Pledging to Debate History: Values and education

This article deals with values and education in South Africa, and more specifically the proposed 'pledge'. Please read the article and send us your comments on this debate. We will be posting all of your comments on our blog.

Pledging to Debate History

The pledge proposed by the Minister of Education and purportedly coming from the Presidency has provoked a storm of controversy. Some are dismayed that the Department is introducing the idea of a pledge at a time when our education system is facing considerably more pressing challenges than learners' patriotism.  Some see in the pledge a cynical attempt to divert attention from the pressing problems facing the countries educational system. Others point out that an earlier initiative under Kader Asmal (Previous Head of Education) was far more consultative and wonder why that mode has been abandoned. Then there are those who view the taking of a pledge as a crude indoctrination of our youth. One thing is clear; the search for a way to instill universal values and build a caring and just society is a pressing need and the introduction of this pledge has initiated a important debate. The question is will the debate be allowed to take place or is the pledge a fait accompli?

Regrettably, much of the debate thus far has ignored or glossed over the fact that there is so little understanding of what is it is that makes up our values, how our values have evolved, and what role, if any, values play in holding together a country and a nation. But if our recent past has taught us anything, it is that belief in a common vision informed by a basic set of human values - dignity, justice, freedom, respect - is enough to make a relatively peaceful transition from an unjust and brutal system to a new democracy. Values do have a role to play and have historically played that role. The freedom struggle was won politically, but as a society we are still grappling with the brutal legacy of racism and inequality and are now faced with the task of promoting social cohesion and social justice. This is one of our most compelling challenges.

But it is also true that the lack of cohesion can be laid at our government's doorstep. Questions should be asked about the government's inability to deal with the growing inequality in our society, which weakens social cohesion. Questions should also be asked about the discrepancy between the government's commitment to fostering social cohesion and the attitude and behavior of government leaders. The moral failure of our democracy's political leadership encourages a cynical attitude toward social cohesion as a credible and desirable goal.

The Department of Education has a division titled Race and Values in Education which is tasked with promoting values and dealing with the legacy of racism in our schools. It will be important to know what impact its programs have at the school level. Is the division sufficiently resourced? Are its efforts sufficiently integrated across subjects and grades within the education system? Since the Department's 2001 conference to forge its values policies there has been very little critical engagement on the benefit of the Values in Education program within the Department.  

Pledges don't instill values. Values are instilled by learning to engage critically with the past. We need to create a learning environment in which children can learn about the basic human rights instilled in the Constitution and relate them to their own circumstances. Children should be taught that they have the right to ask questions if they don't have qualified teachers or basic resources, and to demand their right to a safe learning environment. They should know that a pledge is a two way process. They cannot be expected to have faith in the constitution, if the system fails them.

A cornerstone of the proposed pledge is that learners derive their core values - notably respect, dignity and justice - from South Africa's long struggle for justice and freedom. Yet, surely you cannot expect young people to look back at our history and fully understand the sacrifices that went in the struggle for freedom or to fully understand how the values in our constitution evolved if history is only a compulsory subject up until grade nine. Without a firm grasp of our past and how the core values in our constitution evolved, the pledge will merely amount to a series of words. It is therefore vital that the study of history and heritage be made a compulsory subject for all learners if we seriously want to promote social cohesion and social justice in South Africa.

The debate around the school pledge is welcomed and should be encouraged. We need consensus on the pledge's two most significant features; that it advocates values laudable in any society, and that we have a rich heritage that we can draw on as we reflect on the struggles and sacrifices that have shaped our value system. But there should be an open debate about the wording of the pledge. There should be a review process to evaluate history materials produced and disseminated to schools. The Education Department should be given the resources to educate the educators before asking children to buy into the initiative. Finally, the State President needs to know that he cannot impose his will through working groups that exclude students, workers, parents and educators. No society can develop social cohesion if the state does not actively engage its citizens into fashioning policy and implementing development. Did we learn nothing from Polokwane?

On the 17th of April this year SAHO and other stakeholders will be commemorating 350 years since the formation of the first formal school in the country. It was a school established by Commandant Van Riebeeck for slave children captured from West Africa and brought to the newly established 'station' at the Cape. The purpose of the school was to teach the children the catechism and how to be good and obedient workers. 350 years later we are faced with the daunting task of building a nation based on the values of our constitution and we should make sure that our government does not introduce a new catechism that is not build on a firm foundation.

We want to extend an open public invitation to the State President to join us and start a proper debate on how to deal with building our schools' capacity to deal with the complex issue of values. If we want to talk about leaving a legacy it should not be freedom monuments, but rather places of learning that will embody all that is good and profound in our constitution and produce citizens that will be proud of our non-racial, non-sexist and just democracy.

Last updated : 18-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 31-Mar-2011