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A crying shame: South Africa is losing human potential because of the cognitive stunting of our children


Dr Louis Benjamin is an independent educational consultant. He is the author of the Basic Concepts Programme, which has been implemented across South Africa as well as in other countries to address learning backlogs of children from severely disadvantaged communities. He is a co-founder and board member of Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA) and has served as the Vice President for Africa of the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology (IACEP).

Each child who has not been given the opportunity to be challenged to extend him/herself beyond the here and now, to imagine, dream, invent and create, is yet another young adult who might in the future join the ever-growing queue of the unemployed.

By far the most important question facing South Africa today is: How do we avoid the ongoing and devastating loss of human potential in our country? While there are many problems in our country, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest, and has resulted in the loss of hope and motivation to build a better society.

Cognitive stunting is not often spoken about, but it is being inflicted upon generation after generation in our country. It is indicative of a society that has lost its direction. Instead of placing children and their education foremost, we (the adults in the room) seem to be spending more and more time complaining, protesting, rioting, shouting, boycotting, striking, cancelling, hating and fighting to address what admittedly might be legitimate grievances.

In the process, however, we neglect the most valued, multifaceted and diverse assets we have in this country – our next generation. After all, there will be no future if we cannot even conceive of the improvements we seek for our own children and which they in turn will seek for their children.

Each child who has not been given the opportunity to be challenged to extend him/herself beyond the here and now, to imagine, dream, invent and create, is yet another young adult who might in the future join the ever-growing queue of the unemployed.

The task of developing human potential does not necessarily even require a fully functional education system, but a society (yes, with schools and teachers) that doggedly believes in the unlimited potential of its children and that their lives could be better than ours. Cuba, for example, despite its high levels of poverty and non-democratic system of government, had literacy rates of 99.75% in 2021 and a strong universal programme to educate the nation.

The pursuit of a better future for our children is not necessarily dependent on the ideological, political or economic system of the day. It could be better understood by the “ratchet effect” of human development which describes the unique tendency of human civilisation to continually improve, by standing on the shoulders of the previous generation and not needing to “reinvent the wheel”. In contradistinction, regress in human society is rare.

However, to view potential as something that is merely naturally actualised without the need for any external guidance is to not understand human cognitive development, which is dependent on both innate and external factors. The role of society is to nurture its children to ensure that they are adequately stimulated and engaged in the world. The process of education is integrally woven into the fabric of society – we are particularly aware of this now in the new Covid-19 reality. When societies experience problems, such as Covid-19, critical institutions like schools also suffer. That children are being left to their own devices, expected to physically distance and isolate, and have missed out on half of the curriculum content, will further compound their negative developmental trajectory.

What needs to be done? Unfortunately, should there not be a dramatic, 1,000-times increase in the primacy of education as well as the vital role of positive, caring human interventions in the lives of children, we can expect that the potential inherent in each child will be left undiscovered and unchannelled.

Besides the deeply unsettling thought of ongoing generations of people who will continue to lead highly unfulfilled lives, the impact of this loss of cognitive and creative potential on our country’s development cannot be underestimated.

It is a crying shame that we neglect the developmental potential of the children of this country and their right to a better future, while the loss of capital resources in the country sparks societal outrage. Where is the commission that will investigate the loss of human potential in our country? DM


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