An essay on mining by George Orwell 1939

The following essay, written about coal miners in 1939 by George Orwell, struck me as essential reading for all South Africans. We need simply replace the word “coal” with the word “gold”.

The essay is a product of its time, and the UK still had the problematic policy of appeasement towards Hitler: please read it in context. This in no way dilutes the truths that should come home to all South African readers whose lives and livelihoods sit upon the broad shoulders of our brothers (and sisters) who work in the depths of our gold and platinum mines and have done so for the last 130 years.


Down the Mine

George Orwell

1939

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported. For this reason the actual process by which coal is extracted is well worth watching, if you get the chance and are willing to take the trouble.

When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal face when the ‘fillers are at work. This is not easy, because when the mine is working visitors are a nuisance and are not encouraged, but if you go at any other time, it is possible to come away with a totally wrong impression. On a Sunday, for instance, a mine seems almost peaceful. The time to go there is when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space. Everything except the fire, for there is no fire down there except the feeble beams of Davy lamps and electric torches which scarcely penetrate the clouds of coal dust.

When you have finally got there—and getting there is a job in itself: I will explain that in a moment—you crawl through the last line of pit props and see opposite you a shiny black wall three or four feet high. This is the coal face. Overhead is the smooth ceiling made by the rock from which the coal has been cut; underneath is the rock again so that the gallery you are in is only as high as the ledge of coal itself, probably not much more than a yard. The first impression of all, overmastering everything else for a while, is the frightful, deafening din from the conveyor belt which carries the coal away. You cannot see very far, because the fog of coal dust throws back the beam of your lamp, but you can see on either side of you the line of half-naked kneeling men, one to every four or five yards, driving their shovels under the fallen coal and flinging it swiftly over their left shoulders. They are feeding it on to the conveyor belt, a moving rubber belt a couple of feet wide which runs a yard or two behind them. Down this belt a glittering river of coal races constantly. In a big mine it is carrying away several tons of coal every minute. It bears it off to some place in the main roads where it is shot into tubs holding half a ton, and thence dragged to the cages and hoisted to the outer air.

It is impossible to watch the ‘fillers’ at work without feeling a pang of envy for their toughness. It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while—they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling—and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means. Shovelling is comparatively easy when you are standing up, because you can use your knee and thigh to drive the shovel along; kneeling down, the whole of the strain is thrown upon your arm and belly muscles. And the other conditions do not exactly make things easier. There is the heat—it varies, but in some mines it is suffocating—and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that confined space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun. But the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. They really do look like iron—hammered iron statues—under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. In the hotter mines, they wear only a pair of thin drawers, clogs and knee-pads. You can hardly tell by the look of them whether they are young or old. They may be any age up to sixty or even sixty-five, but when they are black and naked they all look alike. No one could do their work who had not a young man’s body, and a figure fit for a guardsman at that; just a few pounds of extra flesh on the waist-line, and the constant bending would be impossible. You can never forget that spectacle one you have seen it—the line of bowed, kneeling figures sooty black all over, driving their huge shovels under the coal with stupendous force and speed. They are on the job for seven and a half hours, theoretically without a break, for there is not time ‘off’. Actually they snatch a quarter of an hour or so at some time during the shift to eat the food they have brought with them, usually a hunk of bread and dripping and a bottle of cold tea. The first time I was watching the ‘fillers’ at work I put my hand upon some dreadful slimy thing among the coal dust. It was a chewed quid of tobacco. Nearly all the miners chew tobacco, which is said to be good against thirst.

Probably you have to go down several coal-mines before you can get much grasp of the processes that are going on round you. This is chiefly because the mere effort of getting from place to place makes it difficult to notice anything else. In some ways it is even disappointing, or at least is unlike what you have expected. You get into the cage, which is a steel box about as wide as a telephone box and two or three times as long. It holds ten men, but they pack it like pilchards in a tin, and a tall man cannot stand upright in it. The steel door shuts upon you, and somebody working the winding gear above drops you into the void. You have the usual momentary qualm in your belly and a bursting sensation in the ears, but not much sensation of movement till you get near the bottom, when the cage slows down so abruptly that you could swear it is going upwards again. In the middle of the run the cage probably touches sixty miles an hour; in some of the deeper mines it touches even more. When you crawl out at the bottom you are perhaps four hundred yards underground. That is to say you have a tolerable-sized mountain on top of you; hundred s of yards of solid rock, bones of extinct beasts, subsoil, flints, roots of growing things, green grass and cows grazing on it—all this suspended over your head and held back only by wooden props as thick as the calf of your leg. But because of the speed at which the cage has brought you down, and the complete blackness through which you have travelled, you hardly feel yourself deeper down than you would at the bottom of the Piccadilly tube.

What is surprising, on the other hand, is the immense horizontal distances that have to be travelled underground. Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away. I had not realized that before he even gets to work he may have had to creep along passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus. In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal. But as that seam is worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit bottom. If it is a mile from the pit bottom to the coal face, that is probably an average distance; three miles is a fairly normal one; there are even said to be a few mines where it is as much as five miles. But these distances bear no relation to distances above ground. For in all that mile or three miles as it may be, there is hardly anywhere outside the main road, and not many places even there, where a man can stand upright.

You do not notice the effect of this till you have gone a few hundred yards. You start off, stooping slightly, down the dim-lit gallery, eight or ten feet wide and above five high, with the walls built up with slabs of shale, like the stone walls in Derbyshire. Every yard or two there are wooden props holding up the beams and girders; some of the girders have buckled into fantastic curves under which you have to duck. Usually it is bad going underfoot—thick dust of jagged chunks of shale, and in some mines where there is water it is as mucky as a farm-yard. Also there is the track for the coal tubs, like a miniature railway track with sleepers a foot or two apart, which is tiresome to walk on. Everything is grey with shale dust; there is a dusty fiery smell which seems to be the same in all mines. You see mysterious machines of which you never learn the purpose, and bundles of tools slung together on wires, and sometimes mice darting away from the beam of the lamps. They are surprisingly common, especially in mines where there are or have been horses. It would be interesting to know how they got there in the first place; possibly by falling down the shaft—for they say a mouse can fall any distance uninjured, owing to its surface area being so large relative to its weight. You press yourself against the wall to make way for lines of tubs jolting slowly towards the shaft, drawn by an endless steel cable operated from the surface. You creep through sacking curtains and thick wooden doors which, when they are opened, let out fierce blasts of air. These doors are an important part of the ventilation system. The exhausted air is sucked out of one shaft by means of fans, and the fresh air enters the other of its own accord. But if left to itself the air will take the shortest way round, leaving the deeper workings unventilated; so all the short cuts have to be partitioned off.

At the start to walk stooping is rather a joke, but it is a joke that soon wears off. I am handicapped by being exceptionally tall, but when the roof falls to four feet or less it is a tough job for anybody except a dwarf or a child. You not only have to bend double, you have also got to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and dodge them when they come. You have, therefore, a constant crick in the neck, but this is nothing to the pain in your knees and thighs. After half a mile it becomes (I am not exaggerating) an unbearable agony. You begin to wonder whether you will ever get to the end—still more, how on earth you are going to get back. Your pace grows slower and slower. You come to a stretch of a couple of hundred yards where it is all exceptionally low and you have to work yourself along in a squatting position Then suddenly the roof opens out to a mysterious height—scene of an old fall of rock, probably—and for twenty whole yards you can stand upright. The relief is overwhelming. But after this there is another low stretch of a hundred yards and then a succession of beams which you have to crawl under. You go down on all fours; even this is a relief after the squatting business. But when you come to the end of the beams and try to get up again, you find that your knees have temporarily struck work and refuse to lift you. You call a halt, ignominiously, and say that you would like to rest for a minute or two. Your guide (a miner) is sympathetic. He knows that your muscles are not the same as his. ‘Only another four hundred yards,’ he says encouragingly; you feel that he might as well say another four hundred miles. But finally you do somehow creep as far as the coal face. You have gone a mile and taken the best part of an hour; a miner would do it in not much more than twenty minutes. Having got there, you have to sprawl in the coal dust and get your strength back for several minutes before you can even watch the work in progress with any kind of intelligence.

Coming back is worse than going, not only because you are already tired out but because the journey back to the shaft is slightly uphill. You get through the low places at the speed of a tortoise, and you have no shame now about calling a halt when your knees give way. Even the lamp you are carrying becomes a nuisance and probably when you stumble you drop it; whereupon, if it is a Davy lamp, it goes out. Ducking the beams becomes more and more of an effort, and sometimes you forget to duck. You try walking head down as the miners do, and then you bang your backbone. Even the miners bang their backbones fairly often. This is the reason why in very hot mines, where it is necessary to go about half naked, most of the miners have what they call ‘buttons down the back’—that is, a permanent scab on each vertebra. When the track is down hill the miners sometimes fit their clogs, which are hollow underneath, on to the trolley rails and slide down. In mines where the ‘travelling’ is very bad all the miners carry sticks about two and a half feet long, hollowed out below the handle. In normal places you keep your hand on top of the stick and in the low places you slide you hand down into the hollow. These sticks are a great help, and the wooden crash-helmets—a comparatively recent invention—are a godsend. They look like a French or Italian steel helmet, but they are made of some kind of pith and very light, and so strong that you can take a violent blow on the head without feeling it. When finally you get back to the surface you have been perhaps three hours underground and travelled two miles, and you are more exhausted than you would be by a twenty-five-mile walk above ground. For a week afterwards your thighs are so stiff that coming down stairs is quite a difficult feat; you have to work your way down in a peculiar sidelong manner, without bending the knees. Your miner friends notice the stiffness of your walk and chaff you about it. (‘How’d ya like to work down pit, eh?’ etc.) Yet even a miner who has been long away from work—from illness, for instance—when he comes back to the pit, suffers badly for the first few days.

It may seem that I am exaggerating, though no one who has been down an old-fashioned pit (most of the pits in England are old-fashioned) and actually gone as far as the coal face, is likely to say so. But what I want to emphasize is this. Here is this frightful business of crawling to and fro, which to any normal person is a hard day’s work in itself; and it is not part of the miner’s work at all, it is merely an extra, like the City man’s daily ride in the Tube. The miner does that journey to and fro, and sandwiched in between there are seven and a half hours of savage work. I have never travelled much more than a mile to the coal face; but often it is three miles, in which case I and most people other than coal-miners would never get there at all. This is the kind of point that one is always liable to miss. When you think of the coal-mine you think of depth, heat, darkness, blackened figures hacking at walls of coal; you don’t think, necessarily, of time, also. A miner’s working shift of seven and a half hours does not sound very long, but one has got to add on to it at least an hour a day for ‘travelling’, more often two hours and sometimes three. Of course, the ‘travelling’ is not technically work and the miner is not paid for it; but it is as like work as makes no difference. It is easy to say that miners don’t mind all this. Certainly, it is not the same for them as it would be for you or me. They have done it since childhood, they have the right muscles hardened, and they can move to and fro underground with a startling and rather horrible agility. A miner puts his head down and runs, with a long swinging stride, through places where I can only stagger. At the workings you see them on all fours, skipping round the pit props almost like dogs. But it is quite a mistake to think that they enjoy it. I have talked about this to scores of miners and they all admit that the ‘travelling’ is hard work; in any case when you hear them discussing a pit among themselves the ‘travelling’ is always one of the things they discuss. It is said that a shift always returned from work faster than it goes; nevertheless the miners all say that it is the coming away after a hard day’s work, that is especially irksome. It is part of their work and they are equal to it, but certainly it is an effort. It is comparable, perhaps, to climbing a smallish mountain before and after your day’s work.

When you have been down in two or three pits you begin to get some grasp of the processes that are going on underground. (I ought to say, by the way, that I know nothing whatever about the technical side of mining: I am merely describing what I have seen.) Coal lies in thin seams between enormous layers of rock, so that essentially the process of getting it out is like scooping the central layer from a Neapolitan ice. In the old days the miners used to cut straight into the coal with pick and crowbar—a very slow job because coal, when lying in its virgin state, is almost as hard as rock. Nowadays the preliminary work is done by an electrically-driven coal-cutter, which in principle is an immensely tough and powerful band-saw, running horizontally instead of vertically, with teeth a couple of inches long and half an inch or an inch thick. It can move backwards and forwards on its own power, and the men operating it can rotate it this way or that. Incidentally it makes one of the most awful noises I have ever heard, and sends forth clouds of coal dust which make it impossible to see more than two to three feet and almost impossible to breathe. The machine travels along the coal face cutting into the base of the coal and undermining it to the depth of five feet and a half; after this it is comparatively easy to extract the coal to the depth to which has been undermined. Where it is ‘difficult getting’, however, it has also to be loosened with explosives. A man with an electric drill, like a rather small version of the drills used in street-mending, bores holds at intervals in the coal, inserts blasting powder, plugs it with clay, goes round the corner if there is one handy (he is supposed to retire to twnety0five yards distance) and touches off the charge with an electric current. This is not intended to bring coal out, only to loosen it. Occasionally, of course, the charge is too powerful, and then it not only brings the coal out but brings the roof down as well.

After the blasting has been done the ‘fillers’ can tumble the coal out, break it up and shovel it on to the conveyor belt. It comes out first in monstrous boulders which may weigh anything up to twenty tons. The conveyor belt shoots it on to tubs, and the tubs are shoved into the main road and hitched onto an endlessly revolving steel cable which drags them to the cage. Then they are hoisted, and at the surface the coal is sorted by being run over screens and if necessary is washed as well. As far as possible the ‘dirt’—the shale, that is—is used for making the roads below. All that cannot be used is sent to the surface and dumped; hence the monstrous ‘dirt-heaps’, like hideous grey mountains, which are the characteristic scenery of the coal areas. When the coal has been extracted to the depth to which the machine has cut, the coal face has advanced by five feet. Fresh props are put in to hold up the newly exposed roof, and during the next shift the conveyor belt is taken to pieces, moved five feet forward and re-assembled. As far as possible the three operations of cutting, blasting and extraction are done in three separate shifts, the cutting in the afternoon, the blasting at night (there is a law, not always kept, that forbids its being done when other men are working near by), and the ‘filling’ in the morning shift, which lasts from six in the morning until half past one.

Even when you watch the process of coal-extraction you probably only watch it for a short time, and it is not until you begin making a few calculations that you realize what a stupendous task the ‘fillers’ are performing. Normally each man has to clear a space four or five yards wide. The cutter has undermined the coal to the depth of five feet, so that if the seam of coal is three or four feet high, each man has to cut out, break up and load on to the belt something between seven and twelve cubic yards of coal. This is to say, taking a cubic yard as weighing twenty-seven hundred-weight, that each man is shifting coal at a speed approaching two tons an hour. I have just enough experience of pick and shovel work to be able to grasp what this means. When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift tow tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heart and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on a flying trapeze or to win the Grand National. I am not a manual labourer and please God I never shall be one, but there are some kinds of manual work that I could do if I had to. At a pitch I could be a tolerable road-sweeper or an inefficient gardener or even a tenth-rate farm hand. But by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner; the work would kill me in a few weeks.

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people in habit. Down there where coal is dug is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. it is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’—something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tub of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants—all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

 

Partitioning the Public Sphere: search engines, echo chambers and technological/linguistic balkanization

Since the election of Donald Trump1 to the White House at the beginning of November, there has been a renewed attention to the mechanisms of information dissemination in the 21st century and how this might affect electoral outcomes.

Manipulation of information for political ends is not new. The use of propaganda and the capture of key broadcasting and print media outlets has been a strategy for the power hungry since such technologies existed. Journalists have long been targeted by despotic regimes of all flavours, especially those who refuse to tow particular lines and/or self-censor.

We are reminded in South Africa by the ongoing debacle regarding the SABC 8 and the problematic appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as COO of the public broadcaster that rather crude manipulations of state media outlets is not confined to historical accounts of Goebbels, the Kremlin or the Khmer Rouge. This latest video of local musicians singing the praise of Motsoeneng for placing quotas on local content for TV and radio is a good example of how old-fashioned techniques are still in use.

However, there is a far greater threat to what Charles Taylor refers to as the Public Sphere: online media dissemination.

Taylor, in his essay “Modern Social Imaginaries”, outlines the way that printing technology enabled the creation of the Public Sphere which in turn had a profound effect on the modern social imaginary. The Public Sphere was that open space in which dialogues, discourses, information and debate occurred between people who were not co-located and were not in direct discussion with each other. It describes the social space popularly referred to as ‘current affairs’, ‘popular opinion’ and ‘news’: those stories, issues, arguments that bounce back and forth between strangers across TV and radio waves, through newspapers and magazines. Critically, the Public Sphere enabled a means of information sharing and contestation that has become one of the bed rocks of modern democracies.

Prior to the Gutenberg moment, such a common social information space didn’t exist: current information was limited to the gossip of your local town, from people you knew. Now, with the arrival of the printing press, information could be sent out far and wide, with communities who were unaware of each others’ issues suddenly engaging in ways never seen before. Mimeographs, newspapers and columns prompted dinner table discussions previously unimaginable. Disconnected groups of people could still envision themselves as a piece of a greater whole, beyond the limitations of direct sensory perception regarding who was directly seen and heard.

Then came the wireless, and then television, and information moved even faster. The boundaries of the social imagination–about who we shared our world with and how we fitted in–grew even further as information about distant happenings was teleported into living rooms.

While broadcasts and printed materials could be tailored and tweaked to specific audiences, the control of dissemination at the individual level was relatively weak. Even if radio and TV were localized and ‘personalized’ in their content, anyone with the correct receiving apparatus living in the same area would receive the same content. As for printed media: once in hard copy and in circulation, there was no controlling who sent copies of what to whom. It was out there, and, like feathers in the wind, almost impossible to retrieve. Anyone with the correct production means (a radio transmitter, a printer) could inject information into the Public Sphere. One man and a mimeograph could disrupt the whole news cycle.

The strength of the Public Sphere is not to be under-estimated. It is akin to the centre 8 blocks of a chess board: the player who controls those blocks holds the dominant position. That media outlets are often the first to be targeted and/or captured by those suffering a crisis of legitimacy is testimony to the importance of the Public Sphere to influence opinions and political moods2.

But now there is a new technology to disseminate information, one that is not easily controlled by governments (although China is doing its best): social media and online news. Never before have those with internet access had so much information of such a broad variety at their fingertips. In countries with deep connectivity saturation, such as the United States and Western European countries, manipulating TV shows and newspapers is liking farting in the face of the internet wind.

However, while the World Wide Web promised a robust Public Sphere with access to information previously never seen, there was a down side. The consumption of information via the internet is almost always an individual activity. Unlike watching the TV or listening to the radio, people do not read news at their laptops together: they each have their own screen and keyboard, with external sensory occlusion often completed by the use of headphones. This has opened up the opportunity for individualization of information consumption like never before.

Couple this individualization of information consumption with advanced research in psychology and big online companies now have a terrifyingly powerful apparatus. This apparatus works using two key mechanisms: the ability to change already published content, and the ability to individually funnel readers to specific pages covertly without them being aware of it.

Changing already published content

Unlike hard copy or broadcast media, consumers of online information never really have their ‘own copy’: the information resides on a remote server under someone else’s control, who can update, redact or tweak the information at will3. Only the most observant will notice the removal of a sentence in an article from one day to the next, or the subtle change in wording. The days of declaring errata are over: publishing corporations need never admit their errors or changes unless called to account by the most anal retentive of readers who keep multiple local copies of information and actually bother to compare versions of the same material to look for changes.

This also means that the Public Sphere is now vulnerable to pirating, the  (il)legitimate manipulation by technologically advanced ‘third parties’ of hackers, whose intentions may range from the noble to the anarchic (e.g. Anonymous).

Funneling readers into partitions

But by far the more insidious mechanism has to be the learning algorithm of search engines: in the West this takes the form of Google and Facebook. By tracking people’s preferences and choices over time and using advanced models of psychological trends, readers now have the information on their screens ‘customised’ to show them what Google and Facebook think they want to see. Combined with ever more cunning strategies to entice clicking (known as click-baiting), the very lucrative click-advertising revenue stream is optimized by presenting users of online content with information that affirms their own world views.

The result is a partitioning of the Public Sphere into echo chambers: people are now balkanized into online spaces of shared opinion, rather than into the physical spaces of shared neighbourhoods that might’ve previously demarcated information distribution. It is the technological equivalent of apartheid era spatial geography in the Public Sphere, and it is extremely dangerous. Some are even hypothesizing that partitioning has the capacity to influence critical elections like that between Clinton and Trump by spreading ‘fake news‘.

This has become such a phenomenon that the entire era has been referred to as ‘post-truth’. It is a phenomenon that Donald Trump is keenly aware of, hence his courting of big tech business CEOs, as he attempts to align the interests of tech giants who now control the American Public Sphere with the interests of his administration.

Not only technology can partition

Coming back to the South African case, and the relevance of the threat to the Public Sphere to schooling and education, the current focus in the United States on technological partitioning should ring some bells closer to home. For not only did the apartheid government physically balkanize South Africans, but it linguistically balkanized them too.

While South Africa is not yet as vulnerable to online manipulation due to the high levels of variation in connectivity (as evidenced by the efforts still exerted to capture the public broadcaster), the funnelling in SA is done by language. This is easily seen when comparing the SABC news in English broadcast at 6:30pm to the news in isiZulu broadcast at 7pm. Radio shows are mostly monolingual, or at least conform to language clustering that mirrors that of the population (English and Afrikaans together; indigenous languages together). For the most part, only the official state broadcaster is distributing information in indigenous languages, bar the occasional independent outlet such as Isolezwe, the isiZulu newspaper from Independent Media. The ‘liberal’ independent media and its champions would do well to remember that, by broadcasting and printing in English mainly (and occasionally Afrikaans), their reach is fundamentally limited to the echo chamber of middle class South Africans.

The dismantling of the linguistic partitions in the South African Public Sphere requires the teaching, learning and use of multiple languages not only in the name of social cohesion, but as a fundamental prerequisite for genuine democratic participation: nothing less than the reconstitution of a genuine Public Sphere through which an engaged citizenry can hold the executive–and each other–to account. This, along with critical consumption of online information, must be a key priority in our schools for any teacher who believes in emancipatory education.

Lack of attention to the information consumed by the Other, along with the mechanisms by which our public information is ‘personalized’ and hence used to partition us, will only yield more Trump moments.

  1. Quaintly referred to by some in the US as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
  2. The Arab Spring of 2011, popularly attributed to Twitter, and the subsequent crack down on social media in Egypt, is a good example.
  3. I have made several minor edits and corrections of typos in this article since publishing it. Have you noticed?

Give me a lever and a place to stand…

After a month of rolling protests and running battles across the country’s university campuses, no doubt most people who have an interest (and some who don’t) in the fate of our university system are experiencing something of an analysis overload. Nonetheless, careful thought and consideration remain our most likely avenues of success. So here goes.

It is important to separate out the two facets of the (broad and multifarious) student movements’ call for “free, decolonised education” (the “quality” qualifier has subsequently been added explicitly, but who wants education of poor quality? If it’s worth fighting for, it should be worth something.). There is free education.  And there is decolonised education. The two issues are quite independent of each other.

I will state that I appreciate and support the call for a decolonial revision of curriculum. Not in the #sciencemustfall type of revisionist narrow nationalism, but in the pluri-versalist sense (as opposed to the uni-versalist sense that positions one group–any group!–at the centre and the others at the periphery). But this is not the purpose of this particular text.

Rather, I would like to simply foreground a few contradictions/dilemmas in the argument regarding free education.

After a week of protest action, two clear arguments emerged regarding how universities should be funded: one which rejected the call for free education for everyone, stating that it should only be for the poor, and the other stating that it should be free for all.

The former camp includes Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Blade Nzimande, many of the VCs (incl. Dr. Max Price) and has been supported by research by the likes of Prof. Nico Cloete from University of the Western Cape. In summary, this group argues that those who can afford user charges (also known as fees) should pay, and that providing free education for all actually benefits the wealthy.

The latter camp includes the #FeesMustFall protestors and other academics such as Prof. Salim Vally from the University of Johannesburg and Leigh Naidoo from Wits. This group argues for a fundamental restructuring of the entire economic field, with a super-tax on the rich to boost state coffers to provide funding for tertiary education. It is only in the last few days that student leaders have tacked onto this line of rhetoric explicitly.

Thus far, I have not read any analysis that calls the #FeesMustFall protest for what it is: a call for the use of universities as the apparatus through which to redistribute wealth. (It is interesting to ponder whether this is the new form of the call for land redistribution… perhaps this is where we’ve come to now that we are pushing for knowledge economies instead of agrarian or industrialist economies.)

In the existing economic dispensation i.e. a mixed economy of capitalist business structures with regulatory state involvement, this call is a paradox. The paradox unrolls as follows: universities are the means by which this developing nation state will grow its middle class (i.e. the primary mechanism of upward social mobility). However, as Nico Cloete rightly pointed out, there isn’t a single country that has provided free tertiary education in the absence of a large middle class upon whose tax-backs free tertiary education is carried. That is: we need a large middle class to fund universities, but we need funded universities to grow a middle class.

As an aside: It is interesting that universities have allowed themselves to be placed at this bottleneck. By positioning themselves as the gatekeepers towards economic freedom and prosperity, they have kept themselves ‘relevant’ in an era of education as commodity. While the spoken narrative has been one of academic freedom, the value of research and learning for the human project and the essential role of the pursuit of knowledge in the quest for greater humanity, the unspoken narrative has supported the human capital model of education commodification: after all, this drives funds TO universities, keeps demand far above supply and allows HEIs to claim a critical and irreplaceable role in society. Universities as places of ‘just’ thinking in a country where the majority are so desperate for economic emancipation would quickly be relegated to the irrelevant.

But bottlenecks bring pressure. And it should be noted that the call for ‘decommodified education’ is also contradictory. FMF protestors want increased access to university education precisely because it is a commodity. Decommodified education does not bring upward social mobility. Either your degree has an economic value, or it does not.

If the notion of free education is paradoxical in the existing economic dispensation, then, the argument goes, the broader economic structures need to change.

Overall, I think this sentiment is in principle correct: we have seen in the 2008 crash and subsequent uncertainty that our current global economic practices are increasing inequality and perpetuating multiple social ills.

Having said which, I am relatively sure that universities are not the institutions through which to leverage for broad-scale economic change in South Africa.

Firstly, most South Africans do not particularly care for universities, despite what the media might lead us to think. The vast poor majority are not excluded from tertiary study by funding constraints, but by academic constraints due to the poor primary and secondary education to which they have access. In short: if you are in a university in South Africa, you are already an elite, whether you are struggling to pay your fees or not.

Who can blame the average South African for not worrying too much about universities? Even if we construct an argument about future benefits, there are far more pressing and immediate needs. If the touted R50 billion per annum required to provide free education for all can actually be found in our national fiscus, then universities are not where it should be spent. Not while primary schools have pit toilets, rural villages have terrible roads and hospitals put patients on gurneys for lack of beds. While universities can alleviate some basic service delivery issues (e.g. by producing more doctors so that they need not work 30 hour shifts for lack of staff), the vast majority of university graduates are not front line public servants working in schools and hospitals to the benefit of the majority of the population. If there is R50 billion to be found, these priorities need addressing first.

Secondly, using universities as the levers to press for broader structural economic change assumes that we have a government in power who will prioritise expenditure in this way. But–voter base considerations not withstanding–we are in the era of the president who is not too keen on ‘clever blacks’: surely an indication that the institutions that produce said clever blacks are probably not on the top of his shopping list.

archimedes

A phrase mostly often attributed to Archimedes (yes, a dead white Greek) reads “give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth!”. When I had to leave the school at which I worked to avoid burn out, I found solace in a subtle qualification of this notion: that to move the earth (or at least, change the world), one needs not only a lever and a place to stand, but the right place to stand is critical to the success of the endeavour. Effective leverage is dependent on strategic positioning, both in the figurative and literal sense. But applying pressure on the wrong fulcrum, or from the wrong position (or in the wrong way!!!), doesn’t shift anything. The most likely outcome is simply a broken lever.

That we need to close the inequality gap in South Africa through some means of wealth distribution is undeniable. Some form of challenge to the status quo of economic structure is part of this project. But if universities are the wrong place to leverage for this change, the result will simply be broken apparatus, with no fundamental shift at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Fortress of Suburbia: selective use of school ‘catchment areas’ perpetuates race and class stratification in public schools.

This is an article I penned for a local online e-zine whose editors still haven’t gotten back to me (which is just poor form). So here it is. Many thanks to Ashley Visagie for the idea and for reviewing it.

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Protests in the last 24 months have highlighted the multiple, repetitive alienating experiences for Black learners in prestigious education institutions, both at tertiary and secondary level.

The silence in the conversation is about the learners who never even reach those institutions in the first place, who form the vast majority of the population. But primary and secondary schools are, for the most part, still racially stratified 22 years after the official fall of apartheid.

One of the major mechanisms through which ex-Model C (less euphemistically “ex-whites only”) schools located in formerly white suburbs have been able to select students, utilizes the way in which the South African Schools Act (SASA) interacts with the apartheid geography which still characterizes our urban spaces.

Mark Hunter has done some extremely interesting work looking at student movements in schooling circuits in the Durban area. He found that the opening up of schools to any applicant post 1994 (and subsequent competition between schools to attract and retain the easiest-to-teach i.e. middle class students) has come to create a school market-place.

The push is predictably “upwards”: schools in rural and township areas struggle to keep enrolment up, while “fortified” schools located in the suburbs command applications sometimes up to ten times in excess of the number they can accept. Former HoA (“Model C” or white schools) are considered the pinnacle of education. With a few exceptions, the apartheid hierarchy remains intact: Former HoA trumps former HoD, beats former HoR which all are considered more desirable than ex-DET schools.

This drive is completely rational on the part of parents. They want for their children what they perceive to be the best education available. In many cases, the fees charged by these schools is enough to exclude poor families. Even though SASA makes it very clear a student may not be excluded from school on the basis of their parents being unable to pay fees, this clause is premised on the student being INCLUDED in the first place. The rub comes in how over-subscribed schools process applications.

Schools are not legally permitted to set entrance tests, so they use other proxies. In the case of high schools, the applicant’s report card from primary school (combined with the name of the primary school as an indicator of the reliability of the report card) is used as a proxy for an entrance exam. Some schools issue ‘streaming/setting’ tests for Grade 8s under the auspices of internally arranging students by ability, but these results are also used as a basis for admissions.

Perversely, the ‘best’ schools cream the easiest to teach students, while the most under-resourced schools must work with the students who need the most support and additional resources to supplement that which their homes cannot provide for them.

Another way that prestigious schools justify their intake is to selectively invoke clauses 33 and 34 in the Admissions Policy for Ordinary Public Schools that allows for ‘zoning’. That is: schools may exclude applicants who live outside their ‘catchment area’. For obvious reasons, this interacts with apartheid racial geography of suburbs to ensure that schools located in middle class spaces can legally justify excluding students from poorer suburbs and townships.

Where does the racism come in?

Those former model-C schools who opened their doors to Black and working class learners in the 1990s experienced a phenomenon referred to as “white flight”: middle class white parents withdrew their children from schools that were becoming “too black”, seeing racial diversity as indicative of dropping standards.

In the schools where this has happened, school management is put in an additional double-bind: their physical location is remote from their student base, and their parent bodies are bearing the “invisible school fees” of excessive transport costs, while their children travel sometimes in excess of 100km a day roundtrip to get to school, a time commitment that seriously interferes with rhythms and habits of learning.

These schools are also often allocated the wrong quintile denomination, which has significant implications for funding. Provincial Education Departments designate a school’s quintile based on the school’s location, not on the residential addresses of the learners who attend that school. Such schools could not invoke zoning to filter out working class children: white flight has ensured that the proximal middle class families with whom they share a physical suburb no longer trust the value of the education delivered there.

But for the vast majority of schools located in formerly whites-only suburbs, the use of zones to filter out working class—which means mostly Black—applicants is a convenient method of ensuring only ‘desirable’ applicants. Given how untransformed the majority of South African suburbs are, this clause is excellent example of structural racism.

The real power of this selective invocation of zoning is its plausible deniability. MECs can publicly state that the use of ‘zones’ is ‘not encouraged’, yet tacitly continue to allow schools the freedom to invoke zoning at a whim, when the application pool starts to look a little too poor or too brown.

Even in the rare event that school management themselves were willing to diversify their student population, the threat of middle-class families abandoning the school is very real: schools are held to ransom by discriminatory parents, and School Governing Bodies perpetuate exclusive admissions policies for fear of losing their fee-paying parent base and falling into the quintile funding gap of serving working class students in a middle class area.

But for the most part, middle class schools are quite happy to continue using the combination of fees and zones to take their pick of easy-to-school applicants, who walk, talk, dress and learn the ‘right way’, and they are willing to go all the way to the Constitutional Court to defend their right to do so (see FEDSAS v. Gauteng MEC and HOD Concourt judgment handed down in May 2016). The real travesty is that the existing national education legislation enables them. Hopefully the GDE victory in the ConCourt will start to set the correct precedent, but there is much ground to cover before the ‘best’ schools are truly accessible to all.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of poor and black learners will never even get the chance to protest such schools’ codes of conduct, hair regulations or teachers’ behaviour. They never get a foot in the door. The irony is that while schools are allegedly marketized to encourage competition and in so doing, ‘drive up quality’, the school ‘market’ is still anything but free.

South Africa has a dire shortage of unicorns.

We have become somewhat accustomed to a regular news item or two about the shortage of teachers in South Africa. The focus has shifted somewhat over the last five years to teacher shortages in key subject areas, but a prevailing impression remains in the public psyche that we are drastically short of teachers.

Even more importantly, there is a common misconception that there is a dearth of ‘committed’ teachers: for various reasons, which I won’t explore here, the average citizen seems to believe that the committed variety are the minority. There is no tonic for this false impression but to spend a week in a classroom, whereupon it becomes very quickly obvious that to simply go to work on a daily basis in a school is to be committed.

This is not a defense of dereliction of duty on the part of teachers. There are some who are not meeting the basic expectations of the job. But there is an excessive focus on this minority as the only alternative to the other type of teacher that the public loves to laud: The Dedicated Teacher.

I really want to highlight the absurdity around some public notions of what constitutes “a Dedicated Teacher”. Take, for example, the teacher nominated for the National Teacher Award in this IOL article. That she is committed to her work cannot be doubted, but I would like to sound a word of caution about celebrating this type of intense single-mindedness as the definition of ‘dedication’. This is not a sleight to the specific teacher in mind. I applaud her work, but I want to emphasise that I applaud those of other teachers too who do not meet the ‘requirements’ of dedication highlighted in the article.

In this particular case, it is clear that the teacher has no family of her own. This is not uncommon: many of the ‘amazing teachers’ that have been recommended for awards are single, child-free and without dependents. In my own experience, teaching is often highly _incompatible_ with healthy intimate relationships or parenting. Many teachers marry other teachers because the work is so all-absorbing that anyone else just can’t stand the constant school talk or the 60-70 hour weeks during term time during which the poor sod holding the fort at home feels more like a singleton than a happy partner in a fair relationship.

The teacher in the article is also at work at 6:30 in the morning, and clearly working extremely long hours. She has never missed a day of work in 10 years.

I would like to ask you, reader, how you would feel if this were the standard to which you were compared when your dedication to your job was being evaluated. You need to be at work at 6:30 in the morning. And you may not be sick. Ever. Even when exposed to hundreds of children who are still learning the basics of personal hygiene. Never mind the ethical quandary of coming to a place filled with children when you are sick.

Let me assure you there is nothing worse than being sick as a teacher: it involves MORE work to set cover for the lessons you miss than actually teaching them. You sit in bed, surrounded by snotty tissues (or a bucket, depending on your malady) laptop in hand, firing off emails to colleagues who are all pretty pissed that they have to take your classes in any free periods they might have had. All topped with dollops of guilt.

Unfortunately we are often constructing the idea that being anything less that a super-hero-machine-of-a-teacher means belonging to that “other” group… the “Slacker Teacher” group. Daily, teaching work involves: stomaching abuse of various forms from your pupils; excessive paper work and marking load; and a gargantuan effort to hold the attention of 30 involuntarily present, highly energetic young people for 6 hours a day. It is quite something that the public imagination seems to frame teaching as ‘easy’.

By my own experience, contact time (i.e. lessons) are approximately 40-50% of a teacher’s workload. This has been affirmed again and again through observing other teachers. In addition, South Africa is exceptional in that there is _no_ allowance in the school day for any of the other duties of a post level 1 teacher. If 27,5 hours are in the curriculum, you could teach 27,5 hours a week, depending on your schools staff complement. Simple needs such as going to the bathroom or getting food or water become serious challenges. Many teachers explicitly stop taking on fluids to reduce their need to urinate. My students used to ask if I was pregnant, I was so bloated from needing to pee.

Teacher meme-no time to chama

 

    teacher meme-no time to eat

If in doubt about the prevalence of the expectation that good teachers must be super-human, self-sacrificing martyrs, keep an eye out for the following meme on social media on the 4-5th of October, dates which have been nominated as “World Teacher Day”.

Teacher candle 1 teacher candle 2

This idea is not only absurd, but deeply, deeply disturbing (I mean, what’s with the empty-headed kids?). It is also ubiquitous in discourses about schools, from parental expectations to policy. And we are paying for it in our teacher turnover rates. A significant number of teachers worldwide do not make it past their first year of teaching. Within the first 4 years, almost half have left. I have had seasoned successful business people in their 50s come to me in their first year of teaching, shaking their heads in disbelief saying “I have never worked so hard in my entire life as I am right now.”

What type of an example do such teachers, whose zeal for work precludes everything else in their life, set for their students? Their actions say “no boundaries, take all”. There’s no emulation of work-life balance. The teacher never says “no”. There’s no respect for that person as a person, with human needs, wants and rights. They are just a machine, a bottomless fountain that gives and gives and gives. That is not healthy. And we shouldn’t be valorizing it.

If we want to staff our schools with competent, committed, qualified, real people, this image of who teachers should be must be replaced with something a lot more nuanced, sustainable and fair.

However, if we continue to expect teachers to sacrifice their all to their work, forsaking family, health and life, then yes: we will continue to have a shortage of unicorns to staff our schools.

Education as taxidermy

“Auntie, I’m tired of being stuffed.“

These words, uttered by a young boy at a poor school in India to the school’s benefactor, formed bubbles in my throat. I felt nauseous. “Auntie, I’m tired of being stuffed. They are just stuffing me. I want an education.”

I heard this most accurate and heartfelt account of what ‘education’ does to the vast majority of the world’s children (rich and poor alike) at a rousing talk given by Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at the university where I work on a drizzling winter’s Friday evening. Spivak is a rock-star of academia: author of “Can the subaltern speak?”, a major text in post-colonial theory, as well as the translator into English of Derrida’s On Grammatology, she falls into that sparsely populated group one can call genuine polymaths: author, translator, philosopher, literary critic, teacher, activist, sociologist… at 74 she still exudes an uncanny energy and incisiveness of mind. Spivak was relating some anecdotes about the poor schools she funds (from her salary: she refuses corporate funding) in rural India. And these words were what one of the students at a school said to her when she came to teach for a short while.

I will share more about what Spivak said in her talk another time. What warrants a bit more focus here is the mind-blowing acuity of her student’s words. Freire described the same phenomenon 50 years ago. He called it the ‘banking method’ of education: students are treated as empty vessels into which we, society, using teachers as our proxies, pour in that-which-they-need-to-know in order to be upstanding, “useful” members of society.

[Ironically, as I typed that prior paragraph, the verb ‘pour’ was accidentally misspelled as “poor”. Freudian slip! For it is indeed a pathetically impoverished type of education.]

I really want to emphasise that it’s not the teachers actively choosing to teach in this particular way and not another way, independent of the rest of us. To do so is to ignore the types of knowledge we value when we ‘evaluate’ each other, when we size each other up, the types of learning we actually hold dear, as opposed to that which we say we value. It ignores the entire structure of our curriculum and our assessment processes. We say we want creative thinkers, but we dismiss those who think differently from ourselves; we say we don’t want parrots of facts (after all, this is the age of Google), but we become derisive if a student/colleague/employee/neighbour doesn’t know factoids we consider salient to the mind of any functioning adult; we say we want active citizens, but we get upset when someone challenges allegedly legitimate authority.

Our examinations and curricula in all our schools—public and independent alike—are stuffed to the gunnels with content: facts, figures, algorithms, timelines, names and dates. The student who can absorb as much of it as possible and then regurgitate it at the right time, in the right language and format, is the one who succeeds at the game of education we have set them. We are deluding ourselves if we think that we value the things we say we do: it is a self-deception.

Our child in India pierces that deception. And does it in such a visceral manner. To be stuffed. The word has so many layers… where to begin? It’s passive: someone else is doing the stuffing. And it certainly does not sound like a pleasant experience! After all, ‘go get stuffed!’ is euphemistic for being on the receiving end of violence (sexual violence one might add).

And what other objects get ‘stuffed’? (Always objects, mind. Objects.) Teddy bears? Pillows? Dead animals?

The latter struck me the hardest while listening to Spivak: the metaphor is so strong. Dead animals. We ‘kill’ our children’s free spirit, their creativity, their imaginations, and then we stuff them like a taxidermist, put in the glass eyes with no light behind them. The end product looks almost exactly like the living being, but the life-force is gone.

Moreover, unlike the teddy bear, or the pillow, which began as empty, taxidermy involves removing the original substance and replacing it with inanimate material. The animal does not start empty. Or dead, for that matter.

Then when the process is done, we mount them on our walls (their certificates-of-achievement at any rate) and bask in our triumph of what a good job we’ve done.

Freire called the ‘banking method’ of education necrophilious—a love of death. Not a love of life. There is no ignition of the soul in this type of learning, no libido sciendi, no lust for knowledge, no will to understanding. The only drive that comes forth is our children’s hope that if they acquiesce to being stuffed they will somehow be better off for it (after all, we have told them as much). Many come to realize, sooner or later (often too late!), that it is an empty promise, and the price tag for the opportunity was way too high.

And the children who resist being stuffed? They are the one’s we call delinquent, deviant. In my own experience of teaching, my students who struggle with ‘behaviour problems’ are often those who do not want to be stuffed with someone else’s idea of education: who are too independent in their thinking to allow being passively emptied of themselves and filled with something else. I don’t think there’s a coincidence that many of the world’s most successful ‘entrepreneurs’ (a term whose most recent co-option into education discourse I deeply, deeply resent, but that’s for another post) performed dismally at school and dropped out. They were too sure of their own selves and their own way of doing things to allow themselves to be stuffed with someone else’s choice of facts and figures.

This is not to say that having information and ‘content knowledge’ is useless… far from it. But it’s the mechanism by which it is acquired (or, for many children, not acquired) and then mistaken for something it is not, namely real learning. We force our children to go to school and then we stuff them. And then we bemoan these ‘young people of today who can’t think for themselves’ when that is not what we encouraged or taught in the first place. We wonder why the mounted head on the wall no longer sings or prowls or flies.

Hello world!

Hello everyone, molweni nonke, groetes almal

Welcome to my blog about all things schooling. I’m a high school mathematics teacher who now works at the University of Cape Town to train and support other teachers as they enter schools of all sorts across South Africa. I’ve worked in mostly poorly-resourced schools in the Western Cape, but also have experience working in a local ‘comp’ (comprehensive) school in the UK. Some of my research took me out to the rural Eastern Cape, and I’ve done a bit of this and that with various NGOs in and around Cape Town.

I’m starting this blog because I keep encountering so many conversations and ideas in discussion about education that are fundamentally misinformed. It’s a hot topic, to be sure. Everyone has some experience of our education system(s), positive and/or negative, but many have not had the opportunity to be re-immersed in those systems post their own schooling. There are a lot of dominant ideas about how to ‘fix’ our schools that are premised on misinformation at best, or are at times—I’m sorry to say it—downright harmful.

I come from a ‘school of thought’ (pun intended) that rejects the idea that we can have a universal, objective handle on the world, or ‘know’ anything neutrally. We all bring our own biases, values, experiences, dare I say it ideologies and these inform what we hear, what we see, what we think is right and wrong. I’m not going to pretend that anything I write here is neutral, a mistake many of my peers make.

I’m also not going to hide behind numbers as if those are neutral, when it is all too clear to anyone who has been subject to the tyranny of numbers that they can be used to justify almost anything you want. Most things that actually count can’t be counted. And I’m a mathematician (my degree is in mathematics), so I’m not saying this from a perspective of having lost the battle of quantitative mastery.

But I have come to realise that my formulae, models and ‘ordering’ of the world through the lens of numbers is inadequate and incomplete. And that I can do quite a lot of harm when I deploy my arsenal of logic without having all the facts.

In the spirit of being transparent about my own values: I’ll add to my healthy scepticism of numbers that I fundamentally believe in the capacity of each human being to grow and learn. Having started my career in Special Education Needs, I learned quickly that most of my SEN students were only ‘special’ because they didn’t fit a particular type of system, a system that was grossly unjust towards them. When given the opportunity to flourish in their own way, they were more than capable. This has bred my perspective that most of the things people do that are ‘problematic’ are learned, not innate; that students, teachers, and everyone else in society (for our education system is our social photocopier) have reasons why they do what they do, good and bad. I think if we want to enact change, we need to understand those reasons first. Also, I think ,we must remember that ‘problematic’ is not without a subject: something is ‘problematic’ to someone. Someone gets to define what constitutes a ‘problem’ and what does not.

It’s worth stating that this blog will make a point of using the active and passive carefully. There’s nothing worse than the way academia likes to write in the passive and erase the person-doing. We read “children are being failed”… who is failing them? We say “the education system needs to be fixed”… who shall do the fixing? Even subtle statements like “the name ___ was chosen because…” who did the choosing? So I’ll try, reader, to be clear about who is doing what, as far as I can tell. And, moreover, why they are doing it.

I chose the name “Schooled” for many reasons. The formal definition is boring: “educated or trained in a specified activity or in a particular way.” Duh. The word “schooled” means so much more. It means to have your previous ideas debunked, to be ‘shown up’ or ‘exposed’. As in “I got seriously schooled when I thought I knew about the Cape Flats… I didn’t know jack”, or “I thought I could dance well, but when Jimmy hit the floor, I got schooled”. Personally, I got seriously schooled when I went to teach mathematics in a township school (to see how badly I got schooled, check out my old school-time blog). When you admit you’ve been schooled in the colloquial sense of it, you’ve got to ‘fess up. You’ve got to be humble.

So thus was born this blog “Schooled”, out of a desire to provide an alternative narrative to those I keep bumping into. I’m constantly encountering as I work with teachers (and do my own research) how little I still know about the inner workings of a system I’ve been in for years, how much I still have to learn from people at the coalface who show determination and resilience and resourcefulness far beyond my own. I’m also distressed at how little many South African citizens seem to know about the reality of our schools and our education system. Most critically, I’m struggling on a daily basis with how many of them purport to know a lot. So read us all, my thoughts and others’. Then make up your own mind.

Let’s get schooled.