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It’s not rocket science — our deficient education system reinforces social and economic inequality


Nhlanhla Nyide is the former Chief Director of Communications at the Department of Science and Technology. He provides specialist consulting support to communications agencies, professional services firms and management consultancies.

Hardly anyone has a practical need for advanced maths, yet we demand it from our young people. Why should children be forced to learn how to factor trinomials if they don’t know how to do their taxes or manage their finances?

Last week, we witnessed the usual annual spectacle of the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, announcing the 2022 matriculation results.

It was fascinating to hear everyone waxing lyrical about the top students, schools, and provinces as we celebrated what US educationalist Fredrik de Boer aptly refers to as the “cult of smart”, the idea that academic value is the only value, and intelligence is the only true measure of human worth.

The media bombarded us with pictures of students who, against all odds, had managed to get five or six distinctions, and they praised the schools that had achieved the highest number of bachelor’s passes.

In all this madness, we are unwilling to admit that people cannot achieve the same level of intelligence through good education and sheer determination. We already recognise this in other areas, such as athletic ability. Individuals are simply different.

I lack any athletic ability, and no matter how many times I’ve tried, I can’t run faster than an average professional athlete. Luckily, I live in a society that doesn’t place much importance on athletic prowess, so even if I’m a lousy athlete, I can still lead a respectable life.

Not so with regard to intelligence. In our society, your intelligence plays a significant role in determining the kind of life you can expect to lead. In general, if you are intelligent, you will have a much easier time surviving in the world than if you are not.

As a result, we place the majority of the blame on the already overburdened public education system and teachers, which benefits no one, wastes billions of rands, and generates constant dissatisfaction through extra ANA, Timms, and Pirls testing, etc.

We also internalise the notion that intelligence is superior to everything else and that our current hierarchy is natural. But no educational miracle is on the horizon, and there is no technology that will save our schools, no change that will pull children out of poverty, and no new model that would instantly transform struggling pupils into successful ones.

Ironically, in 2020 the Department of Basic Education released the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019 (Timss), showing how South African students compare to the rest of the world.

In this report, the department noted an apparent gap between teacher qualifications and student performance. The report noted that “compared to other countries, South African educators attended the highest number of professional courses. However, learners’ performance in mathematics and science does not match the level of tertiary education and the number of professional development courses attended by educators.”

To suggest that everyone could be as intelligent if they tried is dishonest and detrimental, especially to people who have no interest in academics. We should stop using intelligence to determine a person’s moral worth and accept that everyone’s intelligence varies.

Our high schools increasingly serve as a sorting mechanism between those destined for elite higher education and everything else that nobody cares about. Wealthy suburban parents harangue school administrators and hire tutors to fill the perceived gaps in their children’s education, while the poor put their eggs in the basket of whatever resources their child’s school has available.

But an even more immovable stumbling block on the road to the manifestation of our national ideals is the fact that our children have never been, are not now, and will never be equally blessed with the narrow band of academic talent that school rewards.

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Even in an alternate universe where every South African child starts from exactly the same family starting point and attends schools of equal quality, some students would end up winning and many more would end up losing.

Moreover, research has repeatedly shown that the most important conditions for academic success lie outside of school, yet the vast majority of policies designed to influence such success focus exclusively on school.

The primary reason for this is that it is easy to adopt legislation pertaining to formal schooling, but difficult or impossible to implement legislation pertaining to family life, parenting, early childhood conditions, and the vast majority of environmental influences impacting children.

There is an obsession, championed by Mmusi Maimane and others, with how one person’s learning compares to another’s, and where those rankings place us as a country in relation to our competitor countries. We’re all forced to see learning through an entirely competitive lens because Maimane and others see Singapore, Japan, China, and India leaving us far behind.

Hence our national “unhinged obsession” with pushing children into the so-called gateway subjects of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM), in which students from those countries excel.

Hardly anyone has a practical need for advanced maths, yet we demand it of all our young people, creating an unnecessary barrier to success. Put simply, why should children be forced to learn how to factor trinomials if they don’t know how to do their taxes, choose a health insurance plan, manage their finances, or even choose the lowest unit price of an item in the shop?

Worse, we’re denying them high school diplomas (or college admissions or degrees) because of these mathematical requirements, which are neither interesting nor valuable to them.

More analytical and strategic thinking skills need to be taught, along with creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. We have devalued the social sciences and humanities by placing an excessive amount of emphasis on mathematics.

This has happened in my experience, and it needs to be managed because these fields are just as important as science, maths and engineering. We need to include art and music in the regular curriculum, as both use maths and art. Mathematics and numeracy should be taught according to level and job requirements, rather than everyone having to learn trigonometry and calculus in high school.

Why do we measure our educational success only in Stem? What about arts and humanities, and how do we compare with other countries?

What if we are barking up the wrong tree? Perhaps our greatest competitive advantage, à la Peter Drucker, lies in arts and culture. Perhaps our policies should focus on nurturing and developing more Kabza De Small, Sun-El Musician, and DJ Black Coffee, and promoting South Africa as the tourist Mecca of music and creativity and a haven for cultural exchange.

Incidentally, Amapiano has become one of Africa’s hottest music exports, along with Afrobeats from Nigeria. It’s the latest South African music genre to see its artists on the global stage, with streams outside of sub-Saharan Africa growing by more than 563% on Spotify in the last two years, with over 1.4 billion global all-time streams of Amapiano to date.

Education entails introducing a variety of ideas, knowledge and subjects in a stimulating and engaging manner in order to pique students’ curiosity and inspire a desire to learn more. A subject has succeeded if it holds a student’s interest long enough for them to wish to pursue a career in it.

In the end, I want to live in a society where people can be of average intelligence and still be loved and respected for their kindness, strength, and patience, as well as their competence as plumbers, musicians, chefs, or artists. Never should intelligence be used to determine a person’s value or as a requirement for leading a purposeful, honourable life. DM


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  • Dennis Bailey says:

    So, apparently, it is rocket science… I suspect you’ve undone your own argument.

  • JanLouis du Toit says:

    Hard to take an article about intelligence seriously that thinks mathematics is only useful insofar as its direct (“first order”) applicability. Mathematics is first and foremost useful because it is the language of rationality. It is the codification of critical thinking, providing a mechanism through which humans learn to be human – to think critically and solve future problems. It has second-order applicability. Besides, its first-order applicability is not a bug, its a feature. Probably no subject is more directly useful than mathematics in modern society.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Indeed. The irony of the author’s own words appear to have escaped his attention – “Put simply, why should children be forced to learn how to factor trinomials if they don’t know how to do their taxes, choose a health insurance plan, manage their finances, or even choose the lowest unit price of an item in the shop?” All those things require maths.

  • Retief Joubert says:

    We already live in the world you desire, where our education system produce graduates in their thousands from the humanities field. Problem is, turns out these graduates are not good at creating value in a capitalist free market society, hence they cannot find jobs. Why do you read this comment with the sound of a generator in the background: because we don’t have enough technically skilled people of the right demographic to keep infrastructure working. How does infrastructure, and the rest of the material world work? With math. Throw out math, throw out the modern world with it. Geez

  • talfrynharris says:

    Its news to me that intelligence is valued in South Africa, measured by academic achievement or otherwise. I don’t see any evidence of that in our political leaders, SOE appointees, civil servants or celebrities. Even in the private sector (what’s left of it) the most intelligent person rarely gets the job. Its the one with the best “optics” and connections.
    However it is a good question as to why the state does not invest any energy in educating its citizens about tax matters, personal financial management etc. Its almost as if they want us to be naive, inept and poor.

  • Diana Bidwell says:

    Great article. Whatever happened to plumbers, mechanics, electricians , builders etc. We need to have an apprentice system back to teach youngsters how to function and work in the real world.

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