Education can’t be for ‘the public good’ if universities ignore rural life

Nearly 20 million South Africans live in rural areas. Why are the country’s universities so dismissive of rurality? Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Education can and should change people’s lives. Education systems ought to operate with the public good in mind. But for many South Africans, this is not the case. I would suggest that part of the reason post-colonial and post-apartheid educational policies are not succeeding is because they are biased towards outcomes that are relevant only for and to urbanised contexts. They exclude rurality.

South Africa’s rural population is more than 19 million people strong. Yet one must live, work and flourish in cities in order to find fulfilment as an “educated” individual. People who come from rural areas may however not “fit” or feel comfortable in urban settings, but their degrees may not be easily applied in their own home towns.

The education an accountant receives, for example, does not instil the desire to return to a rural area and help subsistence farmers manage their businesses and finances. Instead, their education encourages students to place more value on a corporate job managing big companies’ finances. This disconnect between educatedness and rurality may be one reason for the country’s graduate unemployment rate.

Against this backdrop, several questions arise: for which “public” are South Africa’s universities educating the younger generation? For whose “good” are they receiving this education? Which “public” receives “the good” out of students’ education?

Colonialism’s “hidden curriculum”

Universities’ ideas of “educatedness”, progress, success and relevance are all underscored by a Western definition of what constitutes a good society (one in which an atomised individual rationally pursues his own selfish good). They do not take into account concepts like Ubuntu – the idea that all people’s well-being is interconnected.

These definitions mean that the type of education graduates receive does not instil a love for the rural communities and contexts in which many of them grew up. They are not left with a desire to live and work in these spaces. This is because there are seeds inherent in the education they receive that have the potential to produce, in the long run, a disgust for rurality. Graduates are left with a bigger appetite for city life.

This, tragically, was exactly what lay at the heart of colonial education’s “hidden curriculum”. Professor Ali Abdi writes that colonial education:

never had, in design or implementation, the interests of the colonised at heart, and even if few of the natives were presumably educated, the objective was, at least at the philosophical point of view, to create a corps … who were only trained to serve as mediating buffer … between the interests of the metropolis and the “illiterates”/“uneducated” colonised millions.

Swayimane, the village in KwaZulu-Natal where the author grew up. Rural areas like these are disparaged by the education system. Emmanuel Mgqwashu

Where the West’s real power lies

When colonialism ended, Africa’s education systems were not revised to draw from local philosophies of education and knowledge generation. Post-colonial policies were not designed with an emphasis on restoring pride, confidence and dignity back to local traditional lifestyles, identities and knowledge systems. Their greatest aim was to increase the number of indigenous populations who received colonial education. This included sending people overseas to receive degrees from European universities.

These practices may seem positive and effective when taken at face value. After all, weren’t they preparing African graduates for the “global future”? The problem is that under post-colonial policies, such a future was going to be meaningful, beneficial and fulfilling only to those living in cities. The values underlying such education had no space for rurality, rural lifestyles or contexts.

This points to the persistent characteristics of Western imperialist and colonial vestiges and power over former colonies. In his book Orientalism, theorist Ziauddin Sardar writes:

The real power of the West is not located in its economic muscles and technological might. Rather, it resides in the power to define. The West defines what is, for example, freedom, progress and civil behaviour; law, tradition and community; reason, mathematics and science; what is real and what it means to be human. The non-Western civilisations have simply to accept these definitions or be defined out of existence.

Redefinition is crucial

South African educationist Professor Jonathan Jansen has blamed what he calls “the theory of political symbolism” for limited or non-existent policy implementation after apartheid. This theory, Jansen explains, is marked by “a struggle for the achievement of a broad political symbolism to mark the shift from apartheid to post-apartheid society”. In other words, passing many policies that had an anti-apartheid, democratic ‘flavour’ seems to be an end in itself, as most of them never truly liberate the previously oppressed.

Decolonisation should be seen as a much deeper project than replacing texts perceived to be colonial with texts seen as carrying a decolonising “flavour”. It’s too simplistic to merely add the work of theorists like Frantz Fanon or activists like Steve Biko to courses. Doing so remains symbolic of nothing more than academics’ desire and aspirations to decolonise.

The onus now is on academics in Africa across all fields to take back the power to redefine the purpose for which students are educated. This should involve redefining the concepts of “educatedness”, “progress”, “success” and “relevance”. What are these concepts’ purposes, functions and the roles they potentially have to play - not just in cities and urban contexts?

These redefinitions, along with a reimagining of curricula, represent a crucial aspect of decolonising the entire education system from primary school through to university. Academics must strategically bring back what Abdi describes as “intersections of life and learning”. At the moment, values that characterise rurality, rural lifestyles and contexts – such as the philosophy of Ubuntu – are absent from our idea of “educatedness”. This means that talent, resourcefulness, ideas and expertise from these spaces are silenced.

If the education system does not grapple with this exclusion, there will forever be a large population within the “public” for whom education can never be said to be “for their good”. Educatedness will persistently be for the private good – for “me”, “myself” and “I”.

Academics have a choice

Academics in Africa have a choice to take back the power to define. It is up to us to redefine educatedness, and indeed re-imagine an education system that will produce graduates with knowledge and skills that also speak to rurality. This system must affirm the uniqueness of rural life and the ever-present yet largely invisible wisdom that rural contexts could provide to South Africa. Such education can confidently be defined as being for the public good.