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.


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.


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.