Education: The principles an education system needs.

The principles an education system needs

A meaningful education system should teach people more than just the three Rs (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) argues Enver Motala. While technological skills are important, providing people with analytical tools to critically evaluate the societies they live and work in are equally important.

Reading, writing and communicatingA meaningful educational system should provide society and the individuals within it with the means to read, write and communicate meaningfully. Millions of people throughout the world who cannot read or write simply continue to exist at the bottom of the pile. Their opportunities are extremely limited. They are unable to engage in a meaningful way with the complexities of modern societies, and they have even less of a chance of providing opportunities and hope to their children. This lack of possibilities [or at least the extremely limited nature of these] inevitably continues the cycle of deprivation and misery to which most of the poor people of the world are forever condemned.Some years ago, a Cosatu delegation went to Kerala (India). It was at a time when we were busily engaged in refashioning the new educational system prior to 1994. Then the talk was all about high skills and high wages – a high road to development which we all believed in ardently. It would resolve once and for all the problems of the working class – at least substantially if not entirely. A group of plantation workers in Kerala were sceptical about the “˜miracles’ which this “˜high road’ would achieve. They feared that we in South Africa underestimated the problems of social change and especially of achieving high levels of employment and high wages at the same time. For them the main benefits of education were that of becoming literate for no other reason than the fact that it lent human dignity to their lives, enabled them to recognize their names in writing, made them aware of civic issues, allowed them to participate better in social, cultural, religious and other events and banished the label of ignorance to which they had been accustomed for so long. No talk about high skills and high wages – just plain human dignity and the self respect that comes from it.

Ability to quantifyThe second important purpose of learning is to impart to those who learn the ability to quantify things – to understand how to measure and evaluate things in themselves and in relation to other things. If you did not know anything about sizes, quantities, dimensions, costs in such basic things like food and clothing, life would be extremely difficult for you as an individual, not to mention how your family would have fun because you are “˜so silly’. You must know what quantities of food you consume as a family, how much the electricity costs, what the costs of transport are to send your children to school and for you to go to work, and how much you require to save (if at all you can) so that you can have medical attention and pay for school fees which these days are a must.And of course it also enables you to compare. For instance you can compare wages and incomes, how much energy and other resources are used by different social classes and different countries of the world.And of course it also enables you to compare. For instance you can compare wages and incomes, how much energy and other resources are used by different social classes and different countries of the world.

Understand the nature of societyThe third function of education is to enable members of society to understand the nature of their society. This means that they must understand as much of its complexities as they can. There are questions about how a society is made up, its demographic, age, class, gender, religious and other attributes; its geographic and regional distribution; its poverty and wealth and employment levels and other things which relate to its health and well-being – what are called the indices of its social and economic profile and general development.Then there are questions of how it is organized, the forms of power in society and accountability. There is power associated with the state in all its many forms – national, regional and local, the power of the rich and their corporations, the power of multinationals and the almost omnipotent governments which support these multinationals both directly and through their influence in other world bodies. There is the power of religious and cultural organisations and of special interest groups and “˜caucuses’ and of course the power of the organisations of the working class and the poor. A good educational system enables one to ask difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions about the nature of societies.This enquiry can begin right at school if you have open-minded and enquiring educators. The educational system does encourage some questioning. But I often wonder whether there are limits to what is and what is not encouraged in our schools. Part of the problem is quite simply the experience which we ourselves do not have in using our pedagogical (teaching and learning strategies) to raise the level of enquiry of our young [and old] minds.

An alternative society

By the way, the present way of distributing goods has not been the only one known to human societies. We know that earliest human societies must have distributed things very differently and much more equitably [at least amongst those who hunted and gathered and put in a hard days work in doing so] and must have seen to it that the young were provided for properly. This was essential to their survival as a society against the powerful forces of nature with which these societies had to contend.More recently in our history – in the last century, the Soviets tried a potent experiment in how to produce and distribute goods and services and although it was not sustainable [for reasons I don’t have time to elaborate here] it was a different way of producing wealth, exchanging and distributing it. Under the Soviet State, a huge planning bureaucracy was developed called the GOSPLAN. It attempted to organise all economic activity in the Soviet state. Amongst its most ambitious undertakings was the idea that it could quantify the totality of needs for goods and services in the Soviet Union. It worked out the quantities of every conceivable product that might be required by society in detail. After that, particular factories and other work places were given the responsibility of producing a certain amount of goods towards the total effort. And as has been admitted even by the most sceptical anti-planning economists, this method had great value for a society [like the Soviet Union] which was coming out of years of War, starvation and centuries of oppression, backwardness and was one of the poorest societies in Europe and Asia at the time. The Plan had immense advantages in the first phase of the development of the Soviet State even though the sheer weight of bureaucratic and anti-democratic political and administrative policies and practices gave rise to its demise.The point is simply that we have largely forgotten that there have been and can be other ways of producing and distributing goods to meet the needs of all of society and not just of the upper and middle classes.

Building nationhood A fourth value that our education system should nurture is the idea of nationhood and building solidarity within a unified nation. Events taking place in Central Africa, concepts about nationhood and the building of a society across ethnic and other historical divides (and the idea of “˜race’ and religion must surely be amongst the worst and most intractable amongst these divides) are very troublesome. We know also that some feminists are unhappy about ideas of nationhood because in their view, concepts of nationhood have sometimes simply gone on to reinforce dominant systems of patriarchy. But that notwithstanding, I think there is an important place in our learning systems for the building of a unified society precisely so that we deal with all those divisions which characterise our societies. There is no reason why such a concept of a unified society cannot openly deal with issues of gender and patriarchy at the same time.The building of a nation must moreover not be regarded as something which stands against concepts of universalism or internationalism as these were first outlined in the literature of the late 19th century socialist movements. Given the extraordinary implications of global power on poor societies throughout the world, the idea of true internationalism must be invoked even more, so that those who are on the receiving end of the most harmful effects of global power have some way of defending themselves against it. Recently in the formal documents produced by government there has also been useful talk about the question of values which include many ideals like democracy, social justice, equity, equality, non-racism and non-sexism, Ubuntu, responsibility, etc. In the earlier liberal and humanist texts about the value of education, things like morality, uprightness, spiritual virtue, honesty and similar important concepts of value were often emphasized.What was not so clear in those writings was the question of whose values were being talked about. In particular the liberal humanist writings often ignored the reality that there were very large divisions in the societies which they were talking about and that for example, it was not possible to simply talk about honesty from one point of view. For a labourer who was doing “˜an honest days labour’, his rich employer could hardly be regarded as honest if the labourer only got paid enough to keep him alive and no more. Yet, for the rich employer the labourer was dishonest if that labourer did not work for the full time that s/he was paid. In this country, the way in which the rich landowners acquired land over the last 350 years is regarded by some as part of the process of fair and legal exchange while for others it is no more than theft and dispossession based on the relationship of power between those who have the land and those who were dispossessed. In reality all relationships between persons and within societies can be viewed from different perspectives and so too can the meaning and effect of those relationships. But there is no reason to believe that these differences can’t be talked about, debated and argued openly so that societies know exactly what is and is not possible within a particular form of social organisation. It is more open and honest to do that, than to pretend that if we believe in certain great ideas like “˜fairness and truth’ we will suddenly achieve those things in the real world, and that we will all benefit equally from them. At the moment, throughout the world, certain interpretations of these values predominate and these are invariably based on the power of those who are dominant.

Technological and scientific educationThen there is the value of technological and scientific education. Only a fool would deny the extraordinary power and importance in the modern industrial capitalist system of scientific and technological knowledge. It is important to manipulate and use modern systems of communication and to use them to resolve some of the large social problems which face modern societies.But how do we understand the concepts “˜scientific’ and “˜technological’ and any such word which has importance for educational systems. Like societies themselves, the meanings of words also change with time. Very often the concept of science and technology and the knowledge related to them is associated largely with school-based learning in mathematics, physical science and more recently technology as a subject. This understanding of the terms seriously undervalues the importance of other kinds and sources of learning. For example understanding how the economy is structured, the society is organised, languages are used, and human behaviour, etc. are not regarded as scientific knowledge. And anybody who “˜wastes time’ studying these things is wasting society’s resources because they will not contribute to the wealth and well-being of society. This type of argument tries to simply reduce all “˜real knowledge’ to learning the subject matter of mathematics, science and technology and subjects like these. Fortunately, there are real debates about what universities and other higher education institutions should concentrate on. Some say that the role of universities is not simply to produce graduates for work. For them other qualities like critical enquiry, rational debate, separating evidence from opinion, evaluating and presenting views coherently and thinking conceptually, contextually and theorising are equally, if not more, important. We might add that understanding theory with and through practice would also be very important.However the dominant ideas at such institutions are unquestionably prejudiced in favour of the “˜scientific’, laboratory knowledge that universities produce like physics, chemistry, the medical and biological sciences, mathematics and the like. Worse than this is the pretence that people who are “˜not educated’, or who don’t have “˜high level learning’, can’t contribute usefully to making knowledge. We know what a lot of arrogant nonsense this is. Societies have been transformed while many of those in academe [with some very important exceptions] were fast asleep. We know how in the daily interactions of human beings, in the process of producing and reproducing themselves, societies are changed and new knowledge is created. And some of this [especially about how societies function] is as complex as any other form of knowledge and requires as detailed a study as you could imagine. Where would we be as human societies if we had not developed the magnificent means of communication through language that we now have? And what about the wonderful and creative endeavours in producing music, dance, sculpture, poetry and literature and all the other art forms which distinguish us as human beings. Where would we be if society had not evolved as it has through the organisation of complex, social, economic and cultural practices and ideas? It is also misleading to suggest that knowing how to manipulate new technologies and how to exchange information rapidly and to engineer systems of knowledge by doing so, can by themselves make societies better. A great deal of the systems of knowledge of production in the world is geared in ways to create and perpetuate the divisions in society. These divisions are between rich and poor individuals, social classes and nations, men and women, urban and rural communities and over cultural and religious differences. It is dishonest to pretend that access to technological knowledge is an equalizing factor. It cannot be, until the societal structures for the control and use of such knowledge are at least less unequal than they are. There are limited possibilities of bridging this divide in the nature of our so-called knowledge societies under their present arrangement. What is also very disturbing is how those who are the sellers of the ideas of technological knowledge simply fail to recognize the value of other knowledge which has pre-existed the technologies which they speak about. There is a vast accumulation of experience and real knowledge in our society. And this knowledge lies not in the institutions of higher education but in the minds of very ordinary working class men and women. This has been acquired through countless years of hard labour, through struggle with the processes of production and against the processes of exploitation, through the daily travails of having to sustain themselves and their families and through the struggles waged in working class and poor communities throughout our long and tortured history. It was this accumulated wisdom which resulted in the demise of apartheid. But this wisdom will only be given its fullest expression if it is realised and better understood. How do we deal with this vast body of knowledge and with other forms of knowledge which are hidden from view? I think particularly of knowledge which has been derived from the specific experience of women, of local communities, and of regionally specific contestations about social issues. What is the value we place on the forms of indigenous knowledge and the languages which are common to the people of our country, even while they remain so unrepresented and unrecognised?It is not possible to solve the horrendous problems of poverty and oppression without using a wide combination of knowledge including the knowledge of those directly affected communities. We must therefore understand the value of technical knowledge in a proper way and not over state it.

Enver Motala is an educationalist who worked closely with the independent trade unions from the 1970s to the 1990s.This article originally appeared in Sadtu’s Educators Voice