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28 September 2016 10:31 (South Africa)
Opinionista Nic Spaull

Say what? Pseudo-science in KZN education

  • Nic Spaull
    nic-spaull.jpg
    Nic Spaull

    Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University. He can be followed on Twitter @NicSpaull and his research can be found on nicspaull.com/research

Earlier this month the MEC for Basic Education in KwaZulu-Natal, Ms Nelisiwe Peggy Nkonyeni, announced the provincial results of the 2014 matric class. Reading through her speech, it was difficult to know whether to laugh, cry or scream, and in the end one could but shake one’s head in disbelief.

After re-reading the speech, and checking online that this wasn’t in fact a hoax, one could only settle on anger and outrage. Reading through the concluding remarks of Nkonyeni’s speech, it is not hard to see why.

“As I conclude, I revisit the thoughts that guide my innermost conscience in the execution of my responsibilities. Visions of an ideal education system dominate my thinking. In the realm of my thought world, I wish […] That our system could have graphologists who would analyse the uniqueness of each child’s handwriting and channel them accordingly […] That philosophy could be a subject offered at a basic education level so that the system could produce critical thinkers; that chess lessons could be offered to all mathematics learners in order to improve their mathematical schools; and that our system could train and produce phrenologists who would study the shape of a child’s head at Grade R so that we channel the children accordingly” (MEC Nkonyeni, 7 Jan 2015).

I’m sorry, but you really cannot make this kind of stuff up. Essentially, we can summarise the above and say that the four things that “dominate” the thinking of the KZN MEC for Basic Education are graphology, philosophy, phrenology and chess. Given that there is some international research showing that chess and philosophy can have a positive impact on educational achievement, I will put those two aside for now and discuss the other two issues. This is not to say that I see chess and philosophy as solutions to our education crisis (I don’t), but only that the other two – phrenology and graphology – are so outlandishly ridiculous and unscientific that I do not want to lend them credibility by association.

To be clear, phrenology aims to make judgements about a person’s character and mental capacity based on the structure of their skull, while graphology aims to make similar judgements by analysing the physical characteristics and patterns of their handwriting. Both of these fields are generally considered pseudo-science, since they have no scientific evidence base whatsoever, and have been debunked for over 100 years already.

The fact that MEC Nkonyeni uses these fringe theories to “guide her innermost conscience” and is on record stating that they dominate her “vision of an ideal education system” is deeply problematic. We are talking about the most basic possible level of scientific literacy. To quote one definition of scientific literacy, it refers to “distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs such as those found in astrology, alchemy, medical quackery and the occult”. If we are willing to stream our children in Grade R based on phrenology and graphology, why not horoscopes and palm readings?

One might be tempted to brush off these statements as harmless rhetoric from a left-field thinker and that these beliefs couldn’t possibly make their way into public policy. However, it would be wise to recall what happened in the province under her leadership as MEC for Health a decade ago. Based on her medical beliefs, she refused to give the go-ahead for the use of ARVs in the treatment of HIV-positive individuals, claiming that they were toxic and had bad side effects. Instead, she encouraged HIV-positive people to take uBhejane, an untested herbal concoction. As we all know, anti-retroviral therapy is now the standard of care for those who are HIV positive. The fact that this life-saving treatment was denied to hundreds of thousands of people for many years because of the MEC’s pseudo-scientific beliefs is one of the enduring scars on our country’s medical history. Seen in this light these statements about phrenology and graphology don’t seem so harmless anymore.

These are not just the careless statements of an unimportant politician. Ms Nkonyeni is the MEC for Basic Education in our most populous province. She is directly responsible for the education of every child in KwaZulu-Natal, i.e. 2,901,697 children in 6,151 schools (23% of all South African students, to be specific). She also oversees the largest single provincial budget in the country (R39,4 billion). And she wants to stream your children when they are six years old based on the size and shape of their skulls?! You cannot make this stuff up.

As an educational researcher in South Africa, I am deeply concerned that these are the principles that are guiding the educational leadership of KwaZulu-Natal. We have more than enough problems dealing with the education crisis in our country as it is. Careless statements about pseudo-scientific beliefs undermine the legitimacy of the education department in KZN and cast doubt on the strategic direction of education in the province. MEC Nkonyeni needs to clarify her views on graphology and phrenology and issue a public statement assuring parents that they will not influence education policy in the province in any way, shape or form. “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.DM

Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University. He can be followed on Twitter @NicSpaull and his research can be found on nicspaull.com/research

Read more:

  • South Africa’s schools of witchcraft and wizardry, a column by Ivo Vegter in Daily Maverick
  • Nic Spaull
    nic-spaull.jpg
    Nic Spaull

    Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University. He can be followed on Twitter @NicSpaull and his research can be found on nicspaull.com/research

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