By any standards Jonathan Jansen is an extraordinary person. He trained as a teacher at the University of the Western Cape in the height of the apartheid era, obtained his education credentials by correspondence from the University of South Africa, and then won scholarships to study in the United States at Cornell (for a masters) and Stanford (for a doctorate). He has been professor and dean of education, and now is the Rector (President/Vice-chancellor) of the University of the Orange Free State – a historically white and conservative institution which has brought into the twenty-first century. He has also written an acclaimed and disturbing book on the attitudes of white students in the New South Africa titled Knowledge in the Blood (Stanford University Press). Yet he sees beyond this and is able to write: “My South Africa is not the angry, corrupt, violent country whose deeds fill the front pages of newspapers and the lead-in items on the seven-o'-clock news. It is the South Africa often unseen, yet powered by the remarkable lives of ordinary people. It is the citizens who keep the country together through millions of acts of daily kindness.”
Jansen has what are called in this country struggle credentials. He has been on the receiving end of the apartheid laws and has spoken out. No one can seriously accuse him of being unsympathetic to the aspirations of black students. But he sees a horrible mismatch developing between the expectations of serious tertiary institutions - such as his own - and the expectations of school leavers generated by the school curriculum that has developed over the last few years. If this is an issue restricted to South Africa, then I apologise for taking your time with it. But I hardly think it is.
In his article Sinking Deeper into Mediocrity Jansen highlights the issues better than I can. He is faced with the school leaving results of a young lady demanding access to university education. Her results are: Afrikaans – 43%, English – 39%, mathematical literacy (a form of mathematics so watered down that it hardly justifies the name and is useless for subsequent study of the quantitative subjects) -38%, life orientation (not examined but assessed by the teacher) – 78%, business studies – 41%, computer applications technology – 31%, life sciences – 28%.
Professor Jansen comments:
“At the bottom of the certificate is this unbelievable statement: ‘The candidate qualifies for the national senior certificate and fulfils the minimum requirements for admission to higher education.’ Understandably, this young woman takes these words literally, and correctly demands a seat in any place of higher learning. With the young woman's claim to study I have no problem. With the society that sets the bar for performance so low, I have serious problems. Slowly, slowly we are digging our collective graves as we fall into a sinkhole of mediocrity from which we are unlikely to emerge. We make excellence sound like a white thing. Behind a massive wave of populism, and in the misguided name of regstelling (setting right the past), we open access to resources and universities to young people without the hard work necessary to achieve those gifts and to succeed once there. Of course, you're a racist if you question this kind of mindlessness; how else do you, as a politician, defend yourself against the critics of mediocrity?”
He then turns to the message that we send to our youth by this:
“This young (incidentally black) person did not achieve anything above 50% in her Senior Certificate results for any exam subject, but we tell her she can proceed to higher studies. What are we saying? That black students are somehow less capable and therefore need these pathetic results to access higher education? No, I am sorry, but today I am angry about the messages we send our children.
"… Our society, schools and universities have adjusted expectations downwards, especially in relation to black students, and that is dangerous in a country with so much promise for excellence. As stories come rolling in from across the country for our Great South African Teachers book, I am struck by one thing. That many black professionals who are chartered accountants, medical scientists or corporate lawyers tell of attending ordinary public schools under apartheid, often in rural areas, and having teachers at the time who, despite the desperate poverty and inequality, held high expectations of their learners. There was no compromising on academic standards; there was homework every day; there was punishment for low performance; and there was constant motivation to rise above your circumstances. Not today.”
In my experience this is only one side of the picture. We certainly have enthusiastic, dedicated and hard-working young people – black and white. It has been my pleasure to teach some of them in my fourth year course at Wits University. But Wits wouldn’t take the young lady discussed above; we have our own much higher entrance requirements. My heart sinks when I think of the tertiary institutions that must. Not because she is stupid or without talent. Probably she is not. But because her expectations are now so low that she will certainly achieve them. And then what?