Following the recent textbook debacle in Limpopo Province and the uproar over the proposed closing of over twenty schools that primarily service the poor, in the Western Cape, I found myself thinking about the issue of education and its critical role in uplifting the impoverished masses in their quest for a “better life.” I was reminded of the words of Greek philosopher Plato, “if a man neglects education he walks lame to the end of his life.”
Looking around at contemporary South Africa, it would be hard to argue with the sentiments expressed by Plato. Education is the primary, long-term solution to the poverty and unemployment problem that we face as a country and yet our government and its leaders seem to have neglected this simple piece of knowledge, hence the failure to deliver textbook to learners halfway through the year in Limpopo as well as the proposed closure of so many schools in the Western Cape. The majority of South Africans are “walking lame” to use Plato’s analogy because education is being neglected by South Africans across the spectrum. Government officials who fail to deliver textbooks to learners are neglecting education and as a result “crippling” the people. Teachers that are union members who give substandard service to learners from poor schools( which is the majority) and yet go on strike every year demanding salary increases, without improving their performance, are contributing to this “lameness” that is upon our people. Parents who refuse to get involved in school governing bodies and in the school life of their children because they are too busy are also as guilty and finally young people, who are more interested in partying, drinking, smoking and having sex than getting an education are also to blame.
So our problem seems to be that we are a society that doesn’t value education across the spectrum. This is a real tragedy, because, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “enlighten the people generally and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the day.” The best way to “free the people” is to educate the people. This needs to be a priority for leaders in government, the unions, parents and individual learners. We need a new social pact as a nation that will prioritise the provision of quality education to all people, if we really want to see genuine change.
To quote the poet W.B Yeats, “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” We need this fire to be lit and kept aflame by all South Africans. It’s going to take a different attitude and a changed set of priorities from South Africans across the spectrum, for this fire to be lit and kept aflame, to continue with Yeats’ analogy. As the poet Ezra Pound so brilliantly put it, “real education must ultimately be limited to men who insist on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.” We need leaders in government who “insist on knowing.” We need unionised teachers who are not just focused on annual salary increases, but who “insist on knowing.” We need parents who refuse to be passive victims whilst their children get a substandard education, but rather “insist on knowing” what is happening with their kids at school and as a result get actively involved. We need learners and students who will not just view going to school as a chore, but who will “insist on knowing”, who will have a hunger for learning and knowledge. It is the only way to free this country from the unsustainable “sheep-herding” that we are currently experiencing.