I’ve always had a love for South Africa. I went my sophomore year on a Mission of Good Hope service trip through VSC. I knew I wanted to go back, and since I’m not necessarily an “academic” person I thought it would be a really good challenge to try research.
I have such a love of being in front of the classroom, but I felt that in order to be an effective teacher I needed to go outside the classroom. I wanted to see the influences and effects the classroom lessons had on the students.
I conducted my research in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, located on the country’s eastern edge. I went to five different schools: one multicultural, one primarily white or Afrikaner school, an Indian school, and two Zulu schools. At these schools I talked with teachers and students, trying to understand their feelings and ideas about apartheid and apartheid education. My conversations there revealed two wildly divergent sides of apartheid education.
The multicultural and the primarily white school, the higher income schools, are completely achieving the history curriculum goals. In fact, they are going above and beyond the outcomes-based education system South Africa has in place. These kids are very knowledgeable. They’re going on fieldtrips to museums and watching DVDs of Steve Biko, the South African freedom fighter. They really comprehend the history. The problem is that the national history curriculum for grades 11 and 12 is primarily focused on apartheid. I would say upwards of 70% is focused solely on the apartheid years, 1924-1994. This is a problem because many of these students have become desensitized to the issue. This is true for all races, the Indians or Coloured people, the Zulus, and the whites. Everyone was sick of it. They have been learning about apartheid since they were six years old and the kids have reached a point of saturation. The teachers told me that on the first day of school students would say, “Please tell me we’re not learning about apartheid this year.”
In the lower income schools, which serve primarily the Zulu and Indian populations, the situation is radically different. The students are not learning about apartheid, or history in general, at all. I say this because at the three lower income schools I visited they’re phasing out history all together, combining it with geography. This trend can be attributed, in part, to the fact that although South Africa has 11 official languages, their teaching media is English. Many of these students don’t speak English at home, therefore, they don’t have a proficiency in the language. When they encounter a subject like history, which requires a lot of reading and writing, what they’re learning doesn’t make sense and they don’t connect to it. Another reason lower income students are not connecting with history is that they have been forced by their economic situation to think about and plan for the betterment of their family. Many live with their six siblings in one room while their parents work in the sugar fields, a prominent industry in KwaZulu-Natal, and they have to think about how they’re going to feed their siblings. Their parents, who are usually not educated, are stressing the children’s education as a source of hope for the whole family. The reality is that history will not get you a job in the South African economy. There is an over-influx of people wanting to be teachers, as well as international people coming over wanting to teach. This trend leads the students to focus on something that will get them a job, generally math or science.
So you have one segment of the population inundated with information about South Africa’s apartheid history and sick of it, and you have one segment of the population not learning about it at all. This will ultimately cause conflict within the country because each segment’s view of South African history is inherently skewed.
Something I learned
I think a lot of people forget about the importance of historiography. The way history is written really determines the outcome of the future. Even in America there are huge debates about textbooks and how they’re edited. In Texas there was a huge scandal over textbooks and the political leanings evident in their perspectives. What people write and teach matters. I was definitely one of those kids who did not want to go to school, who really undervalued the education I was receiving. But what you read in books, especially as a young child, informs you enormously, whether you know it or not.
On a personal level, conducting this research has pushed me in the direction of teaching. I’ve always struggled internally with whether I wanted to be a teacher. I think now that I have learned more about the challenges that surround one particular student population I feel like it’s my duty to teach. I’ve seen both sides of the classroom now. I see what South African teachers have been doing and I want to incorporate what I have learned in America with what I saw in South Africa to be the best teacher I can possibly be. So, this project has confirmed for me my calling to go into the field of education, whether I’m teaching or working in a nonprofit focused on education.
Ashley is currently applying for a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in South Africa.
Don’t underestimate how intelligent young people are. They are very in tune to what’s going on, not just in the classroom, but in the world, and if you truly listen to them they have very valuable things to say. I think a lot of people discard what kids have to say because of their youth and inexperience, but their innocence often allows them to see the truth more clearly. In listening to the students, you could hear that they recognized the problem of overemphasizing apartheid. They would say, “I want to learn about international history, I don’t want to keep learning about this time period. I feel like I’m being punished for what my parents’ generation did and went through by having to learn about it every single day.” If the Department of Education listened to their children they could create a better curriculum, one adapted to really impact their audience, because right now the audience is not listening.