Oct 19, 2010

Social engineering in schools

My school motto
One of the things I notice often in the schools here is the deliberate social engineering that is built into the curriculum. In nearly all subjects, the raw content is subsumed to varying degrees by a social justice "context." Mathematics provides the most obvious examples—different historical number systems are supposed to be taught to Grade 4, and a Grade 9 maths test last year turned into a massive personal history project compiling the voting records of the entire village with an essay on the success of the democratic government thrown in for good measure.  These efforts seem misguided to me, as I will explain later.

I am reminded of similar efforts in the US.  Conservatives have a semi-permanent campaign to install their dogmas into the classroom, from the perennial creationist efforts to David Horowitz's program for affirmative action for conservatives at universities.  This is not to say the left doesn't do this as well (I'm thinking of a shallow veneer of foolish political correctness from my days in high school, hard to pin down), but the conservative effort is far more widespread and seems to stem from a hostility to academia in general (indeed, sometimes knowledge of any kind).

This is not to say that all such efforts are wrong or misguided.  Some are, particularly with respect to science and maths, but some are probably essential to living in the modern world.  But they stem from a similar impulse of control.  What are we teaching the children?? is such a morally loaded question that many, particularly politicians, use it to make moral statements about the country—or as a political cudgel—without regard to the educational outcomes affected.  Creationists provide probably the purest example of this—their continual meddling is a direct threat to successful education and makes various conservative states the laughingstock of the world on a regular basis.

Though I am often irritated by this social engineering, I don't think it should be wholly condemned in every case.  What I am saying is that a certain base standard of education must hold before these efforts have even a prayer of success.  If a student coming out of Grade 9 cannot read and write well, and do reasonably sophisticated maths (say basic algebra), the social engineering is utterly worthless.  A large percentage of South African schools are not meeting this standard.

Furthermore, unless such programs are well-designed, social engineering is likely to miss its target or backfire.  Though less than in the US, much of what happens in my school is contaminated by the unavoidable squareness of it being a school.  Rebelling against received wisdom is a classic way of asserting one's independence.  For example, at a presentation in Life Orientation class (basically analogous to Health) delivered in my neighboring village where the students could pick the topic, every one chose to say that the LO class should be changed to not include sex education, as it causes students to have sex more.  The mind reels. 

The best stuff speaks for itself—listening to the I Have a Dream speech is far more effective than listening to a teacher talk about it.


  1. All good points. I think that the system sadly hasn't changed much since Apartheid in that it is teaching TO not teaching with. The learner is expected to passively regurgitate facts but yet when asked a logic question that requires critical thinking is utterly lost.

    I see it with kids all the time, even preschool/pre-Grade R kids.. if they get it right, great! If they say the wrong thing, try again until the correct answer appears.

  2. Yeah, basic pedagogy and thinking before trying to pump out Jeffersonian democrats.