Opinionista

We are a self-centred nation with a binary mind-set, and our school system is partly to blame

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Mike Russell is the retired head of Bridge House School in the Winelands of the Cape. Prior to that, he was head of Redhill in Morningside, Johannesburg. For a short period, he worked as an education consultant and adult trainer in the publishing world, and he kicked off his career as an English and French teacher at Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town.

As a nation, we have a tendency to address contentious issues in a binary way. There is almost no spectrum of opinion. As long as the framework that governs what is taught in our schools is as inflexible and overcrowded as it currently is, we will perpetuate this binary mind-set with all its constraints.

Crossword clue: “In this context, neither is wrong (7).” Answer: therein

Many years ago, when I was a young teacher, a senior colleague would, from time to time, reward a particularly bright contribution to a lesson with a Smartie. He kept a supply of them in a porcelain pot on his desk. The value of the gesture lay in the acknowledgment, more than in the sweet, and there was always the fun element to this “big deal” over such a tiny prize.

For years, those sweets lay unguarded on his desk. He never locked them away, because there never seemed to be a need to do so. One day, some individual helped himself to the whole lot. We never found out who had done this, but there was a strong feeling that some unwritten covenant had been broken. The Smartie reward was never reinstated.

Something much bigger than some Smarties had been stolen through the self-centredness of an unthinking individual. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere for the way we’re living out life in the 21st century at the tip of this continent.

This past week, I found myself absorbed by a debate on local talk radio about the current alcohol ban. My real interest in the conversation didn’t stem from the merits or the fairness or unfairness of the ban, although that is certainly an interesting topic to interrogate.

No, the first aspect of the debate which captured my attention was the tenor of the various contributions, be they live calls, or voicemails or texts sent in for reading. Three troubling perspectives seemed to emerge.

Firstly, many contributions took a know-it-all aggressive tenor, “finish and klaar”. Secondly, there was a fair amount of stereotyping or veiled racism, hesitant, as PC as possible in a public space, but nevertheless revealing references to “them” or “those people” or “the poor” (who obviously drink uncontrollably in the eyes of those contributors), countered by the occasional use of the metonymic “leafy suburbs” (where presumably the drinking is much more refined and, of course, not nearly as problematic).

If we had seen the level of mask-wearing compliance three months ago that we see now, simply because you could possibly be imprisoned, our health workers might be coping and many a loved one would still be with us. Perhaps if the authorities had put out the message that, by wearing your mask you protect yourself, things would have turned out much better.

And thirdly, surprise South Africa surprise, there was an inclination to politicise the issues and blame the governing party for all our woes, including, paradoxically, both this Level 3 reinstatement as well as the Covid-19 death rate.

It was acknowledged during the conversation that an underlying cause of our national struggle with alcohol is that we are a traumatised nation. This is complex, obviously, and stems from multiple reasons, including our colonial and apartheid history, as well as the current pervasive sense of a failed state looted by kleptocrats and riddled with corruption and incompetence, as well as the daily, seemingly endless, stress of living with the virus.

I would venture to say that the points of view on the causes of this national trauma will depend on whether you imbibe your tipple in a shebeen or in your garden in the leafy suburbs. Such is the “us and them” way many South Africans see our world, and we’re clearly not the only nation to polarise issues in this way.

This leads me to the second thing that struck me as the debate wore on – our tendency to address contentious issues in a binary way. There is almost no spectrum of opinion. Only zero or 30 are visible on the ruler. This is right and that is wrong. I am right and you are wrong. Republican or Democrat. It’s win-lose. We lock down and save lives or we open up and save the economy. There is almost never any exploration of possible third, fourth, fifth or even tenth alternatives. The glass is either half-full or half-empty, and whichever of these two perspectives ours may be, we prevent ourselves from considering how best to use the water or the glass, or how to acquire more water, or who would benefit best from receiving the water. It’s my way or the highway, and, as a result, we don’t see much of the countryside stretching out on either side of the road.

I think we see the dangers of this kind of polarity in the excessive force shown in law enforcement tragedies both overseas and in our own country. The choice of action is voluntary compliance or the big stick. There is no carrot. Last week’s shocking violence at the US Capitol is yet another sad case in point.

“We don’t have an internal policing mechanism,” said one caller. “The only way to sort out our drinking culture is more policing and consequences.” Other callers called the ban “unfair” or imposed by a “nanny state” and an infringement on our rights to freedom of choice and movement. There was no sense in the entire discussion that there might be alternative ways to solve the problem, or that a balance of internal and external policing might be worth pursuing.

“We’re a maverick nation, with a long history of defying rules and regulations,” claimed one contributor proudly, as if that justifies the lemming-like defiance of the simple sanitation practices that would and should be saving lives. It’s one thing to challenge or defy regulations that are purely wrong or unjust; it’s another to flout rules that have been put in place to help us break the run of this crippling virus – for all of us – just because defiance is supposedly “in our DNA”.

If we had seen the level of mask-wearing compliance three months ago that we see now, simply because you could possibly be imprisoned, our health workers might be coping and many a loved one would still be with us. Perhaps if the authorities had put out the message that, by wearing your mask you protect yourself, things would have turned out much better.

It’s this selfishness, this infantile self-centredness and inability to consider others, or to think further than our immediate needs or whims — thinking “me” as opposed to “us” — that is of great concern to me as an educationist. A recent News24 video of unmasked teenagers congregating in tight-packed hordes on Knysna lagoon, Tin Roof, North Coast and Plett Rage are prime examples, for which we will pay heavily for some time.

Yes indeed, we have no internal policing system. There was no external policing system either.

I put it to you that as long as the framework that governs what is taught in our schools is as inflexible and overcrowded as Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements; for as long as teachers feel the pressure to complete said curriculum; for as long as there is one right answer to the questions educators set or a memorandum dictates; for as long as there is an emphasis on marks and competition for that top spot or that badge; for as long as individual effort is emphasised over collaboration, or outstanding achievement supersedes outstanding effort; for as long as teachers and schools feel so anxious about matric performance that they will leak papers; for as long as children are expected to fit in, rather than stand out; and for as long as student leadership positions in too many schools reward a few for compliance as opposed to questioning the status quo, we will perpetuate this binary mind-set with all its constraints.

The lasting change we need, can – should — start in our schools. It can start right now, as the new school year opens, by reflecting on lessons learnt in 2020 and how we could do things differently in 2021 and beyond. And I don’t mean simply “pivot” to online lessons on the same old content. I mean a real shift towards exploring alternatives and emphasising the unmeasurable stuff that makes us human and ties us together.

(“Debate”, by the way, originates from the French “débattre”, meaning “to beat down”. Just saying). DM

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All Comments 5

  • Well written sir! (Je suis desole – I did not realise you also taught French) I am fascinated by how we create situations for real conversations, without the ‘beating down’ that allows me to start with one opinion and end with another, hopefully more informed one without feeling like I have been defeated but rather enriched. Will have to think about that.

  • I can think of a few other reasons for the problem of binary thinking. No time to reflect – immediate responses have become the norm. Meaningful communication and respectful listening should be a habit at home in families or even social groups. We talk at and past one another in the digital era of texting and whatsapp. Inundated with media everywhere and all the time we need to switch off and listen to the quiet instead of the noise.

  • An interesting thought that our binary way of thinking is a by-product of an overly competitive schooling system. However, is it not a tad reductionistic to suggest that this is the cause of all the polarisation we are seeing? I would suggest that, as we have seen in the US Capitol riots, the polarisation of opinion is directly related to – and exacerbated by – the echo chambers and filter bubbles of modern social media.

    From this view, a more efficacious intervention in the schooling system would be a focus on critical reading of news and developing the habit of always seeking dissenting opinions to have an informed view. The filter bubble is here to stay as long as social media apps use AI to maximise a platform’s share of the attention economy, but recognising it and working against it seems the logical next step.

  • A helpful contribution to our national discourse. A quick story: Some months back, whilst on a neighbourhood stroll we were confronted by a male, sixty-something Porsche driver. He lowered his electric-powered, anti-smash-and-grab, tinted window and glared at us. “Why are you all wearing masks?” he taunted, before tearing off down the street in mock-frenzy. Indeed. I often wonder whether he is still alive.