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Archive for the category “education”

The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton)

I’ve just reread yet another Enid Blyton story from my childhood. I’d already read The Enid Blyton Story, about her life and work, and reread The Secret of Killimooin (the first Enid Blyton novel I read), and, as I noted there, while there are some children’s books that adults enjoy reading, Enid Blyton’s books are not generally among them.

So should kids read Enid Blyton? I say yes, because her books can encourage a love of reading.

A blogging friend, Clarissa, recently asked about something related to this. She quotes someone as saying:

If I were to stand up in a faculty meeting and say “The really good students are the ones who read Dickens [or the equivalent in whatever language you were educated in] for pleasure when they were young” I’d be called elitist. Maybe even racist.  American anti-intellectualism spans the spectrum from (literal) know-nothing conservatives to touchy-feely egalitarian leftists.

Clarissa goes on to ask if this is true, because she might be inclined to say the same thing.

I’m not sure if it is true that the really good students were the ones who read Dickens as children, but I am fairly sure that the really good students I’ve had to teach were the ones who read books as children, because they were the ones who were able to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. An important stage in that transition is reading for pleasure.

Our middle child (who is now 30-something) wanted to go to school and learn to read because he desperately wanted to read The Lord of the Rings for himself instead of having it read to him. He was rather disappointed that he wasn’t able to do so after his first day of school.

Some years ago I was responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. They came to the training centre for one weekend a month, and then for 10 days at the beginning of each year. Their previous education levels varied tremendously — from four years of primary school to university graduates. Because they were part-time students, much of the training was based on reading, and I soon discovered that many had not made the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. About half of them sere school teachers, and their reading skills were the poorest of all the occupations represented. A grade 7 Maths teacher, for example, had a Grade 6 reading level.

We got some reading training equipment and spent part of each training session in trying to improve reading skills, but also moved the emphasis of the training from book study to other forms of instruction, which put them on a more equal footing. Those who could not read well were not stupid. They could talk just as intelligently as the readers. So yes, I could say that thinking that students who read Dickens were the best students could be elitist.

So how would it have helped them if they had all read books like The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield as children? (Both books have donkeys in them).

The Mountain of AdventureThe Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first book by Enid Blyton that I actually owned. It was given to me as a birthday or Christmas present when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I loved it. It featured children riding donkeys in the mountains, a mountain with caves and secret passageways, a mad scientist conducting sinister experiments, and a helicopter. I read it several times.

I also read several other books in Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series, but none were as interesting or exciting as this one. The Valley of Adventure came close, but didn’t quite make it, though it did teach me about stalactites and stalagmites and the difference between them.

Now I’ve just reread The Mountain of Adventure as an adult, and several things stand out, including many of the same faults that I had noted in The Secret of Killimooin. There was the over-use of exclamations (What a surprise!) in both the text and the dialogue. The food porn. The constant pointing out of the obvious.

Yet, for all its faults, to my 10-year-old self the story was interesting and exciting.

I notice some other things in reading it as an adult, however. One of its effects on me as a child was that if familiarised me with idioms that could probably be called literary cliches. They are things that people rarely say in real life, but often say in books, and they came with a flash of recognition — so that’s where I learnt that phrase!

Here are some of them:

  • you’ll come to a bad end
  • the coast is clear
  • while the going’s good
  • it will be the worse for you
  • beside himself with rage
  • taste of their own medicine
  • a coward, like all bullies
  • if looks could have killed
  • smell a very large rat
  • spilt the beans

I was aware of all those idioms, but it was in rereading The Mountain of Adventure I became aware of where I had learnt them.

So would the self-supporting ministry trainees have benefited from reading The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield, and would either have made them elitist?


One of the criticisms of Enid Blyton is that she was elitist, and her characters were all middle class.

I think of Wilson Mthembu, one of the Zululand self-supporting ministry trainees. I know nothing of his childhood or where he went to school, but he had got as far as Standard 2 (Grade 4), and he was a shopkeeper. How well could he identify with four middle-class English school children in the book?

Well, the children are not at home in the suburbs, but on holiday at a Welsh mountain farm, where the life is not all that dissimilar to rural Zululand, where there are donkeys, like those the children ride. And having some people speak English and some speak Welsh is not all that different from the English-Zulu divide in Zululand. And, as a shopkeeper, Wilson Mthembu is a member of the bourgeoisie.

The mad scientist might be a bit out of place, but that’s the essence of adventures — strange things happening.

Then there’s the helicopter.

And I recall that around the time that Wilson Mthembu was attending the training course, they were filming Zulu Dawn not far away. One of the stars, Burt Lancaster, broke his arm, and was taken by helicopter to the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital to have it strapped up. He got out of the helicopter and there was a crowd of kids rushing towards the famous film star, but they ran straight past him and went to look at the helicopter.

And David Copperfield? Well he may have ended up as middle class, but he didn’t really start off that way. So I don’t think that is very elitist either.

A friend gave me a copy of David Copperfield for my 12th birthday. I think he’d told his parents that I liked reading, so they thought I’d like that. But I put it on a shelf and carried on reading Biggles (I’d graduated to that from Enid Blyton by then), and only read David Copperfield years later.

What’s the difference between Blyton and Dickens?

Most 10-year-olds can appreciate Enid Blyton because she tells a simple story. But Dickens is more complex, and it is not the books that are difficult so much as the understanding of human nature. Reading Dickens requires children to have an understanding of adult human nature which most children do not have. It is not reading difficulty, but experience of life that makes the difference. Blyton’s adult characters are crude and over-simplified, but they are fairly easy for children to interpret with their experience of adult behaviour. Dickens’s characters are much more complex, even though they do sometimes seem to have exaggerated characteristics, almost like caricatures. But it is easy for children to miss the irony

When I was at university one of our English set works was Northanger Abbey. I had not a clue what it was about, and missed the whole point. I read it again later, after having read a few books in the genre that Jane Austen was satirising, and only then did it make sense. It was like reading it for the first time, because that was after I had read Melmoth the Wanderer.

So no, I don’t really think it’s elitist to think that students who had enjoyed Dickens as children might be better students. But I think they might also be better students if they had read Enid Blyton.

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Borderliners

BorderlinersBorderliners by Peter Høeg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Borderliners is the second book about “abnormal” children I’ve read this week, the first one being The outcast, so I can’t help comparing them.

The Outcast is about a privileged child from an upper middle-class background, and the action takes place at home, in the school holidays. Borderliners is about an orphan, a ward of the state, with a legal guardian who had more than 200 other children to care for. He has no home to spend holidays in, and the action takes place at the school.

The Outcast (my review here) was about my contemporaries, those who were at school in the 1950s. We had or rebellions, too. I was at Mountain Lodge Preparatory School in Magaliesberg, and when I was 11 the whole school went on strike to protest against an unjust and authoritarian teacher. When the strike ended the headmaster lined us all up outside the classroom and made each of us bend over at the door for two cuts with his cane (I think more for the ringleaders), and once we were all inside he made a little sexist speech about the teacher, saying women were sometimes like that. Even at that age I thought it was sexist. I’d known other female teachers who weren’t authoritarian. But she did not return to the school the following term, so the stiike achieved its purpose.

Borderliners, however, is about those at school in the 1970s, and I remember the 1970s quite well. What do I remember about the 1970s? I saw the film If, which was also about a rebellion in a boarding school. I was on the board of governors of St George’s School in Windhoek. I was manager of several farm schools in Northern Natal. But never did I come across a school that was anything like the one in this book.

Borderliners is set in Denmark. What did I know about Denmark? When I was at school our geography teacher Steyn Krige told us the story of a South African visitor to Denmark who threw an empty packet out of a car window. After driving several miles a traffic cop stopped him and gave him the packet and said “You dropped this.” “Oh I don’t want it,” said the South African. “Denmark doesn’t want it either,” said the traffic cop.

In the 1960s I was a fan of Kierkegaard, and was impressed by the bourgeois morality and dull conformity of people in Denmark that he described. But that was in the 19th century. In the 1970s my impression of Denmark was that it was free. It was the model of the “permissive society”. But Borderliners gives an entirely different impression. Both books reminded me of my own schooldays, but Borderliners impressed me by how regimented it was, far more than any school I attended in the 1950s — especially the lengths they went to to stop pupils talking to each other or having friends, with never-ending surveillance. It was 1984. Could a Danish school in the permissive society really have been like that? No social interaction permitted. Pupils forbidden to talk to each other or even be seen together?

This is never explained in the book. Perhaps for a child at school, it needs no explanation or interpretation, but the book is written from the point of view of an adult looking back and an adult would try to make sense of childhood from the point of view of the wider world. So I’m left wondering why a school in Denmark in the 1970s should be worse, far worse, than a concentration camp. In a concentration camp people are locked away and for the most part forgotten about. The aim is to isolate them so that they can’t influence others. The perimeter is guarded to prevent them from escaping, but there is not, as in this school this constant surveillance, this prohibition on talking to other pupils, a kind of solitary confinement in the company of others.

In the book Peter Høeg links it all to a perception of time. I suppose in any school one becomes aware of time. There is a timetable for classes and other activities, so one’s life is regulated by bells ringing to mark the end of one activity and the commencement of another. But no theory of time can explain the concentration camp character of this school.

So it seemed a very strange book. It also seems to be at least semi-autobiographical, with a good measure of teenage solipsism. That I could identify with. It seems that many people toy with solipsism in their teenage years. Perhaps all do, or perhaps only those who go to boarding schools where time is strictly regulated.

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Singapore, colonialism and Helen Zille

A few days ago there was a big tizz-wozz on Twitter about Helen Zille tweeting that colonialism was not so bad because piped water.

You can read more about that at Zille’s career in ruins:

She has a million followers on Twitter and as she waited for her flight she engaged, as is her wont, in some argument with her followers and critics.

And then, for some maniacal reason, at 8.25am, she tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

So powerful was the outrage from (mainly) black South Africans, who don’t have quite so rosy a memory of colonial South Africa, that by 9.59am she was obliged to tweet this: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

Except, of course, that it was. We are all prisoners of our time and our generations.

The timing could not have been better for those who were facing embarrassing questions from the judges of the Constitutional Court for the mess-up of SANSSA and CPS and the possibility that 17 million pensioners and other recipients of social grants might not get paid. That was a big joke, according to the president. Seventeen million people could go hungry, ha ha ha. They could be evicted for not paying rent, Heh Heh Heh.

But a silly tweet about colonialism, and suddenly the pressure is off.

And it was a silly tweet.

Did Thailand (then known as Siam) have no piped water until they were colonised by the Japanese in 1941? And did the Japanese have no piped water because they weren’t colonised? Did Ethiopia have no piped water before they were colonised by the Italians in 1936? Seeing the judiciary, transport infrastructure and water reticulation as products of colonialism is really daft.

But, like the misdirection of a stage magician, that silly tweet distracted the attention of the nation from something much more serious.

And, to give Helen Zille her due, she sometimes says and writes things a lot more useful than that silly tweet, and I think this is much more worth reading From the Inside: Lessons from Singapore | Daily Maverick:

I thought loftily: “What can we learn from Singapore? It’s an authoritarian country. We are the South African Miracle, the rainbow nation, that moved from being the skunk of the world to democracy’s poster child in less than a decade. Our transition was even faster than Singapore’s! They can learn something about democracy from us.”

I had drunk the Kool-Aid of South African exceptionalism.

She writes about how Singapore has changed in the last 35 years, a single generation, and what South Africa can learn from Singapore.

But I visited Singapore a generation ago, back in 1985, when South Africa was still wracked by P.W. Botha’s States of Emergency and Magnus Malan’s Total Strategy to meet the Total Onslaught.

Singapore was probably more authoritarian then than it is now, and though there weren’t Kasspirs and Hippos visibly prowling the streets there was, underneath the surface calm, that knowledge that somewhere behind the scenes Big Brother was watching.

But one other thing impressed me.

Singapore was a small country, and had no natural resources. The only resource it had was its people, and to make the most of that it invested heavily, very heavily, in education.

Back then, in 1985, the South African education system was broken, and had been badly broken for a generation, since Bantu Education and Christian National Education were brought in in the 1950s. The education wasn’t too good before the 1950s either, but at least then the government wasn’t deliberately trying to cripple it, as the National Party regime set out to do after 1948. And we can see the difference even today, when we meet the much-looked-down upon immigrants from Zimbabwe, legal and illegal, who are generally much better educated than their South African counterparts. Whatever else Mugabe and Smith before him (authoritarians both, like Singapore) managed to destroy, they did not set out to destroy the education system as the Nats did in South Africa.

Then came 1994, and all the talk of “transformation”.

But was the education system transformed? Hardly at all.

So yes, listen to Helen Zille when she talks about Singapore.

Singapore managed to transform their education system. We haven’t transformed ours.

 

 

Embrace (book review): recollections of childhood

EmbraceEmbrace by Mark Behr

A book about a 13-year-old boy in Standard 6 (Grade 8) in the Drakensberg Boys Choir School.

It’s a long book (over 700 pages) and written partly in “stream of consciousness” style. It follows Karl De Man though his school year, but it also jumps back to his memories of earlier events in his life, from his earliest childhood.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, as the protagonist, like Behr himself, was born in Tanganyika (before it united with Zanzibar to become the United Republic of Tanzania). When he was 2 years old the family moved to South Africa where his father became a game ranger for the Natal Parks Board, and he then attended the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School from the age of 11. The main period covered by the book is his third year at the school, when he develops a crush on one of the teachers and also on a fellow pupil, as well as a girlfriend whom he sees in the holidays, who is two years older than him.

Another teacher recognises his ability in art and writing, but his macho father wants him to ignore his talents and prepare for a more lucrative career, even if it is in fields that don’t really interest him. So a lot of the book deals with teenage angst, and probably quite authentically, since it is based on the author’s personal experience.

The chronology is at times confusing, as the “present” moves through his year at school, but there are conversations in which he refers to previous events in his life, which he later recalls in stream of consciousness fashion. He also tries to sort out what are genuine memories, and what he has been told by others, and he becomes quite lyrical in his descriptions of the Mfolozi, Hluhluwe and Mkuzi game reserves where he lived until the age of about 7.

I found that in some parts the book, like Frankie and Stankie, was evocative of my own childhood and life. Both books mentioned not only childhood experiences that were similar to mine, but also people whom I had met in real life, though not as a child — Alan Paton in Embrace, and Ken and Jean Hill, and John and Andy Argyle in Frankie and Stankie.

At one point he writes of shooting mousebirds with an air rifle, and I remember doing that, standing in our paddock, and shooting at mousebirds in the almond trees. I was with someone else, I forget who, and my mother stormed out, very angry, and said she would confiscate my air rifle if she ever caught me shooting birds again. Eventually the air rifle was given to a younger cousin, but I sometimes wish, in my more xenophobic moments, that I still had it to take pot shots at Indian mynahs, exotic birds that tend to drive indigenous birds away.

Another similar childhood experience was when he was riding a horse behind another, which kicked him, and he had to have stitches in his knee. I recalled being kicked by pony Tom, on the sole of my foot, in similar circumstances. I could recall the cold and the wet and my bare feet in the stirrups, my wet jeans, my wet shirt clinging to me, and down below the Jukskei River, flowing through Lyndhurst. I thought he had kicked me on the knee too, but perhaps that was another occasion, and I remember my knee being bruised and swollen, though not so that I needed stitches.

But memory is funny. What I wrote in my original diary I don’t know. I still have the blue 1953 one from McDonald Adams that my father gave me, but the 1954 one, with a maroon cover, is lost. But what I wrote in it at the time was simply an aide memoire, to remind me when it had happened. My pony Tom had run away, and I chased him on our other horse Brassie. Five years later I wrote it down more fully, and ten years later I rewrote it, adding to it from what I remembered of the day — how Tom had run away from home, and I jumped on to our other horse Brassie, not even stopping to put shoes on, and caught up with him at Lyndhurst. At the time I was 12 yeas old, a little younger than the protagonist of Embrace. I could not get Tom to come home, and eventually put him in someone’s garage for the night, and returned for him the next day when I had dry clothes and shoes on.

With my pony Tom, March 1953

But now all I have as a memory is a snapshot, a single image of me sitting on Brassie, the feel of cold and wetness, and the cold slipperiness of the wet metal stirrup, and Tom flicking his hooves up and kicking the sole of my foot, and the anger I felt at him. The rest of what I wrote is like a story told by someone else. I know I chased him down to Lyndhurst, but I cannot recall the route I took, or even the garage where I wrote that he stayed overnight, or how I got him back home. There is just the single image of the cold, the rain, the wind and the kick. And Behr writes about memories like that. He recalls his father teaching him to shoot with a revolver at the age of five, but his father does not recall, or denies that he does. Memories of events seem to become compressed into snapshots, single images and one cannot recall what led up to them or what followed. So it is a book about memory and recall, and the narratives that shape our lives.

There were also considerable differences, however. Mark Behr describes the racist and white supremacist views of many of the pupils and teachers at the Drakensberg Boys Choir School in the 1970s. It was a private fee-paying school, and therefore under no obligations to give the National Party indoctrination that went on in government schools, but apparently it did. When I was the protagonist’s age I attended St Stithians College in the 1950s, and I don’t recall such racist attitudes among the teachers at all, and relatively rarely among the pupils.

The headmaster at St Stithians, Wally Mears, used to provide magazines for the common room, and when I went to fetch them one day he explained the selection — The Motor and Autocar for those interested in cars, Flight for boys interested in aircraft, Amateur Photography for those interested in photography, and Contact “because it’s best on the position of the natives,” as Mears put it.  Contact was the journal of the Liberal Party, which was then the only legal non-racial political party in South Africa, and was forced to disband about 10 years later when multiracial political parties were banned by the National Party regime.

Another thing that struck me, which has nothing to do with the content, was that the publishers (Abacus) had obviously paid no heed to the adage “Putt knot yore trussed in spell chequers.” The book really could have made use of a human editor, but was apparently produced by an el-cheapo publisher who tried to save money by dispensing with their services and relying on a semi-literate typist using a spelling checker. Among the numerous errors were “in cohort with” where “in cahoots with” was obviously intended, and “pallet” instead of “palate”.

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Racism and the #ZumaMustFall movement

A few days ago I suggested that the #ZumaMustFall movement is predominantly middle class, at the moment at least, because Zuma’s latest blunder had its most immediate effect on the middle class. Unemployed people living in informal settlements won’t be complaining about the increased cost of their next overseas holiday because of the fall in the value of the Rand. When it hits the petrol price and taxi fares the working class might begin to sit up and take notice, but that will be sufficiently long after the blunder for the connection to be less obvious – it will take some populist rhetoric from the EFF for that to happen.

Also, the appointment of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister has stopped the slide for the moment, even if it hasn’t restored the status quo ante.

Comments on the #ZumaMustFall movement have also revealed a lot of racism. As one commenter put it Why I didn’t march or chant #zumamustfall — Medium:

The #zumamustfall bandwagon has perpetuated a political discourse that troubles me. Subtle and, at times, overt racism has trumped good intentions. Zuma’s ability to lead this country, while questionable, does not give us the liberty to spout racist rhetoric. I’ve heard people commenting on black people’s inability to lead this country; that whites would do it better. This suggestion repulses me.

And the following exchange on Twitter shows another aspect of this racism:

Zwelinzima Vavi Retweeted charles modisane

Correction it’s us who organised the march & all SAfricans joined. Must we cancel if whites join or chase them away?

Zwelinzima Vavi added,

In this case, there appears to have been a misunderstanding. The #ZumaMusFall marches took place on 16 December, which was also a day on which some people gathered at the Voortrekker Monument, and some people there were displaying the old flag of apartheid South Africa. At least some people, like the Tweeter quoted above, thought the photo was taken on the #ZumaMustFall march, and was criticising Zwelinzima Vavi for apparently associating himself with such people.

We live in a society in which people are different in many different ways. Race, culture, class and religion all contribute to our “identity” and what makes use different from one another. “Racism” is what happens when people make “race” the primary and most significant characteristic, and when they interpret all the other differences in terms of race, and especially when they think that that overrides all the things we have in common.

I once had a friend whom I had known for a fairly short time. We grew up in different parts of the country, in different cultures. He was black, I was white. He was Xhosa, I was English. He was from the Eastern Cape, I was from Natal and what is now Gauteng. We were both Christian. When we went to England to study, and found ourselves in a foreign culture, we realised how much more we had in common: we had grown up under the same sky, under the same oppressive government, we were homeboys. I’ve written about these things more fully here: What is African? Race and identity | Khanya

Zulma2The piece I quoted above, about why the writer did not take part in the #ZumaMustFall march, goes on to mention “white privilege” as a factor. “White privilege” is something that is often misunderstood. Many white people say things like “Apartheid ended more than 20 years ago, we are all equal now. If anything white people are discriminated against in things like affirmative action.”

And it is true that we now have a non-racial constitution. There are no longer any legal privileges attached to being white, and the constitutional court is there as a watchdog.

But twenty years after the end of apartheid, inequalities persist, for example in education. Indeed, one of the criticisms of Zuma and the ANC government is that it has not done enough to redress these inequalities and to improve education. Towards the end of apartheid, the previous National Party government came up with a scheme to allow formerly all-white schools to decide their own admission policies, and admit pupils of other races. When several of them did so, the NP govvernment hastily privatised the schools.

The result was that middle-class black pupils were admitted to formerly all white schools, and that has persisted. But what was the result? White pupils were privileged to meet black middle-class children. But black working-class kids in the townships continued to go to all black schools. So twenty years later, cultural and class barriers remain.

To understand the effect of the cultural barriers still perpetuated by white privilege, please read this article, by someone who understands both cultures: How Mainstream Media Unknowingly Helps The #ANC Use #Zuma As Its Racial Jesus |:

Jacob Zuma – the person and the president, the body that is depicted visually and the figure that is related to politically – is the terrain on which South Africa’s race issues have played themselves out in weird and telling ways. Without realising it, mainstream media has done the ANC a huge favour in playing up the DA’s “Zuma is corrupt” trope because as well-intentioned and truthful as it may be, what it’s done is exacerbate the friction among the races – especially between black and white people – because white people do not know how to level an insult so it lands where it’s intended. This is because colonialism and apartheid skewed racial relations.

Forward to the past

Yesterday was “Back to the Future” day, the day on which Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown travelled in a time machine to 21 October 2015 in the 1989 film Back to the Future II. We watched the film on DVD for old times’ sake, and I thought that Doc Emmett Brown looked a good deal like the real Dr Who.

But, in other news, it was also forward to the past, with police beating up students outside the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. It was like 1968-1972 all over again.

Back to the future day -- cops beating up students outside parliament, just like in 1968

Back to the future day — cops beating up students outside parliament, just like in 1968

Daily Maverick Chronicle: #FeesMustFall – Violence at the Gates of Parliament | Daily Maverick:

When students stormed Parliament’s grounds on Wednesday afternoon, SHAUN SWINGLER was there to document the police’s brutal response.

For those old enough to remember 1989, when Back to the Future Part II was made, it was the annus mirabilis, the wonderful year in which freedom was breaking out all over, and repressive regimes all over the world were falling, including here in South Africa. It was the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and PW Botha.

And for those even older, 1968 was a rehearsal year for 1989.

It was the year of student power, flower power, and the Prague Spring. Flower Power probably saw its greatest victory five years later in the Carnation Revolution, which overthrew the Portuguese dictator Marcelo Caetano.

Student power touched South Africa too, and there were student demonstrations in universities here. After the early 1960s South African students seemed to have become rather timid, but in 1968, perhaps encouraged by the world-wide student protests, things began to liven up again, especially in the period 1968-1972. In June 1972 there were protests in Cape Town outside Parliament. The NP government banned protests in the grounds of parliament itself and in public places, so students gathered on the steps of St George’s Anglican Cathedral, which was private property belonging to the church, though visible to passers-by in the street. The police rioted, chased the students into the cathedral and beat them up. Back to the future.

I suggest that protesting students wear T-shirts with reprodtictons of this poster on them

I suggest that protesting students wear T-shirts with reproductions of this poster on them

In 1994 we had our first democratic elections, and we had a new government, which promised to redress the injustices of the past, and to transform society, including education.

One of those promises, relating to education, is displayed on this old election poster.

I suggest that students protesting against the increases in study fees should wear T-shirts with reproductions of this poster, to remind the politicians of their promises.

And the politicians should also rein in the aptly-named riot police. They rioted in Marikana, and now they are rioting in Cape Town, at parliament where the politicians can see them in action.

Forward to the past, to Sharpeville.

Where is the “transformation”?

 

 

 

Student fees: been there, done that

According to news reports, students at South African universities have been protesting against proposed fee increases. Tuition fee protests shut down 2 of SA’s biggest universities:

South Africa’s biggest universities have been affected by student protests over rising tuition fees that have spread from Wits to the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Rhodes University.

A handful of protesters gathered at UCT in protest against a proposed increase in tuition on Monday 19 October 2015. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/EWN.

Lectures at Wits and Rhodes have since been suspended.

Students at Rhodes University have this morning blocked all entrances to the university.

The students have my sympathy.

UniFeesWhen I was studying for a BA at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, I worked for two years as a bus conductor in Johannesburg to save up enough money to pay the fees. But it wasn’t eno0ugh for a three-year degree course. I worked in the Christmas (summer) vacations as well, but it still wasn’t enough. My mother helped me, and paid about half of it.

About 10 years later I became interested in family history, and, having done two years of history for my BA degree, I registered for a third year with the University of South Africa, (Unisa) and so converted History into a full major subject. That qualified me to register for an Honours course witjh Unisa, which being a distance-education university, was cheaper than the residential ones. The History Honours course consisted of five papers, and I got through the first two OK, but in order to complete the last three, I had to do them all in one year. And in that year the fees were increased, putting the three Honours papers out of reach, since I had neither the time nor the money to complete them.

But Unisa also offered a Bachelor of Theology (BTh) degree, and at that time, instead of being divided into 10 courses, it was divided into 30 modules, which were much cheaper than full year courses and honours papers. So I took some modules there, since they were affordable, and ended up with a second Bachelor’s degree.

Then I went to work for Unisa, and, with the help of a staff discount, I was able to go back and finish the BA Honours in History, and then do a Masters and Doctorate in Theology.

UniFees2The point of this story is that most of this would not have been possible without the staff discount. I had to give up the History Honours degree until I got a staff discount, and would never even have considered the Masters and Doctoral studies without it. And that was at a “cheap” distance-education university.

So when I see students today protesting against proposed fee increases, I understand where they are coming from.

In line with the privatisation mania that has swept the world for the last 30 years, government subsidies for tertiary education have tended to remain static, or even decrease, and universities have tended to run on a business rather than an academic model.

But when Singapore became independent, it realised that the only asset it had was its people. As a small island nation, it had no minerals or agricultural products worth speaking of. So it invested in the education of its people, to develop a knowledgeable and skilled population, and South Africa needs to do the same. Yes, we have more minerals and agricultural produce that we can export (so why are we now importing poultry?) but it would be better to have skilled people so we can export them as finished products rather than raw materials. The government really should review its policy for subsidising tertiary education, and make it more affordable for students. There might, of course, be less available for bribes and kickbacks, but why make students subsidise those?

 

 

School suspends pupil for pretending he had hobbit ring of power

A few days ago there was a story being shared on Facebook about a school that had suspended a nine-year-old pupil for pretending that he had the hobbit “ring of power” School Suspends 9-Year-Old For Pretending He Had Hobbit ‘Ring of Power’:

Aiden Steward had just watched the third Hobbit movie with his family and he wanted to pretend that he had a ring that could make people disappear, just like Bilbo Baggins. But when he brought the toy ring to school, it ended up getting him suspended.

The ring he brought may not have been the true ring of power, but the Kermit, Texas, school where he attended said the pretend Tolkien “one ring” was used in a “threat” against a classmate.

I shared the story too, and commented that it seemed to be yet another example of zemblanity in education — zemblanity being the opposity of serendipity. Serendipity is the knack of making happy, fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident. Zemblanity is the facility for making unhappy, unfortunate and expected discoveries by design, and seems to characterise much education.

aidenA blogging friend, Yvonne Aburrow, commented “I think the kid kind of missed Tolkien’s point about the Ring, though, but to be fair, he is very young, and will probably get it when he reads LoTR.

Now I don’t know about the films, but in the book (The Hobbit) the history of the ring is unknown to Bilbo, and the only properties known to him are that it makes the wearer invisible, and the not fully appreciated one that it makes the holder possessive. So if the kid was pretending to have that ring it did not necessarily mean that he had ambitions to rule the entire world, and so the school was probably overreacting.

oneringAfter his adventure was over, Bilbo used the ring mainly to hide from unwanted and tiresome visitors, until he staged his spectacular disappearing trick on his eleventy-first birthday. And it was only then that Gandalf revealed to Bilbo and Frodo that there was a great deal more to the ring than invisibility.

And, in thinking about this, I think there is more to this story than just zemblanity in education suppressing the imagination of kids.

We are never told exactly what the ring can do, apart from conferring invisibility on the wearer and possessiveness on the holder. But we are told that what the Dark Lord fears is that some mighty one will get hold of it and come wielding the ring to destroy his power and rule in his place, and the last thing that he suspects are that those who have the ring will try to destroy it.

When Aiden told a student that he could make him disappear since the plastic ring was forged in fictional Middle Earth’s Mount Doom, the school accused him of “threats of violence” against classmates.

“It sounded unbelievable,” Aiden’s father, Jason Steward, said in an interview with the Daily News. But Jason said his son “didn’t mean anything by it.”

He explained that their family had just watched “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies” that week, and the elementary school boy was just pretending he had a ring like in the movie.

And then I recalled that when I was 7 years old, I was given a policeman kit for my birthday. I forget what else it contained, but there was a truncheon and a pair of handcuffs. The handcuffs actually worked, after a fashion, and were obviously intended for use in games of cops and crooks.

Steve Hayes aged 7

Steve Hayes aged 7

I was staying with an 8-year-old cousin at the time, and it appeared to us a good idea to make use of the equipment in our games, and to that end we abducted a younger kid, handcuffed him, and told him we were arresting him and taking him to the police station, which was about a mile away down a rural gravel road, and we had got a good way down the road before we took him back home and released him. He told his parents what had happened, and they told our parents, who ticked us off for it. Perhaps if we had been at school we would have more than just a ticking off, we might have got a suspension, and it would have been deserved.

Gollum referred to the ring as his “birthday present”, and my birthday present was a policeman outfit, a symbol of authority. And once in possession of this symbol of authority, my cousin and I behaved in an authoritarian way. We used, or misused, this symbol of authority to terrorise a younger child.

The Greek word for authority is exousia (ἐξουσία), and it appears in the New Testament in several places. Pilate had ἐξουσία to release Jesus or crucify him. Jesus had ἐξουσία to cast out demons. In Ephesians 6:12 St Paul says our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against “principalities and powers” (ἀρχάς, πρὸς τὰς ἐξουσίας), which may also be translated as rulers and authorities.

Rulers and authorities, or, if you prefer, principalities and powers, are among the orders of the celestial hierarchy, the angelic ranks. But power, when misused, becomes demonic and evil. The power bearers, the flesh and blood, can become enslaved to the rule and authority that they bear, as my cousin and I became briefly enslaved to a symbol of power, even though it was merely a child’s toy, and used it as an instrument to enslave another.

Power can be used to enslave or set free, to liberate or to oppress, but the temptation is always to become addicted to power, to seek it for its own sake, and this is what Tolkien’s “ring of power” symbolises.

The action of Kermit Elementary School in suspending a pupil for pretending to have the ring of power may indeed have been an instance of zemblanity in education, but on the other hand, children’s games are not always innocent.

 

 

Racism in Pietersburg

Thirty years ago I was visiting a then-disadvantaged (now previously-disadvantaged) university, the University of the North at Sovenga, near Pietersburg (now Polokwane).

It was one of the “tribal colleges” founded in pursuance of the Extension of University Education Act No 45 of 1959. This act made “it a criminal offence for a non-white student to register at a hitherto open university without the written consent of the Minister of Internal Affairs” (Lapping 1986: 184).

It also “provided for the establishment of a series of new ethnically-based institutions for Blacks, together with separate universities for Coloureds and Indians”.

The University of the North was one of those creations of apartheid, but in conversation with a couple of lecturers I learnt how it bit back at its creators.

Extract from my diary for 13 May 1984

After lunch I had a long chat with one of the churchwardens and another bloke who were lecturers at the university. One of them told me that the presence of the university had made a big difference to the attitude of the whites in Pietersburg. The whites had always insisted that a black man get off the pavement when a white man came along, and if blacks did not move into the gutter, the whites would elbow them off.

That all changed when the university started. One group of students, who were karate experts, went to town and walked down the street, and when some whites tried to elbow them off, they remonstrated with them, and were attacked for their pains, but were able to give as good as they got, and were charged with assault. They were defended by a lecturer in the law faculty, who asked the magistrate if, when there was a fight between whites and blacks in Pietersburg, it was more likely that the whites would have attacked the blacks or vice versa, and the magistrate decided the whites were more likely to have started it, and let the blacks off.

I had thought of including this as one of my Tales from Dystopia on my other blog, but decided it was too much of a second-hand story, and not something that related to my personal experience. But I still think it is worth telling.

 

The right to be illiterate

In a democratic society a person has the right to be illiterate.

Thus spake the Dean of the Education Faculty at the University of South Africa on 13 October 1993.

I thought I’d heard it all, until someone posted this on Twitter:

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One was in South Africa and the other in the UK, but in both cases it is people responsible for speading education seeking to limit its spread.

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