Thursday, April 14, 2011

Great Expectations

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?

Michael -Thursday


  1. Wow! What an interesting post. Thanks.

  2. One of the major movements to come out of the social changes of the 1960's was affirmative action. Blacks and other minorities were not required to have the same grade point averages or the scholastic aptitude test scores that whites were required to have. Civil service positions were also filled based on a test score but often whites were passed over for hire or promotion so that those with lower scores could fill the openings. Naturally, this bred a great deal of resentment on one side and created the misguided belief that all black and minority hires got their jobs because of the color of their skin rather than their ability. This is grossly unfair to those who succeeded on their own merits; they don't get credit for their excellence.

    Barack Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, the leading student position in the law school. The right insists he got the position through affirmative action, apparently not having considered the competitiveness of those who make it through the first two years of education. The job goes to the highest ranking student; Harvard does not breed meek lawyers who accept someone being appointed to the role rather than having earned it.

    In 1995, my daughter and I were at an information meeting for prospective students at MIT. Someone asked about quotas and we were told that there are quotas for minorities but Asian students do not qualify as minorities in the admission process. So, MIT's policy was that blacks and Hispanics could only get in if the entrance requirements were by-passed but Asian students were so intellectually gifted that they were on their own. No pressure on one group to succeed, tremendous pressure on the other group.

    In a list of bad decisions that stretches to infinity, the Bush II administration is responsible for "No Child Left Behind". Parents of children who were not meeting grade requirements insisted that the policy meant that no child could be required to repeat a grade in order to pick up the skills missed the first time. That policy has contributed greatly to the dumbing down of students. Private schools are particularly egregious in supporting grade inflation. The local paper publishes lists of students who are on the honor roll. It often seems that half the school made the cut. If kids can make the honor roll in such large numbers, then the requirements have to become more stringent. Kids aren't being required to stretch their intelligences and parents feel that since they are paying tuition, their kids are entitled to inflated grades.

    It seems that the definition of education has been lost. The dumbing down of America is an established attitude.


  3. Thanks for this, Beth. Yes, I realized that this isn't a South African problem. The problem with slogans like "No Child Left Behind" is that everyone has to buy into it - teachers, funders, parents and learners. Without that it simply means success by default. That has nothing to do with how things really are...

  4. This is a pernicious system, mirrored here in the States by the now partially-discredited "self-esteem: movement that essentially blocked teachers from doing anything that might damage a student's self-regard -- flunking him, for example. Combine that with the schools' reluctance to fail anyone for any reason, and you have literally millions of half-educated idiots with high self-esteem being released into the world every year, with the expectations of college and/or good jobs.

    As a result, we're now seeing a serious dumbing down at the college and university level, as our two-year colleges become vocational schools, our four-year colleges teach what the two-year colleges used to teach, and universities in which the graduate-degree student body is increasingly made up of foreign students and a disproportionate number of Asians (as many as 45% in some science and technical PhD areas). And the workforce is trying to cope with a generation of workers who feel entitled to jobs they can't do and to promotion from those jobs.

    We need heroes like Jansen, but we also need to reinvent public education radically, and neither the Republicans nor the Democrats has the courage or persistence to attempt this task.

    We also need to look at Asian-American students and ask ourselves what they and their families have to teach us about how to wring a decent education out of a crippled school system. And one tragedy is that they're resented by our other minorities, whose drop-out rates are sky-high.

  5. I was a faculty member teaching graduate students in the States from 1976 until 2003. Even in 1976, I was astonished by the low level of both writtn and spoken English. Even more astounding was the general acceptance that skill in language was unnecessary. It was akin to saying that it was fine if someone added 2 and 3 and came up with 6. As time passed, the situation deteriorated, rather than improving.

    With a few notable exceptions, the current President being one, the lack of precision of speech of today's politicians is embarrassing. Without a fine set of verbal tools to work with, it is not surprising that the thoughts (and solutions) offered by many politicians are inane.


  6. What is so sad is precisely what Stan and Tim allude to-we have lost, in so many places, the sheer pleasure of knowledge and of using the language correctly. I think that part of it is the emphasis on the goal, rather than the process. Along with No Child Left Behind, we get teaching to the test. This means the right answer is learned by rote, if at all, rather than in the context of the literary, historical, or scientific moment. What is so poignant is that somewhere these children will hit a wall, and watch with dismay (and resentment) as their more able peers surpass them. I recently felt some sadness as I realized my own children who have done very well will never read what I had to read in high school or college, and how a long held tradition of knowing will die. (On the other hand, I can't text; the thought of using an iPhone is overhelming.

  7. Tough subject Michael, I applaud you and Jansen taking it on.

    When I went to school in the US (we seem to be talking about grades 9-12) there was discipline...I was paddled justly. There were no drug dealers...they were literally beaten up and driven away. There was a collegial parent--teacher opposed to combative.

    It was one of the best academically ranked high schools in the city with a student body representative of the spectrum of America at the time, perhaps no better demonstrated than in the writings of one of its most distinguished alumni, John Edgar Wideman.

    Then a lot of things changed for a lot of reasons, but no one really wants to talk about them; if they even remember what they were (and are). Not sure how it will all end up, except for my alma mater that set me on the right path. Last year it closed forever.


  8. Thanks for all the comments and input everyone. Unfortunately not much sunshine coming through these clouds.
    Stan picked up today's Blog for Dan (who's away) and it's great to see that there are still kids (and adults)willing to work towards a different scenario.