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Empathy and imagination: The lessons pupils need

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

The Selborne College incident shows us it’s not enough to have the resources to teach children to read and write. Clearly there are other lessons our children desperately need to learn.

When Selborne College first distanced itself from a controversial image on a matric invitation reportedly designed by pupils, it became clear: South Africa has far to go. And the navigators’ GPS may just be broken.

The country has seen its share of politically charged incidents in schools this year. From debates over haircuts to the dismissal of individual teachers, matters of race, identity and culture have made their mark on our headlines.

All of which could be encouraging; we are having dialogues, right? Except we aren’t really. Individuals are brought to book – often pupils – rote apologies are issued, and we move on. Only we don’t really. We keep coming back to the same point.

Why aren’t we getting anywhere?

The Selborne College incident could be passed off as a storm in a teacup. By now the debate has largely fallen silent (barring an attempt by the newborn Selborne Yeyethu to continue the dialogue). We could turn our attention to the upcoming ANC National Conference and that will be that.

But it shouldn’t be. Schools are where many young people first encounter issues of identity, social conflict and emotional development in a diverse, learning-centred environment. School is a great place to start having difficult conversations in a civil, structured way.

Selborne College threw those students under the bus. It distanced itself from an invitation that was born and approved within its walls, issued a so-called “unreserved” apology, and went on. If this is what passes for learning at one of the country’s “better” schools, heaven help us.

Take a moment to consider what goes into the production of an invitation. How many possible teaching moments do you think occurred along the line? Three? Five? Ten? Fifteen? Or around 6,000; say one for each day of each boy’s seventeen-odd years? How ironic that the very image they parodied depicted the struggle for a better education. How sad that even the most privileged of our children are apparently still ignorant. In the same week that we heard 80% of our Grade 4s do not have the requisite reading skills, this should give us pause. (Worldwide, it is increasingly recognised that intelligent reading skills help children develop social skills like empathy, tolerance and conflict resolution.)

I do not say the Selborne learners were blameless; far from it. For starters, they had the advantage of a privileged education, and at high school level, they should have had the insight not to produce that image at all. But given that they did, it should never have left their bedrooms. It should never have left the school. It should never have been printed. It should never have been sent out. There were so many checkpoints at which someone – parents, teachers – could have stepped up and said No, this is not brilliant satire. It is a terrible, hurtful, awful, insensitive idea. And this, boys, is why. Instead, it was condoned – which is how the same problematic structures around us are propped up every day. And we wonder why tensions persist in our country. It is because they are fostered.

Those learners were wrong. Why were they not corrected? Their behaviour was allowed. And further, when it mattered most, there was no example of accountability. The first thing their elders did when trouble came knocking was cut and run.

The invitation alone was bad enough. But for the school to distance itself was to add insult to injury. It had no right to do that. It should have stepped up and admitted its failure.

Young people learn from what they are taught and what they are shown. Do not be surprised, then, if the next generation delivers no improvement. This is, of course, also part of a broader societal problem. Setting aside Selborne for the moment: In a matter of days, we heard that a) the majority of the country’s pupils cannot adequately understand what they read towards the tail end of primary school b) one of the country’s best-known entrepreneurs, facing an unprecedented corporate scandal, called writing a generic email of apology and running for the hills “taking the consequences like a man”; c) one of the Revenue Service’s chief officers relies on illegal payments to support his lavish lifestyle.

So much for what our young people are shown. As for what they are taught, one could say South Africa is facing an educational crisis on two levels. There are schools struggling with basic literacy, and there are schools that – despite having the facilities they need – are apparently still struggling to identify a teaching moment when they see it; or to facilitate a deeper literacy.

We cannot simply say the invitation was shocking and move on. We all have to do better.

Some, like photographer Sam Nzima, who took the historic photograph of Hector Pieterson, argue for an adjustment to the study of history in schools. Nzima, who wants to take legal action over the invitation, told Huffington Post he believed it was necessary to include more detail on apartheid in the curriculum. “Our children need to be taught about apartheid in our schools. They need to know where we come from, so they can respect the freedom they enjoy today,” he said. “People died.”

This is a tricky debate, because as much as understanding is necessary, it is also true that, in societies recovering from acute trauma or violent conflict, questions of how to deal with the past are complicated. There is potential to use curricula as mouthpieces for the state as much as there is the need to recognise traumas with empathy and sensitivity.

Moreover, apartheid history is, in fact, already taught in our schools, albeit not in great depth. In much the same way that children appear to be struggling to read, despite reading and writing being included in the curriculum, there may not necessarily be a direct correlation between the history in the curriculum and how much pupils learn. “Finding out why there is a lack of sound historical knowledge among the youth in South Africa is imperative, but we need to be careful in assuming that by changing the curriculum we will improve knowledge of history,” teacher Maryke Bailey previously wrote in Daily Maverick. Bailey pointed out that there was limited time to cover a great deal of ground in the history curriculum, and that there are other problems at play.

In any case, at Selborne I would argue that it is not a lack of historical knowledge that caused the iconic image to be used; rather a lack of empathy. The pupils are obviously familiar with the image, and understand its significance, given that they parodied it. What is absent is a deeper understanding and humanity; a social and cultural literacy that does not come from ticking the boxes in the curriculum.

Which raises the question: what are learners missing, and can it be addressed? There are no glib answers, but there are small steps we as adults can start taking, starting with how we approach the discussion about incidents like this. Certainly, parents have a major role to play, but the potential role of teachers should not be underestimated. A recent study of South African schools by Chana Teeger found that teachers in racially diverse classrooms could be doing much better; that incidents sparking racial tension were not handled in a way that fostered constructive dialogue. Rather, school personnel “addressed these challenges in ways that hindered discussions”.

A US study, meanwhile, found that training teachers differently could teach them to deal with matters of culture and identity more sensitively, and that their own university experiences could translate constructively in the classroom. It was worthwhile for universities to consider including this in teacher training, the study added. Teachers, it is emerging in increasing volumes of research, are the first port of call for creating more understanding, empathetic schools, particularly on matters of identity and race. The concept of historical empathy – as pointed out in multiple discussions of the South African history curriculum too – underlines that there is more to teaching than following the outlined subject matter.

As for reading skills, dare we reach for a dream? Reading has the potential to go beyond simply teaching learners to comprehend and memorise. Reading curricula can, in fact, be designed to help learners develop empathy from a young age, according to 2016 research by the US National Council of Teachers of English. Reading, really reading, can make us better humans.

All of which brings us back to the same old stumbling block: is it feasible to aim so high, in a country where so many of our schools barely surviving? Shouldn’t we walk before we run? Unfortunately, South Africa’s range of schools is hugely diverse and the range of facilities available to schools very unequal. In short: maybe. Many of our teachers doing their best on very few resources. But not all the solutions above are resource-intensive. And in better-resourced schools like Selborne – well, decide for yourself if there’s room to dig deeper.

I like to believe that one day, all our schools will be stronger. And in the meantime, our best bet is to keep the conversation going. DM


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