Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

The deeper purposes of education

By Mario Meyer

I have a family member, a cousin pursuing a BCom accounting degree, who regularly derides the (economic) value of a BA degree. My cousin subscribes to the view that the purpose of education is primarily to equip people with the necessary productive skills and competencies to, at least theoretically, access and enter the labour market. This cousin of mine would be quite amused by the joke: “What is the difference between a BA degree and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.”

Most, if not all, knowledgeable educationalists and practitioners (and just about everyone else really) agree that the phrases “poor quality” and “in a state of chronic crisis” aptly describe the South African education system today. The ramifications of this crisis in education extend beyond the narrow, yet important, confines of the labour market and economic growth. Economic productivity and growth does not invariably generate a better quality of life (South Africa under apartheid ranked highly on development indices). “The life of money-making,” states Aristotle, “is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.”

In her book Not for Profit, philosopher Martha Nussbaum has this to say: “Anxiously focused on national economic growth, we increasingly treat education as though its primary goal were to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. This short-sighted focus on profitable skills has eroded our ability to criticise authority, reduced our sympathy with the marginalised and different, and damaged our competence to deal with complex global problems. And the loss of these basic capacities jeopardises the health of democracies and the hope of a decent world.”

The “good we are seeking” as a nation is articulated by the preamble of the Constitution. The Constitution articulates the vision of a united and democratic South Africa. It describes a society whose overarching objectives include healing the divisions of the past and freeing the potential of each person. Enshrined in the Constitution are the ideals of improving the quality of life of all citizens and establishing a society founded on democratic values, social justice, fundamental human rights, and an active, responsible, and accountable citizenry.

Education is an all-important element of South Africa’s past, present, and future. Education has a crucial role to play in both addressing South Africa’s development challenges and strengthening its democracy. Quality education is essential not only for economic productivity and growth, but also for creating competent, democratic citizens who embody the vision and characteristics articulated by our beloved Constitution.

Quality education promises both bread and roses. Bread and Roses is the title of a film based on a poem by James Oppenheim about a labour strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. In Oppenheim’s poem the female textile workers, whose concerns and demands extend beyond remuneration, state: ” … Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses! … Yes, it is bread we fight for – but we fight for roses, too!”

Quality education offers hope. Professor Jonathan Jansen remarks: “Whatever else we offer young people, the most important gift is hope. We must constantly convey a sense that things can be better, and boost the capacity to make a difference among those around us.”

Mario is a proud holder of a BA and BA honours degree. He is currently pursuing a masters degree at the University of the Western Cape.

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