I have said before, and will continue to say that of all the things the African National Congress could have fixed, the basic education system presented the greatest opportunity for success.
In fact, my argument has been that the current education crisis in South Africa, in basic education in particular, is largely a result of post-1994 poor curriculum decisions and maladministration.
In other words, our current education malaise cannot be blamed on the legacy of Hendrik Verwoerd.
The reason I argue this is because educating a child is fundamentally about cultural transference first and foremost, something which does not require heavy infrastructure outlay.
This is how songs, rhymes and stories come to be among the first things that help to shape our conceptual worlds as children.
Thus, education must always have at its heart a deep sense of cultural formation of the child, with the intent to free rather than to imprison their growing intellect.
Thus two things are key for an education system to succeed – a culturally liberatory curriculum and a well-trained teacher to deliver the curriculum. The reason outcomes-based education failed in South Africa, among all the bureaucratic problems it posed, at the basest level is that it was devoid of any deep cultural resonance with the cultural, historical and political milieu that is southern Africa.
Furthermore, as has been argued by many others, the wholesale shutting down of teacher training colleges compounded the problem.
But the real crime was that in OBE, the system focused more on the economy and the market over history and culture.
The focus came to be on producing generic analytical skills such as problem-solving in students without substantive focus on content.
The irony, of course, is that OBE failed to produce discernable skills in learners. In fact, it can be argued that OBE led to a crisis of de-skilling in our education system. The trouble stemmed from the incorrect assumption that cultural education – the type that comes most obviously in learning literature, orality and history – does not lead to upskilling.
Yet, if you observe anybody with a strong cultural education – that is, most of our parents – you will note that they have very sharp analytical skills owing to their vast memor-isation of poems, stories, historical events and novels. When our forebears invented storytelling and other cultural arts, they literally invented a vehicle for creative skilling, the kind of skilling that is necessary to be able to look at the world, make coherent sense of it, and then ask “How else can we imagine this reality to be?”
It does not surprise me that many of the African historians I work with today were also science majors, either at school or university.
There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the capacity to look at the world through a sophisticated cultural lens and scientific curiosity. Thus so many of the world’s greatest minds were both artists and scientists.
At the high school I attended, history, maths and physics were considered the toughest subjects.
Now how on earth is it that in post-1994 South Africa we come to a situation where curriculum developers put together a pedagogic hierarchy that actually at one point considered completely expunging history as a subject?
It boggles my mind.
It is very simple: if you do not know the history of how things come about, how will you solve the problems right in front of you?
After all, scientific reasoning requires the capacity to engage with precedent! Problem solving, of course, requires deep imaginative capacity, a skill that kids deepen through play, exploration, song and listening to stories.
To think of economic development in this country, we have to commit to culturally liberatory education and prioritise training our teachers to be able to facilitate that development in our children.