Thuli Madonsela: We are miseducating our children

2019-02-06 00:49

We are miseducating our children.

This was an observation by Sarah, an oceanographer, during our group excursion to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, the Chilean astronomy observatory.

She opined that the average child is educated in a monocultural environment, with a shared class and race/ethnic background, which does not prepare them for functioning in our multicultural globalised world and workplace.

She said to cure this potential deficiency, she searched for an ethnically diverse school for her daughter, an endeavor that was almost mission impossible.

The observation was a continuum from lectures given by various professors on the future of learning during a Nobel peace prize dialogue in Santiago on the same subject.

Laura Sprechmann, deputy chief executive of Nobel Media AB, added that the miseducation includes a binary approach where behaviour is either right or wrong and confinement of discipline is a choice between punishment and doing nothing.

For me, the most outstanding talk on learning to be human was delivered by Cathy Davidson, a professor at New York University, who opined that we are stuck with a 19th-century designed system, tailored to 19th century industrial needs.

A salient point made by Davidson was that the 19th century education system was heavily influenced by Taylorism, an industrial psychology paradigm designed to produce masses of people whose role was not problem solving, but fitting things into boxes designed with efficiency in mind.

Davidson argued that Taylorism-anchored education is not only failing our children, but also failing us all in that it is not producing humans who are adaptable problem solvers.

Davidson opined that the education system focuses on the consumption of knowledge already known, with excellence judged on the ability to reproduce the knowledge.

She lamented the current emphasis on fitting learners into boxes and rejecting as educationally unfit those who can’t fit into those boxes.

My contribution in the panels on learning to be human and access arrived at the same conclusion that we are miseducating our children.

With my speech focusing on human rights, particularly the social justice dimension of human rights, I advised that our learning to be human approach needs a leaf from wild animals.

I included a story of a young leopard whose struggle with a pack of hyenas we had recently witnessed in Mashatu, Botswana.

With about five hyenas against it, the young leopard, which had hitherto put up a feisty fight, was showing signs of fatigue.

My partner, who fancies himself some expert on wildlife, advised that it was precisely the hyenas’ strategy to wear down the leopard and then go for the kill.

Suddenly, out of the blue, came another young leopard, which went into the fray like a blazing fire. Within seconds the hyenas were gone.

A ranger told us that the leopard that helped was not related to the one that had been battling hyenas.

It dawned on me that the leopard stepped up to help not because the other leopard was a sibling or relative, but simply because it was another leopard.

This reminded me of a video circulating on Twitter, where a matriarch elephant from a different herd steps in to pull a calf out of a ditch after its own mother has failed.

While the intervening matriarch pulls out the little one, her own herd steps in to form a barrier between her and a pride of lions that is encircling the little one.

The animal solidarity displayed in both scenes is not an act of charity, but one designed for the survival of the species. Early humans were also big on human solidarity.

In South Africa we call it ubuntu or botho, while in Rwanda they call it ubumuntu.

Ancient Africans believed that “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”.

This means a human being is a human being because of other human beings. In other words, my humanity is defined by other people’s humanity; I am because you are.

Human solidarity came from an understanding, as social animals do, that a person’s long-term well-being and survival depends on the well-being and survival of other human beings.

The education system emphasises competition anchored in a winner-takes-all paradigm.

In reality, even summiting Mount Everest is never a single person’s job. No one ever achieves anything alone.

To change human behaviour and align it with the challenges of our century, we need to change education.

In ancient societies one was regarded as human for one’s behaviour and not simply for being a homo erectus.

When I met Bishop Desmond Tutu recently, I reminded him about how, as a young human rights researcher, I was touched by his ubuntu.

Umuntu is meant to be a well-rounded being who can fend for themselves, while adding value to group survival and fitting in neatly with the group.

To change human behaviour and align it with the challenges of our century, we need to change education.

However, when thinking about education, we should not confine our radar to the formal schooling system.

For example, I am the way I am because of all the things I’ve learnt throughout my life.

Our thinking and behaviour is the outcome of our interactions with our parents, siblings and other members of our families and communities.

Our thinking and values also came from the church or other religious socialising agents we were exposed to.

The books we read shaped us. In my case, many of the books contained fables and proverbs that shaped my world view and ethical disposition.

The peers we are exposed to also shape us.

But we seem not to realise the impact made by entertainment media to our being human. The games we play and the movies we watch shape our world view and value systems.

If we are to change human values and human behaviour to embrace, respect and advance human rights accordingly, we need to intervene in the content of education in all the areas through which we currently learn to be human.

Like social animals, we must ensure that the humans we produce are fully adapted to play a meaningful role in their own advancement and creating the world we yearn for.

The world we all yearn for is a kind one, where everyone’s potential is freed and everyone enjoys all human rights and freedoms.

That world is in our hands and, as Nelson Mandela said, education is the most powerful tool which we can use to transform our current world into the world we yearn for.

Madonsela is professor and chair of social justice at Stellenbosch University and founder of Thuma Foundation

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February 23 2020