Opinionista Devi Moodley-Rajab 19 June 2020

Cultural diversity should be encouraged at schools

The assumption that all children must abide by monoculture school rules that are insensitive to cultural diversity is a problematic one and can cause much angst and rebelliousness among questioning and thinking learners.

There is a fine line between cultural chauvinism and racism. One lays claim to a unique cultural identity, the other lays claim to one’s superiority over others. In the new South Africa we are beginning to grapple on a daily basis with what feels like racism but may in fact be a desire for cultural comfort and security. In education in particular, at the school and tertiary level, waves of dissent are beginning to surface between teachers and pupils and among the learners themselves. The dominant feature in most relationships is the race of the other. 

This scenario has been played out in several reported incidents in public and private schools throughout the country where pupils have been locked in battle over the length and texture of their hair, shaven heads, beards and burqas or a red string bracelet and such paraphernalia.  Faced with a diverse population of children from a variety of backgrounds – cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic and academic – school authorities are finding the transition difficult. Rules or regulations not questioned in the past are being increasingly challenged.

On all matters controversial, there are two sides to be considered. On the one hand, private schools want to retain their unique Western culture and traditions and to impart it to all learners uniformly. On the other hand, however, opening their doors to diverse learners means that their old traditions now have to undergo some serious changes. 

Certainly, we are seeing the emergence of an unprecedented religious revival among youth. Perhaps this is because rules are constructed to address the needs of the dominant culture and in most instances tend to frustrate the younger learner by negating his or her cultural roots.

I have had a long association with private English-medium schools. For many years I sat on the board of Durban Girls College, which my daughter attended. My son was a product of Clifton Preparatory School. Generally, the education they received from well-run institutions and excellent teachers has held them in good stead throughout their professional lives. However, I recall that in the early years of their schooling I detected that they were being moulded in ways that negated their unique cultural identities. As we approached their schools in the morning they would remind me to lower the volume of the Ravi Shankar morning ragas or not to wear my saris for school functions.  I called the principal to discuss the aspect of cultural diversity and to offer my services in running workshops entitled “Through Different Eyes: Intercultural Understanding”. Her response was abrupt: “We treat all children alike in this school”. At the time I thought, yes, she was right and no, she was wrong.  Yes, on account of the fact that this was the culture that many of us were raised in. 

We were grateful for an education, whether it came from the “nuns or the Nats”. We survived and in some instances even blossomed. We learnt the principles of adaptation and deferred gratification. We learnt how to live in and out of our cultural closets. We found creative ways of maintaining a balance between the arid lifestyle of institutional uniformity and the impelling desire of our youth to conform to group pressure to be hip. After mainstream school we went to our vernacular schools and over weekends we immersed ourselves in our own cultures.

Today, however, the times have changed and so have the expectations of our children. When that well-meaning principal asserted that the cultural ethos of her school was about uniformity she did not turn the coin over to see its other side, namely that cultural uniformity can lead to cultural negation and invisibility and that it is limiting in its knowledge base. From the perspective of the dominant culture, educationists have been traditional, exclusive and inclined towards a monocultural point of view. 

In stark contrast, the Nationalist government in its educational policy of the apartheid era, promoted the practice of separate development where educational institutions encouraged the expression of cultural traditions among the various ethnic groups. It is interesting to note that our reaction to this was quite contrary to that of today’s youth. We resisted this pressure to be classified along ethnic lines. So, why have we suddenly changed? Why do our children today want to assert their rights to be what they are, different from their peers? Is there a growing radicalism among non-Western youth? 

The assumption that all children must abide by monoculture school rules that are insensitive to cultural diversity is a problematic one and can cause much angst and rebelliousness among questioning and thinking learners.

Certainly, we are seeing the emergence of an unprecedented religious revival among youth. Perhaps this is because rules are constructed to address the needs of the dominant culture and in most instances tend to frustrate the younger learner by negating his or her cultural roots.

Acknowledging ethnic diversity in the curriculum is an important issue. Frantz Fanon warns us in his book Black Skin, White Masks that a colonial education can affect the mental psyche of people and produce soulless creatures who do not know who they are. Another area of grave concern is the resistance that South Africans are displaying towards learning from each other. So, we do our learners a disservice when we fail to teach them about the culture of the other. When I was the guest speaker at a private school in the Midlands recently, I took the learners on my phenomenological journey through apartheid education and encouraged them to root their learning experience within the soil of Africa: Africa gave birth to you. Africa needs you!  I did sense, however, that the gap between us was cavernous and that much work still needed to be done.   

The assumption that all children must abide by monoculture school rules that are insensitive to cultural diversity is a problematic one and can cause much angst and rebelliousness among questioning and thinking learners. At one level, we teach them to develop critical minds and at the same time we punish them for questioning the illogical nature of rules. For learning to be an enriching experience, learners should receive an education that continually affirms human diversity and embraces the history and culture of all learners. For this to happen, however, the ministry of education cannot renege on its responsibilities to give directives, set policies and provide resources to assist schools in preparing for the changing needs of learners in the 21st century. 

With globalisation and seamless borders, schools cannot remain institutions of archaic learning. They have to prepare youth for a very different world. DM

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