South Africa’s Quest for Mediocrity – Part 2

class dismissed

This is part 2 of Listie Anne Kamm’s commentary on education in South Africa.  Listie Anne Kamm is one of our first students in the Kurland Learning Center.  A graduate with honors from Stellenbosh University, she is deeply concerned with the political, education and social future of her country.  Like her fellow South Africans, she prays for a better healthier country for her children to grow up in.

The problem with education in South Africa does not begin in high school.  It begins well before a student enters his high school years.  This problem impacts not only high school students, but primary school students who cannot read, write or add. It then infests first year university students who do not have a clue as to how to write a paper. I will never forget my tenth grade year at Wittedrift High School, which is the best school in my area and happens to be a predominantly white school. I came from a township school, where I was one of the top students in the entire school. My first week at WHS was probably the worst in my entire school career. I went from being the top student at The Crags Primary to one that had to struggle to get and maintain good grades. I had no clue what the word “algebra” meant. I had never heard of a periodic table. I’d never felt dumber in my whole life. I was failed abysmally by my teachers and government. As if that was not enough, the department of education  dumbed the system down even more when the government implemented Outcomes-Based Education (OBE).  In my opinion, OBE is just a dumbed-down egalitarian scheme that stifles individual potential for excellence and achievement by holding the entire class to the level of learning attainable by every child. This sytem of education discourages competition and according to the Phyllis Schlafly report, fast learners are not allowed to progress, but are given busy work called “horizontal enrichment”or told to do “peer tutoring” to help the slower kids , who are recycled through the material until the pre-determined behaviour is exhibited. Basically, a student’s current performance is compared to their own prior performance rather than their performance relative to their peers. So, in a nutshell, it is impossible for a student to fail.

Matriculants today who don’t even achieve 50% in the Senior Certificate (matric) results are being told that they can proceed, and not only that, but that they are entitled to a higher education. What message are we sending our youth? That black and Coloured students are somehow less capable and therefore need these pathetic results to access higher education?

Who is responsible for this culture of mediocrity that we are steadily moving towards? We need to ask ourselves what role we are playing as broader society in ensuring that our education improves. As a society we need to model the behaviours that we want from our learners. That means we need to be models of excellence. We need to inspire our young people. We need to demystify qualitative disciplines such that they raise their aspirations. There are too many kids these days that when you ask them what they want to become, they say dancers, singers, rappers, etc. What happened to aspiring to become doctors, teachers, journalists, presidents? I know too many kids who go to school with no concept of what they can get out of it. These kids go to school because they have to. They go there because there they derive some meaning, whatever it may be, for their otherwise uninspired lives. Thus, we must take on the challenge of being role models. They may not be our kid, but they will become our nemesis should their options remain limited. Our leaders will continue failing dismally at it. Steadily, but surely we march towards mediocrity. We have a choice to make, to be mediocre or extraordinary. What we do with our young people will determine the course we take. We need to teach our youth that they need to try to achieve more than what is expected of them and that good enough is not good enough anymore. Just “okay” is not okay anymore.

South Africa’s Quest for Mediocrity-Part 1

boys behind fence

Listie-Anne Kamm was one of the first students in the Kurland Learning Center.  A graduate with honors from Stellenbosh University, she is deeply concerned with the political, educational and social future of her country.  Like her fellow South Africans, she prays for a better, healthier country in which her children can grow up.

A few weeks ago, while visiting some family in Kurland, I asked my 16 year old cousin if she passed her June exams. She smiled and said, “Yes, of course.” I told her to bring me her report card so that I could see her grades. Without hesitation, she went into the room to retrieve it. As I opened it, she knelt down beside me looking on as I scanned the paper in my hand. What struck me the most was not her poor grades signified by a 40% average, but the look of pride on her face as if she had earned an A+. I asked if she thought her grades were good, which she obviously did by the look on her face. To make matters worse, at the bottom of the report card where the principal is supposed to write his remarks regarding her high school progress, I read: “Well done. Keep up the good work!”

That is the standard that South Africa is setting for its children today. Our society, schools and universities have adjusted expectations downwards, especially in relation to black and Coloured students, which is dangerous in a country with so much promise for excellence. My cousin has been taught that learning less than 50% of her work is acceptable. The message being conveyed to young people is that it is fine to be an underachiever, and that we will applaud them for doing less than is required. Will my cousin strive to do better than 40%? I don’t think so. Indeed, she is being handicapped by the very system that is meant to equip her, as well as tens of thousands of other learners.

Slowly we are digging our collective graves as we fall into a sinkhole of mediocrity from which we are unlikely to emerge. We make excellence sound like a ‘white thing’. Behind a massive wave of populism and in the misguided name of “regstelling” (setting it right), we give young people new levels of access to resources and universities without exhibiting the hard work necessary to achieve these privileges and to succeed once there. Of course, you are labelled a racist if you question this kind of mindlessness. How else can a politician defend himself against the critics of mediocrity in an election year?