Distinguish bathwater from baby in schools hair debate

Hair apart, the old English public schools offer the best education to a broad base of black and white students, almost all of whom are headed for great careers at home and abroad to become part of a small elite in post-apartheid society.

Professor Jonathan Jansen.
Professor Jonathan Jansen.

From the High School for Girls (its actual name) in Pretoria to the unpronounceable Sans Souci Girls High School in the posh Newlands suburb of Cape Town, these are prized institutions of learning which have rightly come under sharp public scrutiny in the past two weeks.

But I am worried that as we respond, we might have the old baby and bathwater problem; throwing out both will further diminish the few good public schools still available in South Africa.

That said, if only citizens showed the same level of outrage against the dysfunctionality of the majority of our schools as we did against the hair management policies of a few good schools, we could change public education overnight.

But I digress.

Now that the heat has somewhat subsided, we must distinguish between two things in the hair debate. The one is regulation and the other is racism.

Making crude and racist comments about black children’s hair is so obviously wrong, spiteful and demeaning, and is rightly judged.

But these old English schools, like all good schools in South Africa, black and white, have regulations which seek to bring order, discipline and some measure of control to the management of hundreds of young girls and boys from very diverse backgrounds.

I have spoken in assembly to the girls of both schools, Pretoria High School for Girls (PHSG) and Sans Souci, and I sent my daughter to the one in the north.

Why? Because they offered a high quality education in a public school environment.

At the PHSG assembly I addressed the problem of over-regulation in the lives of young women.

As usual, I did this using a combination of humour, straight talk and playing jazz on the school piano to demonstrate how improvisation of a revered or traditional piece of music breaks the stifling culture of over-regulation.

When I suggested, at PHSG, that the kids break out of their constrictive school culture and, at least once, bolt out of the gates for a day of illicit fun in Hatfield, the girls rolled with laughter, the principal froze on the stage, a teacher wrote me an insulting letter, and the school never invited me back.

But I remember as a PHSG parent, questioning why my daughter was compelled to do knitting when my son, at the boys school up the road, did nothing of the sort. Some parents climbed into me that night.

I questioned why the girls sat on that cold floor of the assembly hall in winter for a school that clearly could afford chairs.

I was perturbed, as a Christian, that they still held assemblies as church meetings, given the many other faiths, including Hindu and Muslim girls now represented in the school.

My then Grade 8 daughter made it clear to me that I was disruptive on parents’ night and that she would prefer that I did not embarrass her.

She was right.

If these old English schools have the maturity of leadership, it will make the crisis an opportunity to revisit and revise some of the traditional practices of the old English schools which might have meant something in the early 1900s but is completely out of date in a constitutional democracy built on non-racial and non-sexist principles in the 21st century.

It is a point I made, by the way, to the outgoing principal of Settlers High School in Bellville – change the outdated name while you can. He never wrote back.

But these old girls’ schools should keep the best of their traditions which have carried them through two world wars, the horror years of apartheid, and still they stand.

There should, however, be some measure of regulation.

There should be a standard for hair, albeit a different one from the present.

The uniform must remain, if only to offset a class war focused on dress.

There should be standards of address for adults and children, both respectful.

And this is the opportunity for building new traditions – rather than simply upholding the old – that bind students together long after they leave school through shared and treasured memories of practices and beliefs held in common.

In this regard, school authorities should stand their ground and not allow for uncontrolled public sentiment and naked political opportunism that makes the baby indistinguishable from the bathwater.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US

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