March 1, 2008

Some (More) Thoughts on Education

Education is said to be the key to improving living conditions in the developing world. That’s why we spend so much time trying to remove barriers to education and universal primary education is a Millennium Development Goal. I’ve already mentioned the crumbling education infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms I see when I’ve visited schools here but I’m convinced that children can learn despite those conditions. But some recent events have raised doubts for me about the sort of education children receive in those classrooms.

A few weeks back, two girls in grade 6 or 7 asked for help with their homework. They speak little English and had trouble even asking me in English for the help. The assignment was to write, in English, two paragraphs each on what coal and oil were and then to write a few more paragraphs on how they used energy in their own homes. The students weren’t provided any books or resources to answer the first question so I drove them to the library in the nearby township. The books I first saw were the World Book Encyclopedia, 1980, which had a dense, 12-page entry on coal. (Seeing the World Book was a comforting sight as a more up-to-date version was a fixture in my elementary school libraries.) Even if it weren’t entirely in English, I wondered how useful a nearly 30-year old entry on the topic was. But the librarian turned out to be quite helpful (once she stopped texting on her cell phone) and set them up with a much newer book, in English, on energy. They dutifully set about copying the entries on coal and oil so as to get their two paragraphs for the assignment. Given the language barrier, I wonder how much of what they copied they actually understood.

The second question, about how they use energy in their own lives, proved to be a bit trickier, given that these girls LIVE IN SHACKS IN A DUMP WITHOUT ELECTRICITY OR RUNNING WATER! We muddled through something about the lights in the grocery store and the radios that people sometimes run off of car batteries in Itipini but I was left thinking the question was rather inappropriate for the audience.

A week or so later, one of my high-school students showed me her history textbook. Given what I heard and seen about under-resourced schools, I was pleasantly surprised by the book. It was brand-new, published in 2007 by Oxford University Press, and was about African history from the 1950s to the present. It looked fascinating and I wanted to borrow it for a while but I couldn’t help but notice it is entirely in English. These high-school students struggle mightily to pronounce and comprehend “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” How are they supposed to make head or tail of a much thicker, more complicated history textbook?

A little while later, a few high-school students asked for help on an assignment about the water cycle (why does the Classics major always get asked for help with science?) Again, the assignment was entirely in English. The first part consisted of labeling the parts of the cycle (evapouration, condensation, etc.) and proved to be pretty easy. Of course, the students didn’t have resources to learn it themselves and I found myself given an impromptu lesson on how water goes round and round. But the next questions, which I guess were to test the critical thinking skills of the students, were baffling. I did pretty well in school and I have a couple of university degrees but I could not comprehend what the students were being asked to do. The English question prompts just did not make any sense. It struck me as something written by a non-native English speaker, which I imagine it was.

It is obvious that students need to know English to graduate from the South African school system. But at least here the grounding in English they are getting is insufficient, whether because of the quality of the education or the lack of reinforcement the teaching receives in the home. Yet somehow some students keep being promoted even though it is questionable how much they are learning. In the face of this, is it any wonder that loads of people drop out after grade 5 or 6 or 7, likely when the need for English becomes acute? Would you go to school if all the work was in a language you barely understood? I know that experience might leave me thinking there were better ways to spend my time.

One of my daily mantras around Itipini is, “Wahamba esikolweni namhlange?” (“Did you go to school today?”) I ask this of virtually every child I see after school lets out. I’ve even had fun playing truant officer and busting some students playing hooky. I do my best to give a “fatherly” lecture about the importance of going to school. (I can’t decide which is funnier – that I’m giving this lecture in the first place or that I’m giving it in fractured Xhosa.) I am possessed of the fervent belief that if we could just get children in school, they’ll get on the right track. I still hold this belief but these type of stories make my fervour decrease a little bit more each day. I’ll be here putting children in school but who is going to be there making sure the school meets their needs?