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Education Should Be About Building Democratic Citizens, Not Compliant Workers

In South Africa, as in so many other capitalist countries, the education system is seen as a means of molding children into future workers. But education should be about building democratic citizens, not producing compliant workers for employers.

Students at Kayamandi High School in Western Cape, South Africa. (Megan Trace / Flickr)

Every year in early January, South Africans ritualistically take part in unveiling matric results — the exam scores of final-year high schoolers — from both private and public schools. For the most part, it’s a couple of weeks overflowing with feel-good stories about the hard work of students. For many private schools, their learners and teachers gleefully grace television screens and newspaper front pages to bask in public praise. In 2020, just over 12,000 students wrote the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) examinations, achieving a 98.82 percent pass rate.

It’s a mixed narrative for public schools, who fielded 578,468 learners last year to write the government-issued National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam, of which 76.2 percent passed. While the spotlight tends to hover on feel-good stories about students shackled in adversity who muster their meritocratic will to accomplish impressive results, we are also sorely reminded of the stark differences in performance between private and public schools, and among the latter, free and fee-paying ones. The recycled talking point is often around sluggish and unsatisfactory improvements, blamed on the government’s mismanagement of the education sector. Opposition parties never fail to hammer in the charge that the dismal state of our public education system forms part of the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC’s) long-standing failure to competently deliver public services.

Unlike every other year, this year’s fanfare happened in February, owing to how COVID-19 disrupted the academic year, and resulting in a more somber tone. The class of 2020 spent almost six months of the academic year at home due to lockdown, with public schools having slowed reopenings due to repeated concerns around the appropriate safety measures being in place. By contrast, well-resourced private schools adjusted to the new world of physically distanced and online learning with few scratches. It’s easy to say that the pandemic has laid bare the extent of inequality in South Africa, but it’s harder to ask what we should do about that. The instinct to point out the profound injustice of some learners moving along the academic year with little disruption, while others are at the whim of material circumstances not of their choosing, is the correct one. But the South African public hardly reaches the natural conclusion that we should — which is that private schools should probably not exist to begin with.

The case against private schools has less to do with hoping to fix the dysfunctions of our education system as we currently know it, and more to do with asking the basic question of what an education system is fundamentally for. The prevailing belief is that education is a mere instrument for economic advancement. Acquiring an education is the process of attaining the skills and knowledge valued on a competitive job market, or at the very least amassing the credentials that “signal” to employers that you possess traits desirable in employees.

This is how most South Africans think about education, from primary school all the way to university. Following this view, it is rational for parents to strive to provide the best educational opportunities for their children, and usually at great cost. But it is also the view that ultimately sustains an attitude of general indifference to the state of public schools on the whole. While there is sporadic outcry, most of that has to do with egregious cases (such as textbooks failing to be delivered en masse to schools) or is usually expressive of other political grievances (a general discontent about the ANC’s incompetence). That most people can’t genuinely be bothered is an outcome built into the logic of our schooling system, one whose premise is preparing individuals to fiercely compete in a society where there is a limited number of decent, well-paying jobs. So, when South Africans view our unemployment crisis as arising because too many people lack a decent education, what is forgotten is that we actually at the same time believe that the successful education of the masses is a dead end, since there aren’t enough good jobs to go around anyway, and some will get them while others unfortunately won’t.

When poor and working-class children in under-resourced schools predictably fare much worse at school, unable to produce the good grades for which a good job is the reward, the resulting class inequality is legitimized by asserting that each child has the same ability to work hard for better results, as each worker has the same ability to work hard for better pay. Yet we are all the products of a birth lottery, thrust into this world without choice. At the will and direction of our parents, our lives are dictated by a narrow and predetermined set of values imposed on us by them. As a child, young and malleable, everything that it means to be you is the outcome of chance.

Now of course, abolishing private schools won’t magically eradicate class inequality, nor would it eliminate class distinction. A good example of where that nevertheless persists is in South Africa’s publicly funded universities. Schools located in urban areas will probably be better off than those in far-flung rural areas, and historically private and former Model C schools better off than all the rest. Rather, the case against the existence of private schools is the case for the democratization of the schooling system at large. It is to say that an education should not be thought of as a commodity but as a public good, and that an integrated and socially provisioned education system is a necessary precondition for a thriving democracy beyond a functional one.

Writing last year in the Financial Times, the British journalist Martin Wolf made the basic observation that:

In a democracy, people are not just consumers, workers, business owners, savers or investors. We are citizens. This is the tie that binds people together in a shared endeavor . . . Acting together, within a democracy, means acting and thinking as citizens. If we do not do so, democracy will fail.

The idea that there are two South Africas — one for the rich and one for the poor — is an apt metaphor for understanding a country where one’s class position indicates not only the quality of service provision one can access but also what social world one inhabits. If there ever was such a thing as a South African dream, it would be to opt out of state provision and withdraw from the public sphere — to sign up for private medical aid and to live in fortified gated communities. The ideal South African is not the citizen but the consumer, and this idea is impressed upon children immediately when we send some of them to private schools.

Understandably, some might invoke parental choice arguments. Parents should be able to decide which schools their children go to, and they can send them to a private one if they so wish. But if we accept that, we should also accept that parents should be able to refuse the schooling of their children altogether. The fact that education is compulsory in the first place reveals an idea woven into the very notion of society itself — namely, that our nature as socially dependent beings makes it impossible to have real freedom other than through the collective institutions of our making. Only then do individuals become truly self-determining.

Describing the evolution of formal schooling from classical antiquity through to its expansion in postwar social democracy (in the West), the political theorist Wendy Brown explains that education meant:

more than class mobility and equality of opportunity . . . Rather, the ideal of democracy was being realized in a new way insofar as the demos was being prepared through education for a life of freedom, understood as both individual sovereignty (choosing and pursuing one’s ends) and participation in collective self -rule.

Not ignoring the useful practical skills and knowledge for a life of employment that education imparts, it is foundationally a medium for self-development, attaining membership in a political community, and participating in civic life.

If education is about developing our capacities as citizens — by making us conscious of the forces shaping our lives and, most important, providing an arena where individuals experience equal standing and become more discerning about the common good — then a segregated schooling system, whether it is explicitly divided across race, as during apartheid, or implicitly divided across class, as it is now, is inimical to creating common citizenship. If one is a serious believer in cultivating a substantive democratic culture, then that commitment must be rooted in the idea that there must be some realm in which individuals encounter one another and become socialized as fellow citizens. The belief that education is about more than facilitating the production of economic wealth unites a variety of political thinkers throughout history — from Aristotle and Adam Smith to Karl Marx and Paulo Freire.

Considering last year’s debacle at Brackenfell High School in Cape Town demonstrates the point I’m trying to make. There, a parent-organized matric farewell function was exclusively attended by white students, igniting widespread outrage and allegations that this was racist. Beneath all the drama of the clashes between white parents (supported by South Africa’s second largest party, the Democratic Alliance) and members of South Africa’s third largest party (the Economic Freedom Fighters) is the crude question of why any of this mattered in the first place. (As happens routinely in South Africa, the incident at Brackenfell, where students had already reported experiences of racism, sparked many more revelations of racism at South Africa’s schools, both public and private.)

If we buy into an increasingly popular conception of education as just a terminal passage to prepare students for employment (and where liberal arts subjects like music or history are taught only to strengthen their value as “human capital”), then we shouldn’t worry so much about student bodies being well integrated, beyond giving parents their “money’s worth,” so to speak. But the Brackenfell incident sparked deep concerns precisely because we already think of education as being about more than high pass rates and admissions into university. We think it outrageous that, despite being in a diverse school many years after the formal end of apartheid, a lot of white kids still don’t have black friends! We implicitly think it the purpose of schooling to cultivate relationships that transcend ascriptive identities like race, gender, and religion, beyond simply teaching kids mathematics and science — that school is also about learning to belong to a society.

But, of course, the long-term trend in education writ large, even up to university, is one of less state investment and more commodification. In South Africa, as is the case in many other places, education is becoming less of a national priority — the government here recently announced that it will discontinue public funding for postgraduate teaching degrees and, as part of a general austerity agenda, is planning to cut teaching posts and reduce overall expenditure on education. Yet what ultimately makes this turn possible is an education system that allows privatization from the start, failing to shield itself against market forces. The grand irony of all this is that, even under the logic of capitalism, the point of education is to escape the coercion of the market — for how else is the long, time-consuming road of getting an education ordinarily justified, other than to say that one should “work hard now, so that someday, you’ll never have to work another day in your life”?

The COVID-19 pandemic is a world-historical event, one prompting many to call for a new social contract for what the future holds. In doing so, some fundamental features of the social order are being called into question. The fast-growing calls for a universal basic income guarantee, for example, are not only made necessary by a world of soaring unemployment but also challenge the idea that one’s survival and happiness be tethered to one’s employment. We should also then challenge the idea that education is merely a tool for entering the job market.

An empowered, thoughtful, and active public is what our schooling system should build; one that, in spite of inevitable political differences, is committed to the highest aspirations of our life in common. It is a good time to start asking: What is learning for?