Knowledge nom-noms

Time for another quick glance at the nightstand to see what’s been brewing…

Podcasts

So podcasts are rapidly proliferating to the point of TLCL (Too Long Can’t Listen). Rather, I’m going to post good episodes in the hopes this will contain the burgeoning list.

On Being is the new favourite at the moment. Far from being a fluffy “how to live better” this podcast has been a breathe of fresh air. I’d recommend the episode that speaks to me as a teacher and the nonsense I see in my classroom, namely students trying to meet the ludicrous expectations of parents, society and themselves, only to still find they are unhappy.

Check it out: onbeing.org: How do you want to Be when you grow up?

Samuel Stein’s new book about gentrification and its relation to real estate capital since the 1980s looks like a must-read! Haven’t got my dirty paws on it yet, but the Stein’s interview with Daniel Denver at The Dig is a good listen for a long drive.

Books

It’s almost a hundred years old (and a few colonially-minded markers hint at the age of the text), and yet Woolf’s classic polemic on the need for freedom from domestic, economic and emotional servitude in order for women to engage their creative faculties still hits deep chords. Cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless for any woman who has personally been confronted with the price tag of a room of her own when she has dared to ask for what her male counterpart has by birthright.

A book that will get read again and again.

Things are heavy at the moment (heading towards PhD End Game!) So no fiction this post. Am looking forward to reading Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” shortly. For now, PHAMBILI PHD PHAMBILI!

Bantu education by class, not race: technical and vocational streams in basic education.

The introduction of technical and vocational streams of subjects for ‘students not interested in, or suited to, academic studies’ has been welcomed by many as a solution for our ailing basic education system.

Industry and the private sector have been particularly vocal in their approval, hoping these alternative tracks in school will produce the artisanal and practical competencies they perceive as lacking in existing school leavers.

That’s all very well and good, but we must not fail to heed the stratification effects of such curriculum designs. Unfortunately this policy is is an excellent example of a short-term ‘quick fix’ rather than the necessary long term, difficult process of changing what is fundamentally flawed in the system.

Those who hope such a move will get young unemployed students working by equipping them with practical trade skills have good intentions and legitimate concerns. Our youth unemployment rate is shocking, and socially unstable. The quality of what the vast majority of our children receive at school is unacceptable. These concerns are not the issue with this policy.

Rather, the exact problem is highlighted by the experience of Onke Sibeko, a recent technical subject matriculant who then discovered his subjects did not gain him access to academic higher education institutions. Onke is not the last victim of what is effectively stealth Bantu Education by class.

Bantu education was an oppressive system designed to separate and stratify school students, using curriculum of differing levels of difficulty and with different value for further education. The State enforced sorting by race, condemning people of colour to inferior education that trapped them in semi-skilled labour. The economy loved it: guaranteed cheap labour kept business profitable, and the colour bar kept people ‘in their place’ so to speak. Race was firmly aligned with class.

One of the ambitious policy goals of NEPI and the ANC yellow book in the 1990s was that all could have access to academic forms of learning, irrespective of colour. Bantu education curricula were scrapped in favour of the idealistic OBE, which failed not because its principles were wrong (OBE thrived in well resourced and staffed schools) but because the staff in the system were not trained or prepared for such an ambitious learning project. The roll out of OBE was not accompanied by the training that apartheid era trained teachers required to deploy it effectively.

The over inflated status of academic learning

Querying whether academic subjects should be as highly valued as they are is an important concern. There is a wealth of education sociology research that foreground that such value is premised on scarcity, not content. The evidence of this is academic inflation. Access to school has become almost universal (as it should be), but massifying a system based on relative scarcity rather than individual competency was always bound to drive up the stakes of schooling.

The work of Teese and Polesel in Australia shows exactly this: each generation since the 1940s has had to get more years of schooling just to stay afloat. Before, high school was enough. Now university is barely sufficient. And those at the top of the advantage hierarchy become ever more creative in strategising how they distinguish themselves from the throng of aspirant ladder climbers who always threaten to catch up, if not surpass, them academically. Taking extra subjects. Playing sports. Volunteering. Participating in school leadership structures. Jane Kenway’s analysis of elite international schools revealed how international travel and voluntourism (i.e. working for free, because you can afford to) have all become markers of ‘academic distinction’ in a schooling climate where the basics are just no longer enough.

So the valorization of subjects purported (falsely) to embody ‘problem solving skills’ is a slick one-two. These subjects are desirable precisely because they have a high failure rate, thereby signalling a perceived ‘difficulty’ and, by proxy, the supposed competency of the student who succeeded. The maths and science curricula at school do not encourage ‘problem solving’, as any first year university maths lecturer will testify. They predict, rather, a student’s advantage at playing the game of school.

The myth of meritocracy

What constitutes ‘advantage’? We know that ‘performance’ at subjects perceived to be ‘hard’ is most predicted by class (and, not unrelated, language of the home). That is: well resourced homes, with two parents, two incomes, parents who themselves hold higher education qualifications, where the language of the school is spoken in the home, books, computers at home, and a general early socialization into the behaviours and practices expected by school… all these factors mean that the students who ‘do well’ are middle class children.

Students struggling with academic subjects struggle not because of their innate ability, but because of the family they were born into.

Now, instead of the State declaring poor children must take vocational and technical subjects (as was the case in the apartheid era), thereby condemning them to a working class orbit for the rest of their lives, families are unwittingly pressured into self-selecting such fates, duped by the myth of meritocracy that does not bear out in evidence.

Onke is surprised his ‘technical’ maths and science don’t gain him access to engineering at UCT and UWC. Whoever told him that it would, lied to him. And anyone surprised that ‘technical maths’ does not sit on equal footing with its academic equivalent is naive.

Our over valuing of academic subjects is part of the problem. But this will continue as long as such subjects are the gateway to prestigious economic opportunities and higher income jobs. In a country as unequal as South Africa, to introduce streaming as a short-term fix at the end of the academic pipeline is tantamount to Bantu Education by class: the poor will be funnelled into such streams, while the wealthy continue on to high-earning realms of the economy. And just like Bantu Education, it is unsurprising that private sector industry loves the move, as it guarantees a pool of labour for low earning jobs.

What is the alternative? Surely we need artisans as much as we need academics?

Absolutely. The critique here is not a denigration of the important work that many artisans do. We cannot function as a society with a population of lawyers. One could compelling argue that people who build homes, make food and care for the sick are actually more socially valuable than financiers and investment bankers (see, for example, Costas Lapavitsas’ book “Profiting without Producing-How Finance exploits us all“).

But while the work of the plumber, the bricklayer, the tiler, the builder, the baker continues to be under paid and under appreciated–that is, while our economy remains structured as it is–these new curriculum streams are a subtle form of class segregation that will exacerbate our existing inequality.

Rather, we should elevate the status of such work first, before condemning people to it. We should respect–and remunerate–these forms of labour far better than we do. And we must also ensure that every child has the opportunity to master any form of knowledge they choose based on their interests and their strengths, including academic forms of knowledge.

Without these prerequisites in place, we risk even further instability. Students like Onke, sold a false promise of an education that then is under-valued, will realise the lie they have been sold. And quite rightly be angry about it.

A slippery subject: unpacking ‘privilege’ without a zero-sum mentality

This is a blog I wrote a year ago on my other personal writing site. I cross post it here as it is relevant to ongoing professional discussions regarding inequality in South African schools.

It’s becoming all too twee these days to use the word ‘privilege’ as a signifier of ‘woke-ness’ without considering what privilege is, how it is acquired and the slipping of semantics it currently suffers.

Firstly to say that, even if abused as a signalling device to indicate an alleged lack of bias or prejudice, that we are talking about various forms of privilege in the mainstream is a good thing. I’ve no doubt that the conversations currently ongoing about white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, “middle class problems” etc. is a form of progress from denying these things exist.

Rather, I’m concerned at the slippage between the concept of privilege and the concept of luxury. I even caught myself the other day writing “male privilege, a luxury women can’t afford” and then had to erase my words… as if these are the same things: luxuries and privileges. But they are not always.

The importance of the distinction first struck me while conducting fieldwork in a high-performing (by results, at least) high school in Cape Town. On explaining the focus of my study, the staff and students at the school were quick to caveat their place of work and activities with the phrase “yes, we know we are very privileged here.” Besides being a form of exculpation, I was increasingly bemused as I then proceeded to walk about the school. Because very little of what the school offered was particularly luxurious. The buildings were old, but well maintained, and still relatively simple. Classrooms looked like my old classroom did back in the 1990s. There weren’t iPads in every hand, smartboards in every room, water coolers in every classroom, digital eyeball recognition locks on student lockers… you get my meaning. The student lockers were old metal jobs. The staffroom decor still quaintly dated. The school was not lavish. It was functional, and looked after. Yes, the learners had access to good sports coaching and art classes. But these are facilities every child should enjoy. They shouldn’t be synonymous with excess.

This got me to thinking that we need to heed the difference between privilege and luxury. The difference can be prised apart when we consider a more well-trodden framework of equity versus adequacy. Privilege sits in the frame of equity–it points out that there are discrepancies between peoples experiences that shouldn’t be there. Luxury sits in the frame of adequacy i.e. ‘what is enough?’ Luxury is synonymous with excess. To say I have privileges is to admit I sit on the fortunate side of an equity assymmetry. But it does not necessarily mean I live in luxury.

White privilege allows me to walk into a building as a stranger and not be assumed to be a thief or a beggar. It allows me to enquire about hiring a flat without worrying that I’ll be told “sorry it’s taken” sans further explanation when I arrive for a viewing. To not have my lecturer assume my lack of understanding is a language issue, or that my command of English is synonymous with my intelligence. But this is not a luxury: this is something people of all hues should be afforded.

Male privilege means not being catcalled down the street. Not being asked “what were you wearing” when you lay a complaint about antisocial behaviour. Not being tutted at when the cashier notices you’ve grey hair but no wedding ring (yes, this really happens). But I don’t want men to be catcalled, or judged for their marital status. I would like the privileges that men enjoy too please.

You see, I think we’ve allowed ‘privilege’ and ‘luxury’ to problematically meld. We slip between ‘privileges’ which are basic decencies that should be afforded to everybody, and ‘privileges’ which are luxuries. Privileges are things that all people should enjoy. That is: they should be additive, not subtractive. We call these things ‘privileges’ to acknowledge that while they should be universal, they are not: some have them, and some don’t, and this is a problem.

But when we ask someone to ‘check their privilege’, it is not helpful to tacitly or overtly insinuate that those privileges are necessarily all excessive and should be given up in the name of social justice. Luxuries–those things we don’t need–that’s a different story. It’s a luxury to buy new shoes every month. It’s a luxury to have a heated private swimming pool. Sadly, it is a privilege in South Africa to be safe in your home. It is a privilege to not be harrassed by police. It is a privilege to have safe means to get to work every day. It is a privilege to afford healthy fresh food.

When we conflate necessities and luxuries by sweepingly referring to them as ‘privileges’, we end up with extremely defensive and angry rhetoric: people feel they are being told to yield things that all human beings, in a good society, would have a right to. A home. Access to job opportunities. Respect and dignity. To not be discriminated against. We need to distinguish what we mean when we say ‘privilege’.

Unfortunately our zero-sum mentality (encouraged by our economic system) has us believing that for someone else to ‘get’, someone must ‘lose’. i.e. for women to receive privileges, men must yield theirs. For black people to receive dignity and respect, white people must lose theirs. In the fallout of the “land appropriation without compensation” debate, the pearl clutching middle classes are receiving their DA smses warning them that “they are coming to take your house!”: a message premised on exactly this zero sum view of the world.

And I’m not for one minute insinuating that the line between ‘privilege’ and ‘luxury’ is clear. The adequacy debate is far from concluded. Nor am I implying that being aware that I enjoy human rights (like dignity and respect) that others don’t is a bad thing. But I’m convinced that noting this slippage is an important part of beginning positive discussions across social stratification: between haves and have-nots, whether those strata are racial, class, gendered, landed. Coupled with the recognition that someone else’s gain is my gain too, not my loss, distinguishing luxury and privilege, adequacy and inequity, holds a lot of promise for less angry debate.

Knowledge nom-noms

A short blog on what I’m listening to and reading at the moment.

Podcasts

If you haven’t yet listened to Stephen West’s podcast Philosophize This, you’re really missing out. It’s a regular go-to when I’m unsure I’ve got the hang of an idea. West’s explanations are clear and accessible, but boy oh boy has he really read those texts!

Check it out: http://philosophizethis.org/

David Harvey’s new podcast is also really good for getting a handle on political economy from a Marxist perspective if it’s foreign territory to you.

Books

On the non-fiction side of things, I’ve recently finished James Bridles’ The New Dark Age published by Verso Books.

Bridle is one of those few authors that can combine sociology with deep technical knowledge of his own, and is charting new territory in how we perform sociological analyses of the technology that dominates our everyday lives.

At times a little flamboyant, this does nothing to detract from the importance of Bridle’s message.

The insights presented in the book are astounding and a must-read for anyone who is concerned about who is in the driving seat of postmodern society in the 21st century. Bridle’s book is the first serious attempt I’ve found at getting a handle on the emergence of ‘post-truth’ as a phenomenon and what it might mean for democracy, economics and our social fabric’s survival.

On the fiction side of things, have just devoured Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark  (can’t wait to find the movie). Few do character like Nabokov: by the end you can’t help but love and loathe almost everyone involved. Short but a gem.

Next on my bedstand reading pile: The Bass Saxophone by Josef Škvorecký and the new edition of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney.

The challenge of really re-imagining

Our op-ed columns are replete with commentary about how to fix SA’s problems, whether about our public schools and the rife inequality therein, our universities and how to decolonize their curricula, or the ubiquitous narrative about graft and its effects on the public purse (when EVER did the budget get so much air time?).

What these columns share is that they all fall into the trap so hard to avoid as critical voices… they fail to escape zero-sum thinking or the pressing urgency of the in-your-face crisis. But these are the shackles we must break if we are to make our critical scholarship play its full public role.

Let me not fall prey to my own critique: each of the articles I have in mind is informative, and accurate in as far as they go. Rather, I’m raising the flag that being critical (which is necessary and indispensable) often requires working in the negative.

Quite rightly so: back-slapping which only emphasises success is not how we grow and learn… we must be able to engage in robust, honest and sometimes extremely difficult conversations.

But we don’t move past the critique. Which means we fail to imagine a positive alternative. To quote Naomi Klein, “‘No!’ is not enough.” We need something else to say ‘yes’ to as a viable, if ambitious, alternative to how things are. The tiny minority who hold power, both in SA and at the global scale, have built their empires on the panic generated by crises, and the confusion the general public experiences in such moments.

Desperate times shorten our horizons of thinking, making us prone to quick short-term fixes which are, in the longer run, not in our interests. We need to have a compass to guide our decision making when we address the immediate issues we face. That compass is an imagination of our collective future.

In my own sphere of scholarship, namely education policy for public schools, this tension manifests primarily in slippages between logics of equity, equality and adequacy. Zero-sum critiques quite rightly call for redistribution and redress between the haves and have-nots, to try and undo some of the damage done (and ongoing) from our deeply inequitable past, damage perpetuated intergenerationally by the status quo.

But these narratives fail to address the idea of a positive ideal of adequacy. When one person’s gain must come at the expense of another person’s loss, the result is a descent into mudslinging and superficial identity politics, drawing battle lines with poor proxy labels and erasing the complexity which is each child’s experience in the system. Such narratives also, ironically, perpetuate exactly what they critique: the hegemony of the tiny fraction of privileged schools in the system who garner our disproportionate attention.

Zero-sum narratives of who-must-lose-for-others-to-gain focus on the individual as the unit of analysis, eclipsing the collective good. Such a mindset precludes the ability for those who have access to privileges to see that holding slightly less as an individual is not a loss, but a gain at a different level: an investment towards building a collective society which is beneficial to all. We all benefit from reducing inequality; we all benefit from good health care; we all benefit from availing high quality public education to every child. To sketch the decisions to be made as “ex-White schools must lose in order for disadvantaged schools to win” completely ignores that ex-White schools win too if disadvantaged schools are capacitated to deliver their mandate. It’s not loss: it’s a different logic about what winning means.

Another example: decolonising university curricula. It is hard to reconcile calls for pluralism alongside thinly veiled ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with us. Pluralism is the exact opposite of this: it’s making space for difference of opinion while still managing to exercise what Margaret Archer has called “judgemental rationality”. I myself have been guilty in the past of mistaking the idea for the person… and it’s a struggle I continue with.

But if we cannot find mechanisms of critiquing that do not involve putting another person down, we will forever be stuck in these cycles of criticism and counter-criticism, taking pot shots at each other through the pages of weekly papers and online articles without actually daring to build a vision about what the society we want might look like. The task of the day is to somehow make the incommensurate commensurable .

A third example: our current almost OCD obsession with the state capture narrative. Again, for fear of being misunderstood, let me reiterate… paying attention to the graft that has gutted our young democracy is good! And necessary.

That’s not my point. Rather, if we lose sight of the bigger picture—namely how graft of this nature finds fertile soil in: particular political economic arrangements that promote individual self-interest; excessive consumption and; the acquisition and accumulation of hoards of capital as right and ethical and legal—we are missing the nature of the disease through our obsession with the symptom.

Arundhati Roy wrote about the very beguiling dead-end of ‘important, adult, real-politik’ that comes with whistleblowing in her essay “What shall we love?”, describing her Moscow meeting with Edward Snowden. All this focus on State Capture seems important. We feel very informed when we Mokgoro Commission this, and Bosasa that. But it has all the trappings of good reality TV, and at times seems more about the circus of bringing out the ‘guilty’ and trying them in public than about asking the harder questions about what brought us to this point, and what would our preferred alternative society look like. It has become, to be honest, a form of socially legitimized pearl-clutching-for-‘progressives’ when we would struggle, when pushed, to provide a positive definition of real progress.

The opposite unfortunately is also true: NGOs and other piecemeal reform initiatives that refuse to admit a negative word in edgeways. Only positive stories please, we want solutions, not problems. This Pollyanna-ism is not the opposite of the constant critic, but in fact his raison d’etre.

Just as Andile Mngxitama and Steve Hofmeyr profess in public to hate each other, they actually need each other to justify their own position. They are each others’ mirror image, and without the other, each would fail to have grounds for their polemic. The can-do NGOism and the ‘it’s all wrong’ of the critical sceptic are the same logic, in different guises. We need to be able to hold the positive and the negative in focus simultaneously.

We can construct arguments about why these issues matter to our future imagined society (why a struggling single parent in the Eastern Cape ‘should care’ about ex-white schools, decolonised university curricular or the Zondo Commission), but we regularly fail to place these symptoms into the broader picture and ask ourselves Roy’s question: “what shall we love?”… and how shall we love it? What does that ‘love’ look like? We are failing to be bold enough to imagine a different society for ourselves beyond GDP, ratings downgrades or the latest education flavor du jour, and we are failing to map the systemic steps we need to get there.

Critical scholars have such an important role to play in raising the alarm about social ills. We are obliged, and mandated, to use our precious privilege of time to read, write and think about these concerns for the public good: we must recognise this as a privilege, since our fellow citizens don’t get the luxury of naval gazing, busy as they are trying to just get to work and put food on the table for the family. We neglect our duty if all we can muster is diagnoses of symptoms, meanwhile failing to excite imaginings of what a humane alternative might look like.

As John Berger so rightly noticed, we don’t dream about utopias because they are achievable. We dream utopias to keep us walking forward.