EDUCATION IS KEY: Youth unemployment is high. The WEF report ranks SA at 138 out of 140 countries in terms of maths and science.
South Africans fail to recognise the frequency and scope of our ignorance, writes Chris Maxon.

‘We have a good story to tell!” This is what we, South Africans, have come to. Real accomplishment plays second fiddle to feeling good about ourselves feeling good whether we earned it or not. I wonder if we haven’t become a nation of confident idiots.

I can imagine Mark Twain scratching his head and marvelling at their success as he scribbled this line: “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” We love to believe South Africa is number one in the continent and the world. But, are we?

According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness report, South Africa was ranked “almost dead last” among 140 countries in terms of its maths and science education.

The report for 2015/16 painted a dismal picture, with South Africa placed at 138 out of 140 countries.

Our higher education graduation rate is 15percent, one of the lowest in the world. Higher education also reflects broader inequalities, with the graduation rate for white students more than double that of black students.

What are we number one in? I’ll tell you, self-esteem. It starts with us, parents. Our little darlings scribble on a piece of paper that is marked 30percent, and we praise it. We expect less from our children than we do from our butcher. We are actually babying this generation and worsen them.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but if there’s a lesson here, it’s that too many people prefer fiction to the truth.

During a South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel sent a camera crew into the streets to catch hipsters bluffing. “People who go to music festivals pride themselves on knowing who the next acts are,” Kimmel said to his studio audience, “even if they don’t actually know who the new acts are.”

The host had his crew ask festival-goers for their thoughts about bands that don’t exist.

“The big buzz on the street,” said one of Kimmel’s interviewers to a man wearing thick-framed glasses and a whimsical T-shirt “is Contact Dermatitis. Do you think he has what it takes to really make it to the big time?”

“Absolutely,” came the dazed fan’s reply.

The prank was an instalment of Kimmel’s recurring Lie Witness News feature, which involves asking pedestrians a variety of questions with false premises.

One can’t help but feel for the people who fall into a similar trap. Some would appear willing to say just about anything to hide their ignorance about the subject at hand (which, of course, has the opposite effect).

Others just seem eager to please, not wanting to let the interviewer down by giving the most boringly appropriate response: I don’t know.

But in some instances, the trap may be an even deeper one. The most confident people often seem to think they do have some clue - as if there is some fact, some memory, or some intuition that assures them their answer is reasonable.

Every time some minister delivers a speech jam-packed with fantasies; the confident echo, like a chorus, “a good story to tell!”

In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious.

Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t”. As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve.

Although what we know is often perceptible to us, even the broad outlines of what we don’t know are all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognise the frequency and scope of our ignorance.

We are a people whose culture used to encourage modesty and humility and not bragging about ourselves. It was considered a bad thing to be seen as conceited or full of yourself.

This new generation is raised to value self-esteem above discipline and achievement. Consequently, students are feeling better than ever about themselves while performing worse.

We have become a nation of narcissists.

Unfortunately for us, policies and decisions that are founded on ignorance have a strong tendency, sooner or later, to blow up in one’s face.

In the face of dismal education results, high youth unemployment rates and feminisation of poverty and disease to talk of “a good story to tell” is actually as an affront to the nation.

We must cut through all the counterfeit self-esteem - our own and our politicians’ - that stands in the way of our ability to make truly informed judgements.

The WEF report’s authors sent out a stern warning to countries at the bottom of the ranking like South Africa. “There is no short cut to improved learning outcomes in a post-2015 world economy where knowledge and skills have become the global currency, the key to better jobs and better lives.

"We cannot inherit this currency, and we can only develop it through sustained effort and investment in people.” We better listen than dupe ourselves into believing “we are number one”.

Wisdom may not involve facts and formulas so much as the ability to recognise when a limit has been reached.

Stumbling through all our cognitive clutter just to recognise a true “there is only a good story to tell”, those few basking in the sun of the poor’s curse of freedom” may not constitute failure as much as it does an enviable success, a crucial signpost that shows us we have become a nation of over-confident idiots.

* Chris Maxon works for the Health Department. He writes in his own capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus