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In the face of all-pervasive social media, we must recl...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

In the face of all-pervasive social media, we must reclaim our humanity lest we build a nation without a soul

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Brutus Malada is a political strategist and a research consultant. He previously served as a specialist writer and communications adviser for the rector of the University of the Western Cape. He has worked in various think tanks, including the Human Sciences Research Council and the Centre for Politics and Research. He was a member of the Midrand Group – a loose association of intellectuals in Johannesburg.

The purpose of education must be to produce well-rounded individuals who not only excel but who are socially conscious with the urge to contribute to the betterment of humanity.

In August 1991, Jacques Attali, then adviser to former French President, Francois Mitterrand, published a book titled Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order.

Attali was daring in his imagination and apt in his prophecy about the dawn of the 21st century. This is what he said: “The impact of information technology will be even more radical than the harnessing of steam and electricity in the 19th century. Rather it will be more akin to the discovery of fire by early ancestors since it will prepare the way for a revolutionary leap into a new age that will profoundly transform human culture.”

Thirty-one years later, we are in the full-blown digital age and information communications technology has had a profound impact on our cultures and social values.

A whole new culture of apps and social media has engulfed us. We count our steps, monitor our heartbeat and order our food, all through a hand-held gadget. Our lives are literally in our own hands.

Yet, one of the major achievements of technology has been its success in the deconstruction of the concepts of space and time. Think of our new ability as humans given us by technology — the ability to be present in our absence and to be absent in our presence.

It doesn’t matter where you are, how far, what time it may be, you can still log on, and be present in the moment, all in as small a gadget as a tablet or a mobile phone. Emotion and feelings can now be transmitted through technology. You can find love through the internet and attend meetings, let alone funerals, without you being physically there.

We are connected, yet are getting disconnected. But we are becoming more connected to and with those who are far from those around us. Social network applications in our gadgets make us more anti-social. Such is the paradox of our time!

Enter public transport — a bus or a train — you find everyone is laughing alone and talking to someone far and beyond, and not with those around them. Self-promotion and obsession with selfies have become vogue, with social media platforms that seem to have weakened rather than strengthened our social bonds.

This is not an attempt to discredit let alone downplay the role and the benefits of social media. Far from it. Put to good use, social media can be an instrument of social justice. It helps spread information far and wide quickly. It can even ignite revolutions as we witnessed with the 2011 Arab Spring.

However, it is true that nowadays people hasten to take pictures and videos rather than helping the injured in a car accident. We would rather tweet or hashtag first before calling an ambulance.

Where is our humanity? “What kind of a society are we becoming?”, one may ponder. However, it would seem that the solutions to these questions should be found in our education system.

What, then, is the role of education in re-humanising humanity? How best to understand the role of education than revisiting the seminal work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In his magnum opus Emile — a book that shook the foundations and influenced the shaping of education in Europe — Rousseau describes the role of education more aptly when he says: “Plants are formed by cultivation, men by education… We are born weak, we need strength; we are born entirely destitute, we need help; we are born stupid, we need understanding. All that we lack at birth and need in maturity is given us by education.”

It is clear that the education that Rousseau refers to is not limited to formal education. Both formal and non-formal education play a crucial role in shaping the character of humankind. Both mould our social mores and cultivate our values.

What we are, how we behave and relate to other human beings, has a lot to do with how we were raised. A child at birth knows neither love nor hate, disdain nor respect, malevolence nor compassion. All that s/he exudes later in life is what s/he imbibed from the surroundings.

If it is at home where we learn how to speak, it is at school and university where we learn how to reason. The role of formal education, therefore, must be to whet the intellectual appetite of students, sharpen their critical thinking skills, and build their ethical character and conscience.

Thus, the purpose of education must be to produce well-rounded individuals who not only excel in their field of expertise but who are socially conscious with the urge to contribute to the betterment of humanity — the social consciousness part is crucial if our education is to produce more Imtiaz Soolimans than the Wouter Bassons of this world.

However, a question that needs to be asked is: is our formal education curriculum adequately equipped for the re-humanisation project? To answer this question is to pose yet another one: what is to be done?

We must draw lessons from other countries that have traversed similar paths as ourselves, and Brazil is one such example. Many years after slavery was abolished in Brazil, social cohesion and national consciousness remained very low. The Brazilian nation remained fragmented, with no sense of national pride, self-belief and collective social responsibility.

Hence philosophers like Paulo Freire, the highly esteemed teacher, proposed a new Pedagogy of the Oppressed to help the nation rediscover itself, to “regain their lost humanity and achieve full humanisation”.

Thus, in his book, Education for Critical Consciousness, Freire noted that for Brazil “it was essential to harmonise a truly humanist position with technology by an education which would not leave technicians naïve and uncritical in dealing with problems other than those of their own specialty.”

There is no doubt that colonialism and apartheid have had a huge impact on the psychology of the nation, especially the black nation. These oppressive systems mutilated our self-esteem and we lost our humanity in the process.

However, except for Bantu Biko’s attempt to help blacks regain their self-esteem and humanity through the Black Consciousness philosophy, there has not been a concerted effort to change our school curriculum, let alone a political national consciousness campaign to help the nation regain its lost humanity.  

The time has come for us to review our education curriculum and implement a national re-humanisation programme. With the digital age already upon us, we can no longer afford to delay the re-humanisation project. Else we build a nation without a soul. DM

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