Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

What is the purpose of our education?

By Mario Meyer

Tony Blair once said: “Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education and education.”

It is well documented that the South African education system at large, and its primary and secondary public schooling system in particular, is in a state of chronic crises. A large majority of schools in South Africa are dysfunctional and are simply failing to produce the outcomes that are their chief objectives. South Africa’s primary school pupils are struggling with basic literacy and numeracy. Many learners drop out of school before matric, and so forth.

The standard of education available to the majority is of poor quality. The sad reality is that low quality education is a poverty trap which serves to reproduce and reinforce already high levels of racial and class inequalities and poverty in society.

What about those of us who survived the education system? What about those of us who overcame low quality education or were beneficiaries of good quality education? What is the purpose of our education?

The most obvious and stressed reason for the importance of education is its link to employment. Human capital theory sees the role of education as being instrumental to economic growth. Education provides people with the necessary productive skills and competencies that an economy requires. Education equips one with the knowledge and skills required to, at least theoretically, access and enter the labour market. It is an investment that yields economic returns both for the individual and society.

Does the role of the (well) educated extend beyond that of their contribution to economic growth? Is education meant to do more than help the individual attain his or her economic, social and cultural goals? I believe that it does.

The French phrase “noblesse oblige” – which literally means “nobility creates obligations” – denotes the responsibility of privileged people to show generosity to those less privileged. It speaks of the responsibility of those who enjoy success to assist others who fare less well. I consider this phrase to be particularly pertinent in post-apartheid South Africa which is characterised by obvious, stark and unsettling inequality and poverty.

In a country such as South Africa – given the history and legacy of colonialism and apartheid – it is not only those with great wealth, power and status who have a responsibility to help people who have fewer advantages and diminished capabilities in life. The privileged citizens of South Africa – those who have access to basic human freedoms and to various opportunities which are denied to too large a portion of people in this country – have a responsibility to address the unsettling inequality and poverty that exists here.

I believe that those of us who have overcame poor quality education or were beneficiaries of good quality education, and are consequently in the position of being able to pursue the kind of life we have reason to value, are incredibly privileged. We can be who we choose to be, and do what we choose to do. For us, life’s opportunities and possibilities are vast.

With such privilege and opportunity comes the responsibility to place service above self; and to be an individual who, in the words of the late Wangari Maathai in her book The Challenge for Africa, “puts community before individualism, public good before private good, and commitment to service before cynicism and despair”.

Education is more than just a ticket to the ‘good life’ (however one may define the term). Education is the means by which we can make our communities, country, continent and the world a much better place. Education is a ticket to change the world.

“How wonderful it is”, wrote Anne Frank, “that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Mario is a 2012 Mandela Rhodes Scholar. He is currently pursuing a MA (Ethics) at the University of the Western Cape.

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