What’s the philosophy of our education?
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On May 10, 1831, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville landed in New York, accompanied by his friend and colleague Beaumont.
Tocqueville and Beaumont, magistrate and prosecutor in the French magistracy respectively, had been granted sabbatical leave to study the penitentiary system in the US, with the view of making recommendations to France.
But as Beaumont later confessed, his friend Tocqueville had little interest in the official part of their study tour.
Tocqueville’s concealed motive was the workings of the US’s democratic culture and institutions.
It is not surprising that, upon their return to France, Tocqueville left the task of drafting a report on the workings of the penitentiary system to Beaumont.
In fact, as soon as they landed in the US, the two researchers agreed to complete their official study expeditiously enough to make space for Tocqueville to focus on the bigger question of democracy. And this they did.
After having presented the report on prisons, Tocqueville resigned from the French magistracy. While he projected his resignation as a form of protest in solidarity with his friend, Beaumont, who was fired from the magistracy, Tocqueville’s real reason was to make time to write a book.
Democracy in America is that book. It transformed Tocqueville from a somewhat obscure public servant into an international celebrity.
When Tocqueville published his book, the rest of Europe was languishing under the yokes of monarchs and aristocracies.
France herself was limping from one bloody revolution to another, leaving the atmosphere polluted with the tortured souls of beheaded counter-revolutionaries.
In a milieu of political gloom and mayhem, it is not difficult to understand why a book on “democracy” generated such widespread interests in Europe.
Revolutionaries in France were themselves tired of smelling the blood of hanged counter-revolutionaries. And the mayhem did not guarantee revolutionaries longer life. The revolution was devouring its own children.
Given the political progress registered by Americans then, Europeans increasingly viewed the New World as the fountainhead of lessons to inform the urgent task of reordering their troubled polities. Thus was the importance of Democracy in America.
In the year 2013, what can we learn from the true story of Alexis de Tocqueville? The lesson is simple: South Africa must at all times maintain readiness to learn from other nations. The experiences of other countries must assist us to untie the knot that holds back our progress as a nation.
Among the weighty matters entertained by Tocqueville in Democracy in America, is the question of education – its philosophy and practical effect.
To us South Africans, this is not a mere question of intellectual infatuation. We are still recovering from the excitement of the unbelievable 73.9 percent matric pass rate.
Our matriculants are still standing in university queues hoping for admission. The lucky ones are already admitted, and are bursting with pleasant anticipation.
What is already known, though, is that thousands of those who passed matric will not find admission to our overstretched institutions of higher learning.
We know that year in and year out, an average of 300 000 pupils who pass matric end up nowhere. They don’t study further. They don’t find employment. Where these hordes of surplus young people end up is a question generally left to the winds.
What, then, did Tocqueville observe about the philosophy and practical effect of American education back in 1831?
He observed that the US taught her children to pursue practical ends. “This disposition of the mind soon leads them to feel contempt for forms, which they regard as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth,” he wrote.
It did not matter whether a student was studying geometry, geography or geology, policymakers were absolutely certain that every student passing through the American system of education was wired principally to be concerned with practical ends.
It is therefore hardly surprising that to this day, American education largely remains oriented towards a commercial purpose.
Last year, the US had the highest number of registered patents in the world: 157 496.
This is certainly among the chief factors behind the rise of the US on the global economic ladder in the 20th century. Looking at life from the practical angle of ends, American children were taught to create value.
The current economic problems facing the US derive largely from the tendency for human beings to become complacent when they have amassed wealth.
Because of the high levels of wealth the country had achieved, Americans increasingly became unproductive. They reached a dangerous stage in their national development; the belief that a person can make money without working, became the dominant national psychology.
Out of this psychology was born all manner of degenerative tendencies, chief among which was the packaging, selling and buying of debt. As the mentality of success swept through the country, more and more people in the US felt like super-men, people who could make a fortune without working.
Work was increasingly regarded as something belonging to some underclass people. And, as the nation fell into the grip of success, those who were employed expected to be paid more.
The fact that the workforce in the US has generally been well trained did not help matters. Employers and patent holders began to look elsewhere for cheaper labour.
The abundance of cheap labour in China soon became an irresistible magnet for US companies.
Before they realised, Americans and middle classes around the world wore Nike sneakers manufactured by the Chinese. Let it not be forgotten that iPads are manufactured in China, even as they remain the intellectual property of the US.
But we must return to the question closer to home: what is the philosophy of South Africa’s education system?
Is there a discernable central quality that defines the character of the 73.9 percent of matriculants who passed in 2012?
Our policymakers have made it an obligation to include maths literacy and life orientation when they select subjects. Can the policymakers claim that this has engendered some special qualities that distinguish a South African pupil from the rest?
The question of the philosophy of education goes to the heart of the character of the young people trained by our system of education. And it determines practical outcomes for our nation as a whole.
It is common knowledge that the overwhelming majority of pupils in our schools regard education as a means to a job.
When they pass matric, they desire to proceed to higher education to increase their chances of employment.
It might not be declared officially by policymakers, but the desire for employment is the unofficial philosophy of South Africa’s education. In other words, our schooling system serves to whet the appetite for employment.
The dangers of an education system such as ours is that it does not boost the confidence of pupils to create things.
As they sit in class for more than 12 years, our pupils are not enabled to imagine the things they will create in life; they are made to imagine the jobs they will have.
When they don’t get admitted to university, and end up trapped in the drudgery of township and rural life – as is the fate of 300 000 matriculants every year – the thought of starting a business does not cross their minds.
How can we blame them if that is not how their minds are moulded right from kindergarten?
So damaging is our system of education that a matriculant who does not make it to an institution of higher education deems it demeaning to serve people at a restaurant. They would rather stay at home doing nothing.
As they stay at home, doing nothing, better educated Zimbabwean immigrants take all low-paying jobs in our society. Could it be that the philosophy of Zimbabwe’s education system instils survivalism in the psyche of children?
South Africa’s education system also teaches children to value material possessions more than mental qualities.
A young man who drives a Golf GTI is admired more than a young woman who has a penetrative intellect.
Would it therefore not be naive for us to expect great discoveries from our young people in the future?
Does the philosophy of our education system – explicit or implicit – not serve to reproduce a nation of consumers and jobseekers, instead of creators of things and lovers of knowledge?
However we respond to these searching questions, we must not avoid the principal message contained in Tocqueville’s story: learn from other nations.
n Mashele is a member of the Midrand Group and author of The Death of our Society