Defend Truth


Violence on campus: What happens when we don’t teach history


Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who is taking a hiatus from full-time teaching. She has been involved in various education-related projects, including some sessional lecturing and delivering professional development programmes.

History has not been taught properly in many South African schools for the last 20 years. Students are going to universities with misconceptions about the past and when they are shattered the result is what we are seeing on campuses across the country. The first step: find, attract and keep able teachers, now.

Did you know that everyone fought against apartheid, including all white people, except those in government? Or that only the ANC, which was entirely black, fought against apartheid and Nelson Mandela ended it? Did you know that apartheid started when whites came to South Africa? Did you know that there were no socio-political or economic divisions among the resistance movements? Did you know that no white person ever supported apartheid and no black person ever worked with the apartheid government? Did you know that whites were forcibly removed to Sandton?

I asked these questions in a blog post I wrote in 2013 responding to genuine beliefs and questions I had come across while teaching history. Even the rather comical question about whether white people were forcibly removed to Sandton reflects a worrying view that everybody suffered equally under the apartheid regime. The knowledge an average South African pupil has about apartheid tends to be very vague and limited, in my experience.

Test if for yourself. If you have children, ask them to explain to you what apartheid was, or why it ended. Press them for specifics. Or go even more basic and ask them whether they can tell you specifically what Mandela did as part of the struggle, or even just ask why he was in jail.

My blog post explored the way pupils experience history as a subject and I ended it with the following comment: “We are creating misconceptions, or at least, allowing misconceptions to flourish among the youth. What will happen when they learn the truth, or another skewed version of the truth? When times are hard and people are hungry and desperate, these issues will bubble to the surface. Apartheid still intimately affects our identity in South Africa. I do not think that we are preparing our youth to deal with apartheid; we are deferring this task to somebody else.”

I’ve changed some of my ideas that I expressed in 2013. I am now against history being introduced as a compulsory subject in the final years of schooling. However, I still believe we have not prepared our youth adequately to face the legacy of apartheid. The violence and racism that have erupted across university campuses is partly a result of our failure to teach history well in the basic education system.

I would argue that South African history has not been taught in many South African schools for the past 20 years. Many pupils, usually in more diverse schools, appear to have been attending something like Nation Building Studies where sensitive issues are suppressed in favour of a narrative that tries to convince pupils that all groups, including all whites, were against those nasty Nats. It’s just a wonder that they kept being re-elected. Alternatively, as Dr Chana Teeger has pointed out, teachers tried to create an account that was “objective” by trying to blame all racial groups for violent acts, without looking at the obvious systemic issues and basic racism of white privilege.

Other pupils appear to have experienced lessons where resentment and anger about apartheid’s legacy are aired, but are not dealt with in a productive manner. Or are expected to be grateful to the ANC for its role in in the struggle and current government. It appears that little or no attempt is made to interrogate the statements and beliefs communicated by the teacher or other pupils. Of course, many pupils have also just been sitting around in classrooms with nothing happening at all.

What happens when these misconceptions are shattered, or more appealing misconceptions are presented in, say, a politicised university atmosphere? What happens when people have been taught to act politically correct, but have had no opportunity to reflect critically on their real beliefs?

Students have been confronted with choices that they’ve had to make on the spot across university campuses. There are no longer any oppressive teachers dominating the space. The freedom can make one giddy if it’s a new experience. It’s understandable that many will choose the heady catharsis of violence, bigotry and hashtag slogans to work through years of frustration. They’re so much easier to get the hang of than reasoned debate or disciplined protest action.

For more than 20 years we have had the opportunity to present the new generation with a space in which to reflect and engage critically on our past (and our present). We’ve had time to find good candidates to become history teachers and take on this mammoth task. But due to a poor understanding of the role history plays in shaping societal and personal values, history has often become the cop-out subject taken by the kids who couldn’t get into science or accounting.

I’m still gobsmacked when I come across a person who thinks that history is just about learning facts, and that you can test whether pupils understand history by asking multiple-choice questions. You might as well argue that the only information judges need to know are the laws, without any reference to their ability to apply their knowledge and interpretations. In history, as in law, facts are indispensable, but they are only the first step. A good history teacher itches to get her pupils discussing and arguing the interpretations and implications of the facts.

Unfortunately, as we know, the words crisis and catastrophe tend be used by anybody writing about South African education (myself included). We struggle to get functional literacy right; it follows that it is unlikely that we would get something as complex as history teaching right. Most teachers are not equipped to teach history and to facilitate the difficult discussions that need to happen in the history classrooms.

I’ve experienced and heard of some really good, thought-provoking discussions taking place in history classrooms. I also know that necessary discussions and points of view are suppressed or brushed aside. People have shared experiences of blatant racism perpetrated by teachers. I’ve watched a group of experienced teachers dutifully agree about the dangers of “othering”. Shortly thereafter I watched the discussion degenerate into blaming foreign nationals for society’s ills. Every experience pupils have with their teachers reinforces a pattern of behaviour. Teachers are role models. I would imagine that many kids probably see more of their teachers than they do of their parents.

History teachers should be role-modelling how to have difficult discussions about deeply personal and sensitive topics like our own history and its legacy. We should role-model how to engage in emotional discussions with honesty, openness, sensitivity and respect. We should challenge our pupils’ beliefs and demand evidence for all assertions, and really encourage them to challenge what we say as teachers and have them demand evidence for our assertions. We need to role-model the basic idea that we can’t pick and choose our facts and conveniently leave out what doesn’t work.

If history teachers aren’t systematically exposing pupils to these practices, who is?

I see the violence and hatred erupting at campuses as an indictment of two aspects of our education system. The first is that too many students (across all groups) were not given the opportunity to engage critically with their own history and personal situation. The second is that our system has failed, and continues to fail, in producing enough competent history teachers to take up this vital task.

Basic education wasn’t seen as important enough to get a mention in the State of the Nation Address, even though it sets a foundation for our society. If we want a society where active citizenship is encouraged, debate and transparency welcomed, and human rights valued, look to the role that schools and, importantly, teachers play in setting that example. Start working out strategies to find and attract, and keep, able teachers now.

If we don’t, the past’s legacy will continue. We need to start finding workable ways to tackle it productively. DM

Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who is taking a hiatus from full-time teaching. During this time she has been involved in various education-related projects on a freelance basis.


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