Conventional Education Fails to Deliver the Goods

By Glenn Ashton 

We have thrown bags of money at education over the past two decades. Education consumes nearly a quarter of our total budget, close to a quarter of a trillion Rand a year. We spend more money on education than anything else. Yet despite tardy progress, meaningfully reforming the broken apartheid era education system appears to be an impossible task.

We still have some of the worst outcomes in the world as far as literacy and numeracy are concerned. We still struggle to properly teach the basics, the three Rs, Reading, (w)Riting and (a)Rithmetic, let alone subject comprehension and technological literacy.

Are we asking the right questions about what we want our educational system to deliver? Are we perhaps making entirely incorrect assumptions about what and how we want to teach?

Picture credit: Dissent Magazine via   The South African Civil Society Information ServicePicture Credit: Dissent Magazine

Last week in Cape Town a seventeen-year-old youth was killed by his community for habitual stealing. He was in Grade 6. Less than half of those who enter the school system reach matric, let alone matriculate. University graduation rates are even worse.

Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State said of graduates, “I have not yet heard a positive comment about their readiness for work,” (from employers). So, attempts to reform the system have failed to provide either a more egalitarian system or one that produces self-sufficient, work-ready or entrepreneurially equipped graduates.

We already changed educational focus once when we binned “outcomes based education,” which was demonstrably ill suited to our requirements. Consistency has arguably been undermined by armies of consultants and experts. This is not to say that glimmers of hope do not exist amidst the failures; there are indeed some wonderful success stories to be shared. But the underlying lesson is that we seem to be asking the wrong questions about what is required.

Our present educational system is founded on an out-dated model, inordinately focused on high grades and achievement, not on how we relate to the rapidly changing world. It does not focus on awakening students’ curiosity, on their sense of adventure or on training them sufficiently to meet the challenges lying in wait outside the school fence. They do not learn how to grow potatoes or build houses.

South Africa, along with many other developing nations, has developed a fixation on university education, insisting that university education is essential to success. Because school leavers cannot find work, further education is portrayed as the solution. Of course, the educational industry does little to dispel this notion.

This is not to say that some will not benefit from university training after school. And yes, we need good schooling. But the central question I pose is this: how can we realistically expect to educate our children with vague theories about maths and science and history and geography, without providing any meaningful or practical experience of these things, and then expect them to go out and shape the world around them?

What we ought to do is focus on essential occupations. Plumbers, roofers (where do you learn roofing – have you ever seen a diploma or degree on roofing?), farmers, foresters, fisherman, who all deal with real things that keep the world working, learn their skills on the job, not in the classroom.

I have personal experience of this reality. My very good theoretical school education was largely a case of wasted state resources. I went on to learn plumbing by practice rather than theory. Sure, part of my apprenticeship involved classroom learning but I learned more through doing rather than on theory.

From this basis I learned more about life, never losing interest in broader intellectual discourse. I entered university in my fifties, when I could apply my rich life experience and am now working toward a doctorate. University would have been wasted on me had I entered its hallowed halls before learning about life and how things work in practice.

Similarly, traders are all self-taught, from souks and markets to the high street. Even those who work the floors of the great exchanges of London and Chicago are not university-educated wonks, far from it. They are working class kids with street smarts who have learned how to trade through hands on experience. The movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” hinted at this. Philosopher, risk analyst and ex-commodities, trader, Naseem Taleb, explains how floor traders from the Bronx and rough East End of London essentially drive the transatlantic economic exchange engine.

Taleb suggests we should be asking whether education leads to wealth and economic growth, or whether we have got things backwards, and perhaps the reality is that wealth and economic growth encourage higher educational levels.
He points out that in 1960 Taiwan had lower literacy rates than the Philippines, and half the national income. Today Taiwan has ten times the income of the Philippines. Similarly Korea had lower wealth and literacy rates than Argentina, but it now has triple the income. Sub-Saharan Africa increased literacy rates but the standard of living declined. What lies behind these “anomalies”?

Yes, education can certainly help but it is not the be all and end all it is projected as. This is especially so when we fail to provide the basics, the three “R’s”. Even then, once we achieve that goal, children still need to learn how to think, to manifest their creativity, and to project this to work and learn in the real world. This is what encompasses a real education.

Taleb suggests that we have been fooled by not examining the proper agents of causality. He does not suggest that education is useless or knowledge unimportant. Rather, he insists we educate our children incorrectly.

He is not alone when he points out how we conflate, as Seneca said, learning for the lecture room, rather than for life. Educational economist Alison Wolf has shown that the theory of spending on education and automatically achieving economic growth as a result of education is flawed. Moreover this holds true for all levels of education, from school to university.

We need to shift our thinking away from our misplaced belief that a theoretical education can cure inequality.
Our present system benefits the already advantaged and condemns the rest to mediocrity, at best, with rare exceptions. The time has come to change our focus and re-examine some fundamental assumptions about education in the modern milieu.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at