Hard times need soft hearts

The role of the teacher in South Africa

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Hard Times
The famed opening scene from school master Thomas Gradgrind’s classroom described in the book Hard Times highlights author Charles Dickens view of the shortcoming of Victorian education and society at large. “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” repeats Gradgrind. The industrial revolution had wreaked havoc on what was once an agricultural society throwing it into turmoil and creating a host of new social problems. Gradgrind’s philosophy was the philosophy of the age, the mind-set of progress and seen as the worldview of the future. In the following interaction with one of his students Sissy Jupe, Thomas Gradgrind’s pedagogy is clear.

 ‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr Gradgrind… ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Of course we know this to be ridiculous. Gradgrind is straining educational gnats and missing the camels. Today education seeks to do far more than just teach facts. Educators and societies worldwide regognise that an education reliant on facts and content alone would fall far short of satisfactory, as any teacher faced with producing a rubric that pushes learners to achieve all six forms of Bloom’s Taxonomy in a single task will know. However I would argue that this passage from Hard Times, and indeed the whole book, has relevance for education in post-apartheid South Africa today.

In a land currently blighted by poverty, plagued by xenophobic based destruction, and distracted by statue defacement, to name just some of the current issues, it would not be unreasonable to state that there are parallels in terms of social upheaval with Victorian Britain. Economic growth and prosperity have left many behind and there is a sense that education seems not to have come close to dealing with the issues. It is not dealing with the camels.

Many schools face significant pressure to achieve a level of academic results through deleiviering of the curriculum, both content and skills based. In addition schools can fall into the trap of keeping up appearances through sporting results or other performances. This is not enough. When I was involved in teacher training in Zimbabwe I often reminded teachers and prospective teachers that Robert Mugabe also went to school. I wonder if his teachers had known that one day he would lead the country how they might have done thing differently. Would they have spent so long on the understanding split infinitives or algebraic equations? Would the periodic table suddenly seem so important? What would they have done differently had they known? What would we do differently if we could know now?

In his article ‘It’s not about the statues’ (Times Live 10th April) Jonathan Jansen says, “Underlying all this upheaval remains the failure of education – such as the inability among the protestors to distinguish and anti-fascist memorial from an imperial monument, or a Boer war general from a colonial capitalist. This is the danger we course when political activism is unhinged from even a superficial knowledge of our complex and entangled histories.”

This is true, we have failed to provide even this basic level of understating and knowledge, but we are failing at a deeper level too. As schools we continue to be in danger of forgetting what is really important as we deal with young people. Facts, knowledge and skills are only a part of what South Africa needs. Later in Hard Times Thomas Gradgrind’s wife talks to her daughter Louisa.

‘You learnt a great deal, Louisa, and so did your brother. Ology’s of all kinds from morning to night. If there is any Ology left, of any description, that has not been worn to rags in this house, all I can say is, I hope I shall never hear its name.’…‘But there is something—not an Ology at all—that your father has missed, or forgotten, Louisa. I don’t know what it is. I have often sat with Sissy near me, and thought about it. I shall never get its name now.’

If we only focus on the academic or performance of our students we are in danger of missing or forgetting something (not an ology at all) but something that is perhaps most important of all, to be kind. To raise ourselves above the level of reasoning animals that Gradgrind insists we are, to be fully human and humane toward one another. Teachers and schools must make the effort to raise the standards to which we hold our young people to. For South Africa to move to a post Xenophobic society we need to learn to be kind, tolerant, just, disciplined, honest, forgiving, compassionate, caring, hardworking and to listen. No curriculum can deliver that, it is held in the hearts of teachers, parents and other concerned adults.

So yes we need some to understand that South Africa’s troubles will not be solved by attacking foreigners, or throwing faeces on statues.  And yes we need others to understand that as Jansen goes on to say, “As the poorest of our citizens continue to feel left out from any post apartite dividend, subjects of scorn will multiply – foreign nationals, monuments, street traders – and the tactics of the opprutnie will horrify”. But more importantly we also need to learn to be human.

To do these things we need educated teachers and we need teachers with heart. Teachers who can work in the zone beyond the hard facts of exam and sports results, who can withstand the pressure of the hard numbers of enrolment and finance. Who can help students understand these issues and the show them how to grapple with them through experiencing and practising soft but difficult skills, attitudes and mind-sets. No curriculum can do this, nor can any syllabus, only another human being can make an impact on a young person’s heart and mind.

In a more recent article ‘Don’t leave us to ourselves’ Jansen says to foreign national students, ‘We need you, in other words, to make us more fully human.’ (Times Live 17th April). Getting rid of foreigners is not the answer, the solution lies in our hearts and souls and the opportunity to become fully human. Our school are first and foremost communities full of human beings, all learning lies in relationship, particularly the deep learning that we are talking about here. We are not delivering a product or an economic unit, we are dealing with the hearts and souls of others.

In the midst of all the trouble these past few weeks there have though been glimpses of that what makes us human, as people have come to the aid of those in need. One example that sticks out in my mind took place in my home town of Howick. Two young Congolese men were set upon near a fast food restaurant by a group, one of whom went at them with a spanner. Local taxi drivers saw what was happening went over and put a stop to it. Later when the taxi drivers were asked about it they reportedly said, “there’s no place for xenophobia in Howick” I would love to know who their teachers were.

As educators we need to do two things. Firstly we must take some time and make the effort to educate ourselves more thoroughly about the history of this country, to better understand the frustration of its people and the complexities that underlie the current events, so that we in turn can help our young people grasp the reality around them. We owe it to their future selves. I personally have a lot to learn in this regard. Secondly as the new term begins I encourage you to look out at the young people in your class, or tutor group, sports team or assembly next week and take a moment to consider who they might become and where they might end up. President, politicians, journalists, doctors, conservationists, lawyers or a taxi driver who intervenes to protect a foreigner. South Africa needs more of those.

God Bless Africa; Guard her children; Guide her leaders. And give her peace, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen





Royal & Ancient

 The Caledonian Sleeper rolled into Edinburgh at about 6:30 AM. A biting cold February wind greeted me as I disembarked from the train and made my through Waverly Station. I was in Scotland as a guest, first of University of Edinburgh, and then of the University of St Andrews. I joined a group of more than forty other school Guidance Counsellors from around the world, but, as we will see, predominantly from North America. We were all accommodated and catered for at the expense of our host universities while going through a programme of presentations and tours to give us insight into each university. 

After two days in Edinburgh we travelled across the Firth of Forth to Fife and St Andrews. From our hotel I was able to breakfast looking out over the 18th fairway of the Old Course of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to West Sands where the opening scene of the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ was filmed. Not a bad way to start a working day while munching on black pudding and networking with educators from around the globe. I have learnt previously that such tours are relatively common particularly in the United States where they are known as ‘fly ins’ and a staple part of the professional development of school guidance counsellors throughout the North American continent.


So what did I learn? Well I learnt a great deal about each university specifically, and about Scottish Higher Education more generally, as I was supposed to. But what I really learnt most about though was Americans. Did I mention that most of the counsellors on the tours were from the U.S?  There was one from South Africa (me), one from Australia, a handful from Canada and the rest from America (or international or American schools containing American teenagers). This is because American students are of great importance for Scottish Universities and for St Andrews in particular, (there are as many Americans at St Andrews as there are Edinburgh, a university four times the size). 30% of students at St Andrew’s are from outside of the European Union and the majority of these are from America, meaning that close to 20% of the student body is from the USA. This is compared with under two hundred before the year 2000.

Darwinian application systems

Americans can be intense (think giving yourself a round of applause just for making it to the afternoon), they take their profession seriously. With iPads out I assumed my colleagues from across the pond were busy on Facebook but closer examination revealed they were either taking intense and detailed notes, or tweeting to their students back home facts about the university. Why so serious? With so many American counsellors around me I quickly learnt why. The college admission process, perhaps I should call it industry, in the US is competitive. Each counsellor in the room represented a team of 4 or 5 guidance counsellors from the same school, each primed to help their students get into the best colleges. Top independent schools advertise themselves as college prep schools and in addition the industry is saturated with consultants and agents who can help you gain admission to the college of your choice if you think your school guidance counsellor is not up to it. Excessive you might think. Maybe, but in an environment where student interest is ‘tracked’ by colleges maybe not. 

Yes, tracked. The colleges call it ‘due interest’. American students are primed by their guidance counsellors to display interest through taking part in campus tours, attending summer programs, making phone calls and sending e-mails. All to make sure their interest in a university is logged, which may make the crucial difference as to whether a student is accepted or not. This is in addition to an application process that includes essay writing, teacher recommendations, and counsellor evaluations, proof of community service, SAT’s and school transcripts. 

In addition to all this more and more students aspire to university which puts a huge pressure on places at US Colleges. Many counsellors spoke to me of the changes in this regard, where parents have unrealistic expectations of the child’s university admission chances based on an outdated idea of how easy it was to get admitted twenty or more years ago.  Very often this pressure is transferred from high fee paying parents on to students and guidance counsellors. A university like St Andrews,as with any UK university for that matter, which does not track interest, and simply admits students based on their marks, one teacher reference and a personal statement, is like a beacon of grace. 

5 Reasons why Americans love St Andrew’s

In turn international students generally, and North American students particularly are important for Scottish universities, most notably St Andrew’s, Edinburgh and Glasgow. At any Scottish university a Scottish or EU student can go for free provided they are accepted by the university. Through some bizarre twist of political fate this means a student from Latvia can go to the University of Edinburgh for free while a student from London has to cough up some nine thousand pounds. No one at both universities I visited was either able or prepared to defend this system, understandably in my opinion.

What it also means of course is that it is very expensive for the Scottish Parliament, who have to cover the costs for every Dougal, Dimitri and Anastasia admitted to Scottish universities, no matter which part of the EU they come from, other than England, Wales and Northern Ireland of course. For this reason they cap the number of places available to Scottish and EU students. This then allows a university like St Andrew’s to supplement their funding by admitting international students who pay full fees. Internationals Admissions teams of ten or so staff at both Edinburgh and St Andrew’s make sure that they reap their share of the international harvest.  At St Andrew’s in particular many of these were American, nothing is more reassuring to an American than another American

1. Fees

The University of St Andrews and students from the U.S. are like a marriage made in heaven. Americans tend to have more money than most and so can more comfortably pay the fees required. In fact fees at UK universities compare very favourably to the expense of a Liberal Art College in the USA. Sixteen thousand pounds for tuition and six thousand for residential cost make a total of around twenty two thousand pounds a year. (About 400,000 Rand for those of you who are counting).  This is compared to forty seven thousand U.S. Dollars for a college like Lynn University (R583, 000) or fifty seven thousand (R719, 000) for somewhere like Harvard.  Fees at a Scottish university can only really be seen as cheap when compared to American standards. (Exchange rates based on 2015)


Meanwhile St Andrews are receiving sixteen thousand pounds plus for each international student that they admit that they would not otherwise have. In a country that does not have a culture of endowments to create additional income this is vital to the university’s growth and survival as a top ranked institution. This marriage like arrangement is even consummated in the form of a jointly awarded Bachelor of Arts in International Honours degree from both the St Andrew’s University and the College of William & Mary in Virginia, the second oldest college in the U.S.A.

2. Rankings

It’s also worth noting that students from the US will often look at rankings too and so for somewhere like Edinburgh (ranked as high as 17th in the World) compared to Emory (a great US Private University ranked at 156 in the same rankings but charging R531,000 per year), it’s a no-brainer.

3. Location

At the start of the conference the International Admissions team at St Andrews made a big play of Scotland’s location as an international destination hub. I had always thought of it as somewhat remote. Go to Paris (like Euro Disney) if you really want to be central in Europe. However compared to the United States, Scotland really is close to any number of countries and their capital cities. In a land where you can fly for 5 hours and still not leave national airspace this is a big selling point.

Americans don’t like leaving America. Stats vary but between 80-95% of Americans do not hold a passport. Why should they, the States are so diverse that everything they need and would want to see can be found within them.  Consider that there are 4200 universities in the USA this means that if you managed to list one hundred American Universities (go on try it) there will still be 4100 universities in the States alone that you knew nothing about.

So why leave the safety and provision of the United States? Well there are those that want to travel and gain international exposure (International relations is by far the popular course for Americans at both Edinburgh and St Andrews). If you are an American where do you go to get this? According to a recent Gallup Poll, the most loved foreign county for Americans is unsurprisingly Canada which scored a 92% favorability rating, right behind is Britain on 90%. For an American seeking an international experience the UK is perfect. It is a safe foreign destination, and what’s more they speak English and are within a few hours of well over a dozen foreign countries.

4. Liberal Arts

So why not go to England? Many do of course, but Scotland seems disproportionately popular with Americans. Perhaps it is the similarity of the Scottish degree to the Liberal Arts degree in the States. There are strong links between the Scottish and U.S. Higher Ed systems. Benjamin Franklin among others attend St Andrews and is thought to have taken back the degree structure and expanded it into the Liberal Arts model that U.S. Colleges are famed for. The relative flexibility of the Scottish degree contrasts favourable with the rigidness of the system  in the rest of the UK.

5. History

What cannot be discounted is the allure of the location of somewhere like St Andrews. As a medieval town, history and tradition are everywhere. For a relatively new country like the States, this sense of history is a big pull. Whether it is the ruins of the coastal castle hidden in the mist or the origins of tradition shrouded in the mists of time, it all adds to the atmospheric environment that a town like St Andrews creates. It genuinely looks like one of the seven ancient universities of the English speaking world that it actually is. 

The University is also associated with royalty, King James 1 or (James VI as he is known in Scotland) donated his library to St Andrews. It is also where the current Royals met. When our guide pointed out the hall where Prince William resided, out came the iPhone’s to capture the location, followed by the questions about the famous fashion show where Kate made a play to get back her man. 

What about South Africans?

Like the historic club and home of golf situated in the town, the University of St Andrews is itself both royal and ancient. It is not hard to see why this university, and its neighbour Edinburgh, are enormously attractive to Americans seeking an international experience. Like William and Kate they seem like a perfect match. But are they a good option for South Africans? More to come on this topic.