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Decolonizing Computer Education – What People’s Education has to teach us.

10 Sep

Education in South Africa is in turmoil. In many ways our post-Apartheid educational dispensation has failed to address the problems it inherited. The big question of how to grant greater access and equity through education – perhaps best summed up by the slogan Decolonizing Education was not settled after the fall of Apartheid. Our education system is still unequal, and still largely divided along racial lines.

When I was training to become a teacher in the 1980s, the big question was some version of a Liberation Before Education or Liberation Through Education debate. Education is clearly a key component in social empowerment and social justice. The 1976 riots sprung from deep-seated unhappiness with a separate and unequal education system which taught white students blind obedience, and black students subservience. People’s Education for People’s Power emerged as a movement in response to a call by the Soweto Parents’ Crisis Committee in 1985 and a series of conferences and publications issued by the National Education Crisis Committee in 1986. Two subject committees were active in advancing content for a People’s English and People’s History curriculum. The focus was on a reformed curriculum reflecting the agency and needs of ordinary South Africans. While greater local (ie. African) content and focus was a key component of the vision, the really crucial concern was with turning knowledge into an agent for greater power and control. The history syllabus, for example was concerned not just with the study of South African history, but with a history from below approach. Using E.H. Carr’s seminal text What is History? as a basis, the NECC pushed for a rigorous and critical skill-set which would allow students to use their own, their local and national histories as a lens for developing social agency and power. People’s English, likewise, sought to use English as a means of critiquing power and empowering agency – ” to think and speak in non-racial, non-sexist and non-elitist ways” (Gardiner, n.d, p.9). The need to develop an alternative educational vision for a post-Apartheid South Africa was clear and urgent.

The South African History Archive – Images of Defiance

My first teaching job was as a teacher in a People’s Education pilot project school called Phambili in Durban in the early 1990s in the period leading up to the first democratic elections in 1994. Phambili school, a flagship of People’s Education, had two aims, to intervene in the educational crisis caused by the massive exclusion from the schooling system of students who had protested against Apartheid Education in the decade and a half after the 1976 uprising, and to pilot new democratic forms of school governance and curriculum. The school was, however, bedeviled by mismanagement and corruption by some “struggle” dignitaries. The school managed to continue thanks to a dedicated staff and board members, but faced severe lack of funding and persistent attacks from both the Apartheid State and corrupt opposition politicians who wanted to secure the building for their own personal gain. Phambili refused to go away and when I joined the staff in 1991, was struggling to resurrect itself. I was employed as an English and History teacher, and in both these faculties we tried to pilot People’s Education curricula. The English Faculty invited student representatives to join our meetings and this proved an incredibly enriching experience. As a Matric teacher there was not much I could do to change the setworks studied, but I Africanised the unseen setworks and comprehension passages chosen. In my first week of teaching I was challenged by my Matric 10B class on the whole question of why we studied Shakespeare. I hummed and hawed a bit, said a few things about universal human values, and the need to study the canon, but I could see the class was unconvinced. Luckily for me that weekend an article appeared in the Sunday newspapers about Chris Hani, leader of the Communist Party and liberation hero, who said how much he admired Shakespeare and had studied him in the guerilla camps in Tanzania. I cut it out and pinned it to my door. Not only did opposition to studying Shakespeare disappear, but my classroom was renamed Chris Hani Base Camp. I had clearly passed some kind of test.

The way that we came to theorize what people’s English looked like at Phambili was founded on our notion of agency. I was not aware of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin at that time, but the sense of the need to give our students access to the literacies and knowledges of power while at the same time developing the power of their own voice was central. This deeply dialogic notion foregrounds the agency of student voices while recognising that hegemonic literacies and discourses need to be mastered.

The History faculty used the NECC published textbook What is History? as its central text, but I believe we built a strong sense of history from below as a critical tool for confronting power. Poor historians make poor revolutionaries could have been our mantra. Things came to a head at a History teachers’ conference at the University of Natal where plans for a new History syllabus were unveiled which directly conflicted with our notion of People’s Education. The syllabus seemed to us to be triumphalist. History was to become the story of the ANC’s rise to power, much as history under the National Party had been subservient to political propaganda. We agitated from the floor, and were eventually granted an audience with John Pampallis. When the new curriculum was eventually unveiled, after the elections in 1994, very little remained of people’s Education.

And that I think is the problem. Subsequent revisions of the curriculum were to incorporate an extreme version of Outcomes Based Education, a somewhat reactionary and behaviourist educational philosophy, which was opaque and technicist and views education as the mastery of discrete skills. Although, clearly, much has changed for the better, our education system remains a two-tiered system replicating inequality and stifling agency. The sense of liberation through education that people’s Education engendered has all but disappeared and the focus is now on South Africa’s failing matriculation pass rate and position at the bottom of the international league tables. The current cry to decolonize education can only be seen as an indictment of the failures to implement an education system that meaningfully addresses the inequalities of the past. We need a return to the People’s Education agenda.

So, what would a People’s Computer Education curriculum look like? Computing represents a literacy of power, increasingly so as our lives become dominated by digital technologies. I would argue that computing education needs to empower students and promote agency both by giving students access to these voices of power, but also by empowering the power of students’ voice, their ability to express their creativity and ideas through digital media. Robert Reich (1992) has argued that the new Information Economy is reproduced by a two-tiered education system that produces a labour force of data capturers on the one hand, and a managerial class of information/symbol manipulators on the other. As computer educators we need to ensure that we are giving all our students access to the skills and dispositions which will enable them as digital masters rather than merely hewers of wood and carriers of water in the new digital economy. If we teach spreadsheets it should not just be about the how, it also needs to be about the why, it needs to prepare students for entrepreneurship and creativity. If we teach coding, it should not be just so that students can write some code, it needs to encompass a vision of a humanity that can rise above the challenge of Artificial Intelligence, that has a purpose and dream, that has a destiny.

I realise that this formulation is hopelessly Romantic, but I am an optimist and I believe we need to teach hope, and inspire our students to be the masters of their own lives. Ultimately Computing from below is the story of a new humanism that rejects a society that is mechanical and technocratic, but sees technology as an extension of the human will to survive and thrive. Ultimately People’s Computing needs to teach students to see a society in which they can use digital technologies to advance their lives and build a world that is non-classist, non-sexist and non-racist.

Bibliography

Gardner, M, (n.d) Transforming Itself: People’s Education for people’s Power and Society in South Africa. Accessed https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/archive-files2/remar87.5.pdf

Reich, R. (1992). The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. New York: Vintage Books. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Work-Nations-Preparing-Ourselves-Capitalis-ebook/dp/B004CFAW7A 

The South African History Archive. http://www.saha.org.za/imagesofdefinace/10_fighting_years_1976_1986_peoples_education_for_peoples_power.htm

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