Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

Education: What’s the point of it all?

A few weeks ago, I read an article to my grade 11 students with the headline “Youth unemployment in South Africa – apartheid is alive and well”. My students are usually opinionated when it comes to certain issues, but not this time. They walked out of the classroom in silence. I noticed their quizzical looks and decided that the question lurking behind their silence had to be: “So what’s the point of it all?”

The news article made a compelling argument about the reality of youth unemployment in South Africa. According to the Graduate Destination Survey published in 2013 by the Cape Higher Education Consortium, those who are most likely to be employed are white and Indian South Africans. Black and coloured graduates are likely to be unemployed after graduating from university or college.

According to the article: “The report notes that the unemployment rate for coloured and black people would be significantly larger if it were not for the intervention of the public sector, which employs a large number of black (at 42%) and coloured (at 45%) graduates. Despite this, black graduates maintained the highest unemployment rate (at 19%) with coloured graduates following at 7%.”

My students are black and coloured so these numbers and demographics are significant to them. The article suggests that in spite of their hard work in high school and at university, they are likely to be unemployed later. That the history of apartheid has a lot to do with this is even harder for my students to understand.

Apartheid is in their history books. They see it almost as a theory, something not likely to affect their lives in a meaningful way. They are part of the “born-free” generation which has opportunities their parents never had. But if there is any truth in the survey, the promise of education being the game-changer in their lives could remain unfulfilled, mostly as a result of inequalities that persist after apartheid.

The statistics in the survey are also significant because they bring into question the state of education in South Africa. Both basic and higher education are caught within a system that is fractured to the point that South Africa has the reputation of having one of the worst education systems in the world.

The education system has fractured into a dual track where there are schools for the poor and schools for the wealthy.

If a student lives in a poor community and only has access to the poor quality of education offered there, she is most likely to drop out of school or leave grade 12 without the skills and knowledge that will allow her to apply to a university.

However, if a student finds herself in a high quality school, she is more likely to achieve the necessary marks to get into university and thus further her chances of employment. In the second case, the student likely comes from a middle-class family or is supported by a bursary in order to enter a good school.

After reading the article to my students I too was left with many questions. I felt lucky that I wasn’t an unemployed graduate, that my promise of education had been fulfilled and I was able to find a job instead of sitting at home for months. I also realised that I am not the norm – if one is black, poor and female, the kind of education one receives could contribute to a “poverty trap” rather than open doors for further opportunities.

Beyond my individual concerns, as a teacher, I wondered what effect this would have for what I am teaching my students in high school and to what extent I could have an effect on their future. And the age-old question began lurking in my mind again: What is the purpose of education?

There are many answers to this question. But more importantly, the question speaks to some of the complexities facing many countries across the world. For example, how to provide a quality education to all children in order to improve the chances of employment among young people. South Africa is not alone in this quandary – other developing countries with a wide gap between the rich and the poor face similar challenges.

I don’t have an answer for the questions that plague my students. Neither do I have the words to help them make sense of the complex system that they find themselves within. As a teacher I encourage my students to get involved in organisations that challenge young people about the world around them.

An example of an organisation that has been involved with some of our students is Rethink Leadership. They work with young people, encouraging dialogue and active citizenship and exposing them to examples of social innovations and other organisations that they can get involved with.

Without the help of NGOs and private initiatives, it is difficult to make sense of any changes in the education system. The public is often more interested in the matric pass rate at the end of every year than the literacy rate among younger learners, or more importantly, whether learners are ready for the “real world”.

One of the reasons I became a teacher was this very question: What is the purpose of education? I felt that without immersing myself within the very system that had raised this question, I wouldn’t be able to fully grapple with the real meaning and the effects of education for most young people.

Education is bigger than the classroom and without the opportunities to encourage learning outside of its four walls, we will always be depressed by the reality of structural inequality highlighted in the survey. In an attempt to encourage my students I often tell them: “It’s what you do outside the classroom that matters”, emphasising that what happens in the classroom is only a fraction of what it means to be educated.

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