, to those stepping through the doors of academia for the first time.

And success at university is easily achievable it seems; after all, the media love publishing stories of pupils from impoverished backgrounds who, under a flickering candlelight, pored over the pages of donated books to crack straight As in matric before going off to university to complete a degree in medicine, finally finding their place in New York high society. There are plenty of words for people like this: “remarkable”, “inspirational”, “extraordinary”, and “exceptional”. “Example” is not one of them.

The subtle message such stories engender is: well, if they can do it under such circumstances, how hard can it possibly be? This is especially asked by those who have had every opportunity given to them. And yet I have lost count of the number of friends of sons of friends of mine who have finished their first year of university with a string of failures under their belts. They went to different universities and studied different courses, but they all had one thing in common: they attended some of the country’s top private schools, where they performed consistently well.

So why did they fail? Simply put: they didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with the transition from school to university.

Emotional maturity is a concept used by psychologists to describe that part of a person’s personality that represents their emotional development, especially their capacity to express emotions in a socially suitable way, and to understand and respect the emotional content of other people’s communication and the social rules they define.

Although there are various theories as to how emotional maturity is evaluated, the underlying philosophy examines the capacity of an individual to interact with his environment in a socially acceptable way, as expected of his chronological age. It explains why we’d prefer, but don’t expect, a four-year-old to sit still in an academic lecture and why society doesn’t allow a teenager to get a driver’s licence before they turn 18. It’s also the reason why teenage pop stars often get found in hotel rooms in their early 20s, burned out and pumped to the hilt on recreational drugs. They just don’t have the emotional maturity to deal with the pressures of living a life expected of someone who is older.

Children believe they go to university to get a degree, but it’s phrased in their heads like they’re going to the shops to get some bread and milk, as if it’s a case of pitch up, pay up and walk out with what you came for.

The reality is that university is not where you go to get a degree; there are some dubious websites for that. A university is a place where you’re supposed to contribute to the generation of a broader knowledge. It’s a place where you’re expected to study by yourself, not just attend lectures with everyone else; where you’re expected to actively probe and explore, not sit and wait for knowledge to come to you; and it’s a place for deep contemplation, not casual attention. It’s a place where you’re expected to create and define your own intellectual space.

However, our school system is structured in such a way that pupils are drilled in a routine where they are part of a group with clear definitions of uniformity and identity.

They do certain things at set times according to a tightly defined regime. Creativity and individualism are suppressed for the maintenance of order.

Social behaviour is guided and defined by sets of rules, with clear and immediate punishment for flouting those rules. Pupils are expected to do little more than follow the rules on the path to matric. They basically know where to go, what to do, and when.

However, when they get to university, there are fewer rules, but greater expectations. Creativity and originality of thought are required; the rules of social behaviour are unwritten and punishment is fluid and peer-determined; and there are also numerous options available, each with a different direction and its own set of customs.

Basically, pupils leave school being treated like children, and a couple of months later are thrown into a world where they are expected to behave like adults.

It’s why a gap year is so important. It allows an individual that extra year to leave behind the confines of school and discover that not everything is structured and that they have to be assimilated into a social environment that provides little guidance but demands degrees of conformity. It gives them an opportunity to become more emotionally mature, in other words: to grow up.

It’s also why more pupils should give it a go, because by the end of this year, up to a third of first-year university students are expected to fail or drop out. Either way their failure is largely a result not of their inabilities, but the limitations of a system supposed to help them.


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