Change the world


South Africa has come a long way, with the first two decades dedicated mainly to reconciliation and nation building. However, if education and the school and post-school curricula are not transformed in meaningful ways, the dream of a non-racial and just society will remain an elusive one.

This was the compelling argument by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University educationist Prof Sylvan Blignaut as he delivered his inaugural professorial lecture at the institution on Monday night.

Prof Blignaut, who was inducted into the University’s highest academic echelon delivered his capturing speech titled “Two Decades of Curriculum Transformation: What Have We Learnt and Where Do We Go From Here?” to a packed North Campus Conference Centre Auditorium.

Prof Blignaut spoke of the various attempts at curriculum reform in democratic South Africa – from Curriculum 2005 to the current CAPS – somewhat critical of curriculum reformers’ approach as a generic and technical one to a highly nuanced educational landscape that is effectively lacking in addressing social issues present in the country today.

“As teachers and academics, we have not done enough to prepare the young for the coming and changing world in which they will be living,” he said.

“Before we can consider any future curriculum for both the schooling system and higher education, we have to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to build as there is a direct relationship between the curriculum and the desired society.”

South Africa’s higher education sector is currently grappling with calls for a decolonised curriculum in which all knowledge systems and traditions are acknowledged, without a single one being afforded elevated status over another.

Prof Blignaut is a senior academic within the University’s Faculty of Education and the first of numerous professors to deliver their inaugural addresses this year.

The Education Faculty plays an integral part in driving the University’s transformation agenda, with particular focus on transforming the curriculum and teacher education.

Prof Blignaut said while some may view this as burdensome and, like curriculum changes before it, “complex and fraught with difficulties”, this would be a perfect opportunity to reflect on the existing curriculum in higher education in general and teacher education in particular.

He said the two main purposes of education, according to Biesta, GJJ (2013), were around socialisation and subjectification.

“Through socialisation, the young are inducted into the mores and traditions of the existing society … to fit into existing social orders,” Prof Blignaut said.

“Universities and schools exert considerable influence in shaping society and therefore have significant intergenerational responsibility.

“Education institutions that see their role solely as imparting narrow skills and knowledge that prepare students only as part of the work force in a market economy negate the other important functions of education as contributing to the functioning of critical citizens in a democratic society.

“Through education and the curriculum, students should ask critical questions of society, such as whose interests are served by the curriculum … [and] whose narratives are included and whose are excluded. The central task of education and the curriculum should be the cultivation of compassionate citizens who are deeply moved by a sense of justice and the creation of a more equal and humane society.

“The curriculum should strengthen students’ resolve and commitment to strive for a different social order other than the present preoccupation with individualism, and the promotion of capitalism and profitability.

“Given the nature of South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world and the perennial problem of racism, there can be no doubt that any future curriculum should at least address these pressing issues.”

Prof Blignaut stressed that universities and schools were best placed to deal with issues of racism, power, privilege, gender and patriarchy as they were historically created for teaching and learning.

“This is a moral responsibility that institutions of higher learning in general and teacher education in particular cannot avoid. I am firmly of the view that education institutions – both schools and higher education – have not done enough in this area in addressing these pertinent issues in the nation’s classrooms,” he said.

“Citizenship education, where deliberate spaces are created for discussions about race and racism, needs to happen at school level already since by the time these students reach university they have well developed ideas about race.

“The curriculum, through its content as well as choice of pedagogies, is one of the central vehicles that can be utilised to teach about race and racism. Identity and citizenship have not been settled, but is in the making in South Africa and it is through the curriculum that schools and universities should contribute in this area.

“Historically, the curriculum in South Africa was used to advance racial iniquities and to socialise students into a particular worldview. Inversely, it could now be utilised to teach against racism and [for] the enhancement of social cohesion.”

Unlike the previously explored curricula, Prof Blignaut argues for one that is not neutral and technical, but one that is decidedly political in nature as “education is never neutral”.

“We live in dark and uncertain times, but with the tension that is so palpably present at this time and place, there is also hope as it represents an opportunity to rise to the occasion as intellectuals and contribute to debates around alternative curricula,” he said.

“It is our obligation to search for alternatives because alternatives are not given, they are imagined. There has never been a more opportune time in our history than right now.

“What we need more than ever before in South Africa is what the Greeks call a “metanoia” – a complete about-turn or change of heart; literally a spiritual conversion; a new way of seeing and perceiving.

“We need new frameworks of thinking as the old ones have become moribund and a new grammar to describe the world we live in.”

Prof. Sylvan Blignaut (middle) flanked by Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Engagement Prof. Andrew Leitch (left) and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education, Dr Muki Moeng. 

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