Dear Grade 12 student. If you passed, congratulations. If you failed, try again – it’s not the end of the world, and many young people have bounced back from failure and made a success of their lives. If you passed well, with one or more distinction, well done; you have worked hard for this achievement, and I salute you.
Now, we need to talk. Passing Grade 12 in South Africa is actually quite easy, and it means very little.
The standards are low and the marks are adjusted upwards for most subjects.
Those of you with six or more distinctions are particularly vulnerable to self-deception because “smart” means much more than conquering the rules of the examination game. Remember, the exams are rigged to make the weakest students pass, not to make the brightest students excel. Or more directly, the exams are designed to compensate for the dysfunction in most of our schools because the politicians are too scared to confront those who hold hostage the potential of all our students.
The only subject that directly tests logical thinking and intellectual acumen is mathematics. And here, from the primary grades to the final matric year, we are regularly exposed as one of the worst performers in the world. When Umalusi, the standards setting body for exams, tells you that even “mathematical literacy is [now] as hard as mathematics”, then you know that school education is in shallow waters.
The real test of how much and how well you know comes when you enter university. Here the rules are different.
It will not help you in a good university to memorise and repeat facts. What will be tested is your ability to think critically, independently and thoughtfully. The smart schoolers among you will, for the first time, experience difficulty in one or more university subjects. That is good, for you need to learn how to struggle and deal with failure.
But even more important than subject knowledge competence is your capacity for democratic, decent and deliberative behaviour on and off campus. The violent and disruptive student protests which you will encounter will provide you with a spectacular example of the failure of education. South African universities, sadly, are no longer bastions of tolerance and exchange where the battle over ideas holds centre stage in our contested democracy.
Campuses have been reduced to shrill places where the loudest voices and the most aggressive postures win the day. The violent minority leading the assault on our best universities are examples of the mis-education of youth processed through the sausage machine of South African schools.
Why am I telling you this? So that you can change this culture through a new brand of activism that achieves the goals of access and inclusion without demeaning yourself and others in the process.
You will spend three to six years at university; whether your children will one day experience a top-class university education in South Africa depends on you, the new incoming class of undergraduate students.
To be educated, in this broader sense, means you dare not conceive of your university education in the same way you thought of school – which is to pass your subjects and get a degree. That is not education. Read good books outside of your discipline so that your knowledge of science, society and humanity, prepares you for a much bigger encounter with the larger world you will enter one day.
Resist the temptation of here-and-now thinking. Focus on what you will build up, not what you will break down. Make your own decisions and resist, at all costs, the temptation to follow a crowd. Love without boundaries, and do not trap yourself within the racial and ethnic circles in which many of you feel deceptively comfortable. Learn how to make a persuasive argument by using your mind, not by overpowering your opponent using your muscles. Keep open the possibility at all times that no matter how clear and obvious something is to you, that you might be wrong.
In other words, pursue education. I wish these were the kinds of values all of you were taught in your homes and in your schools. Too many South African students bring their intolerance and intemperance to university campuses today. Your National Senior Certificate results released this week will not, unfortunately, provide any evidence of your education – only that you were successful in passing a low-demand examination. To make your degree count, therefore, you will have to do much more than show up for classes.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US