Dr. Eva McManus, professor of English and chair of the Department of English
QUESTION POSED: This grant was a study of democracy. What are some of your thoughts on what you experienced in regards to this concept? What are the curricular implications, and how will this study focused on democracy enrich/inform/expand your teaching/research here at ONU?
On Democracy: Using education as a lens through which to track the development of democratic ideals and practices in South Africa was a great idea. I appreciated the planning that went into providing us with a variety of cultural exposures to see how the process works and how different people are benefiting from the government plan to educate the people with an emphasis on democratic concepts. I researched government standards for learning in English or language classes in the secondary school and was initially impressed by the high level of achievement expected. That impression was altered by the reality of education in South Africa and, in fact, just before we arrived, the government lowered the standards and scaled back the lesson plans to deal more realistically with the population.
One of the first points that struck home while we were attending lectures on history, culture, language and social values at North West University, Potchefstroom, was that South Africa has 11 national languages. The government tries nobly to be inclusive and to prioritize no one language or culture over another. The upshot is that schools end up being multilingual in some form or another, but English is becoming the default common language throughout the country. The village of Luphisi uses the local language with English as the language of instruction starting in the sixth grade; however, the government lowered the start to learn English to fourth grade just prior to our trip. In Luphisi, not all students or teachers felt comfortable with English and switched between the two as needed.
The students had good ideas about democratic values and the importance of practices such as voting and speaking up to express their ideas but were restricted in their ability to access useful information to further their education. In spite of these limitations, however, we saw students engaged in learning, anxious to move forward and learn. We held an open forum with a group of about 15 secondary students and our Fulbright-Hays group to discuss their views on democracy and to get their opinions about the direction of education. They were comfortable expressing their strong views about the importance of education in building a democracy but felt themselves to be poorly served by the government in that their facilities and options were so limited. We found little assistance in directing the students to college or employment. The students are connected to the rest of the country through media and are aware of the limitations they live under; it is frustrating to them.
The contrast between their experience and those of students at the other schools we visited was drastic. The other schools had attractive facilities, strong resources and good leadership and were funded by parental support, rather than just the state, or by all-parental support, opting not to accept state funds. Interestingly, the administrators at all three schools noted that the quality of education in the country was really suffering due to the limitations of government support and the lack of effectively trained teachers and skilled administrators. The educators seemed to have few resources and little to no faculty development opportunities. The administrators also were neglected.
I noticed that some of the challenges the school systems faced were quite different from a post-Civil Rights Movement South in the U.S. due to the language and ethnic concerns that prevailed. When the U.S. integrated schools, the key concerns were mixing races and bringing the formerly underserved African American students into a system that had prioritized whites, now with the new goal of an equal education for all and a comfortable interaction among the races. In South Africa, the concerns are much more complex following the end of apartheid due to the impact of a vital tribal culture that is quite varied and the fact that 85 percent of the population had been deprived of education and opportunity by a small minority. The task to right many wrongs and to offer education not available for so many before democratization is extremely expensive and difficult. Given those parameters and the short time since the end of apartheid, life is better in some ways, but South Africa has a long way to go before the goals are achieved.
Curriculum Project: I focused on the way in which education and work opportunities for women impacted their lives and the lives of others. To obtain information and resources, I purchased material on the women’s movement in South Africa, the freedom march held by women under apartheid, and National Women’s Day (a holiday we experienced while there), and I spoke with women in various areas we visited. I also purchased wall hangings depicting women engaged in agricultural work, spoke briefly with a woman at the local Luphisi Women’s Center and observed the group’s handcrafted beadwork and other crafts for sale at the center as well as similar crafts at a number of regional markets. I observed many instances of women working in the orchards, on farms and in stores, carrying loads on their heads as they walked great distances; I talked with women of various races and ethnicities engaged in work or leadership roles. I look forward to incorporating some of these experiences with the literature and film I acquired for the project in my Women’s Literature class this spring.