Hope for the Freedom Charter
– what Democratic Self-Directed Education could offer
by Je’anna L Clements
Part 1 – Social Justice
“The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace.” – from the Freedom Charter 1955
Throughout the recorded history of the world, many great thinkers have intuited that education is key to social change. After all, education (including that part of education accomplished through the parent-child relationship) is the primary mechanism of enculturation.
However, as much as education has supported change, it has not been the panacea that many have hoped it would be. Even the late Dr Neville Alexander conceded that “most scientists have given up as naive the idea that school ‘can build a social order’; that formal education can initiate fundamental social, political and economic changes.” *
However, as Ivan Illich pointed out, education has mostly been ‘schooled’. In fact, most South Africans in 2017 still assume that the word ‘education’ is synonymous with the word ‘schooling’.
Paulo Freire called school-style education the ‘banking’ model, where empty students wait to receive deposits from the teacher. This means that schooling by definition is a ‘charity’ style model where the ‘benefit’ comes from the top, down. The giver is the authority who chooses what to give, and the receiver should be grateful whether the gift fits their actual needs, or not. The receiver’s lower status is reinforced by the transaction. This aligns with the social physics of oppression.
What is more, Imposed Schooling (IS), the Western mainstream norm, happens to students without their consent, under conditions of forced participation. No wonder then, that when we try to use this kind of system to make deposits concerning social justice and unity – the payments bounce! The explicit messages we try to instil are contradicted by the implicit oppression inherent in the process we use to try to instill them.
Are we surprised that our schools have so largely become places of abuse and failure, that our youth experience compulsory schooling as a kind of ‘day jail’? Are we surprised that our children seem to be learning to oppress each other, with schools becoming increasing hotbeds of racial tension, class prejudice, gender violence and xenophobia?
We all know that we need something better than this. I believe that one reason our education department has not managed better, is that deep inside, their hearts just aren’t in it. The problem has been, we don’t know what to do instead. We have believed that this is what education is – Imposed Schooling.
One problem is, that the Imposed Schooling model is a leftover from the days of our colonial oppression. It is a dehumanising system that operates through forcing those with less power to obey those with more power. Children must obey teachers. Parents and teachers must obey the Education Department. Even when children or parents or teachers deeply object what they are told to do, they have to do it or face punishment – even imprisonment! ‘For their own good!’
This simply doesn’t fit with what we would like to achieve in post-apartheid South Africa.
Even well-resourced private schools with high pass rates suffer from the same social physics. The children may sometimes be happier there, and the parents and even teachers may feel that they have some say in the running of the school. But it is still a ‘banking’ style system, and deposits that concern social justice, are likely to bounce. Currently, there is a widespread assumption that upgrading South African education entails putting more money into poor schools in order to make them more like rich schools. While this can make a difference, it is not a difference that affects the social physics.
What we need, if we want our children to learn to live in dignity, freedom, equality, mutual respect and harmony, is a solidarity-style model of education, where interaction is horizontal rather than vertical.
Children learn what they live.
Imposed Schooling teaches children that those with more power should force those with less power to do what they are told, whether or not they agree that it is ‘for their own good’. How can we use such a system to teach equality and respect? We can’t.
To bring about the social change we want to see in our society, our educational process must itself be socially just, respectful, egalitarian and harmonious.
If children are treated with respect, as equals, and partnered in solving their conflicts peacefully and democratically, that is what they will learn.
In some otherwise conventional schools that have embraced restorative justice as a discipline method, some progress has been made in this direction. However, the top-down model of Imposed Schooling remains, inherently, a model of oppression, no matter how kindly the ‘deposit’ is dispensed.
For school experiences to build a new social order and initiate fundamental social, political and economic change, the process must change from vertical to horizontal, from charity to solidarity.
Here is the fear – to do this we will have to treat children as truly equal partners in their own education. They will have to be free to choose what to do – and what not to do. What if all we end up with, is children who learn love and egalitarian respect, but cannot read or do enough maths to manage their money?
The problem is, we are prejudiced against children. We believe they are foolish, irresponsible, and incapable of making wise decisions. We have believed that we must make their decisions for them, ‘for their own good.’ This can seem to be ‘truth’. Children are small, and still learning. But it is important to stop and think.
Let us consider our own history.
Was there a time when ‘white’ people considered ‘black’ people foolish, irresponsible, and incapable of making wise decisions, and made well-meant paternalistic decisions for them, ‘for their own good’?
Was there a time when men considered women foolish, irresponsible, and incapable of making wise decisions, and made well-meant paternalistic decisions for them, ‘for their own good’?
Is there a chance that some of our beliefs about children and education are based on prejudice rather than truth?
Are we blind to our own ‘childism’ in the same kind of way that well-meaning charitable ‘white’ people were often blind to their own racism?
When we look at children in Imposed Schooling systems and see that many of them do avoid and sabotage their own education, apparently going against their own good – is this because that is how children are? Or is that just how some children react against being educationally oppressed?
Here’s the news – and if you haven’t heard this before, you may want to sit down.
There are places where children (even of pre-school and primary age) have been given 100% responsibility for their own education, supported by egalitarian adult partners who are resources for the children to access according to their own choice, not ‘teachers’ who direct and grade their learning.
It has been done, and it’s been done for decades already. We can see and assess the outcomes.
It’s being done right now in different locations all over the world.
The finding is that, when they are given the right environment including the right kind of peer and adult ‘partners’, children do successfully self-educate.
The places where children have been given 100% responsibility for their own education include some ‘unschooling’ families, as well as Democratic Self-Directed Education (DeSDE) facilities such as ‘Sudbury schools’ and “free schools”.
Here I want to take a moment to distinguish Imposed Schooling from facilities where Democratic Self-Directed Education facilitation is offered, some of which also get called ‘schools’.
When DeSDE facilities are called ‘school’, it is for the sake of convenience, in order to easily communicate that they are places that children can go, in order to augment and facilitate their education. In some places it is necessary to call them ‘school’ in order for children to have legal permission to attend during ‘school hours’.
However, at a DeSDE ‘school’ there is no teacher, only companions of different ages, including adults. Some of these adults are called ‘staff’, but they are humbly conscious of being learners themselves. Adults do not decide how children spend their time, or pass judgement on what children produce. Adults and children of all ages have equal rights and receive equal respect. There is no concept that age confers any inherent extra dignity or privilege.
At a DeSDE facility, there is no ‘principal’ in charge. Communal decisions, including hiring and firing of staff, and deployment of budget, are made by a process of participatory (not representative) democracy, in which each community member has an equal vote, regardless of age.
There is true freedom of association with no age or gender segregation, and each person is free to seek educational support from any of their peers or any staff member of their choice, or not.
There is no curriculum, because each person lives their own educational process, creating their own 100% individualised educational career. That, is educational responsibility.
Life experience, play, conversation and voluntary collaboration are considered equal and often better learning opportunities, than ‘lessons’.
Real world experience is valued, and the broader community is mined for mentoring and apprenticeship opportunities, rather than ensuring that permanent staff have specific ‘qualifications’.
There is no testing, nor any form of unsolicited evaluation, because only the learner can know whether their learning goal has been satisfactorily accomplished. That, is egalitarian respect.
DeSDE communities produce graduates who are more likely than average, to work in NGO’s and social justice careers. They do also produce professional-quality artists and musicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, engineers and doctors – in fact, a higher proportion of DeSDE graduates go on to succeed at tertiary studies, than graduates of IS. However, among DeSDE graduates, this is more often a result of genuine vocational passion rather than default consumerist rat-racing.
DeSDE graduates are often dismayed to find that many tertiary companions are just there to party rather than engage in mutual intellectual stimulation. DeSDE graduates have always known freedom, and grown into their responsibilities, rather than just crashing into them after release from IS at 18!
Significantly, DeSDE communities are far more likely than IS systems, to produce happy, fulfilled people who are at peace with their fellows, who have a real sense of personal responsibility and empowerment along with accountability to community, and who work to change the world for the better rather than accepting a toxic status quo. They are also more likely to produce people who are capable of creating their own employment, rather than passively waiting for jobs or welfare.
About all that a DeSDE ‘school’ has in common with an IS facility, is that there are more children there than adults, and what they’re busy with is ‘education’.
A DeSDE school environment is so completely different to an Imposed Schooling environment, that in countries where prejudice prevails, they are sometimes even made illegal.
Right now in South Africa, it is not possible to register a DeSDE facility as an independent school.
So, South Africa limits herself to offering different flavours of Imposed Schooling.
Yet, Imposed Schooling is, by definition, limited in its ability to support social change.
Imposed Schooling is reasonably effective in changing cultural content – it can be successfully used as a tool for selective indoctrination. However, when it comes to changing social process and the underlying values that inform our social behaviours, the impact of Imposed Schooling is uni-directional:
Imposed Schooling can be used to obliterate participatory and collaborative cultural practices, and instill competition, oppression and violence as cultural norms. It cannot be used to do the reverse.
When one tries to use Imposed schooling, for example, to ‘teach human rights’, the attempt backfires.
When children are presented with an explicit lesson that is contradicted by an implicit lesson, they learn the implicit lesson. This is why hitting a child in order to stop them hitting another child, backfires – the adult has used hitting to get their way, confirming for the child that hitting is how you get your way – just don’t get caught.
When you force children, against their will, to take a lesson about the importance of consent, you teach them that force trumps consent.
So, how do we teach children about freedom of association by making them sit in a classroom with assigned companions when they would rather be outside consulting with their friends?
How do we teach children to move beyond prejudice when the very fact of ‘teaching’ them is an expression of our own prejudice?
How do we teach them to respect others, when that ‘teaching’ process is by definition, an act of disrespect towards a human being who is perfectly capable of learning their own lessons?
In a DeSDE situation, children learn respect for others because they are themselves respected.
They learn compassion by receiving it.
They learn social justice by experiencing it, and coming to regard it as a desirable norm.
They implicitly learn Freedom Charter values, regardless of whether these are ever explicitly presented.
And, ironically, we would not be able to ‘teach’ children about the Freedom Charter in a DeSDE environment.
We could make sure that it is visibly available. We could offer a discussion group with the Freedom Charter as our subject. Many children might accept that invitation. But we could not ensure that each and every child would learn about the Freedom Charter.
But, what is the value of 100 children learning ‘about’ the Freedom Charter if none of them live its ideals? Let us compare that, to the value of 100 children learning to live its ideals, while only a few are sufficiently interested to read the actual words.
Like the Zen master who, it has been claimed, can only levitate once he no longer aspires to do so, ironically we cannot successfully practice DeSDE with the aim of shaping children into world-changing citizens. This is because the moment we hold an outcome in mind to which we want children to conform, we are no longer practising DeSDE!
However, it is evident that DeSDE communities do not suffer from the levels of bullying, discrimination, prejudice and abuse that are so frequent within Imposed Schooling. It is also evident that a disproportionate number of DeSDE graduates choose careers and lifestyles that benefit their communities and our planetary ecology.
There are many, many other reasons for South Africa to urgently explore DeSDE education – it is cheaper, more humane, easy to deploy in rural and poverty-stricken areas, offers more holistic
options than just academia, and will result in a workforce with a wider range of skills and abilities, as well as a more collaborative and proactive attitude.
DeSDE projects are collaboratively and continuously shaped by each learning community to fit their own unique needs at that place and time. This makes it an optimal model to facilitate cultural and linguistic as well as vocational and academic diversity.
However, by definition, DeSDE cannot be rolled out in a top-down fashion. It must be grown from the grass roots up – in true Freedom Charter style. It is this author’s belief that DeSDE can nevertheless become the primary educational model in South Africa within the next three decades. South Africa still knows how to mobilise her masses – this time to build instead of break down.
Quite aside from the benefit to our children, and our future, DeSDE tends to bring healing and a sense of meaning to the adults involved, too. It is real change that we can make happen with our own hands. This could be just the tonic to remedy our national despair. Give our children the power to move us, and we’ll be soon be building and shaping our country in concrete ways we can’t yet imagine.
And now, let us pause to ask – why should we import DeSDE? Isn’t importation a part of the problem?
While it is true that most of the DeSDE projects and research have developed in other parts of the world, let us excavate a critically important project from our own heritage.
When Nelson Mandela, Mac Maharaj, Neville Alexander, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and the other political icons of our country found themselves imprisoned on Robben Island without access to conventional educational institutions, what did they do?
They founded what is essentially a DeSDE university!
They learned as they worked. They learned from each other. They even embraced and included warders in the process.
“We taught one another what we knew, discovering each other’s resourcefulness. We also learned how people with little or no formal education could not only themselves participate in education programmes but actually teach others a range of different insights and skills. The “University of Robben Island” was one of the best universities in the country. It also showed me that you don’t need professors.” – Dr Neville Alexander
The outcome? The graduates of Robben Island university became powerful architects of enormous social and political change!
This author does not propose that we ‘import’ DeSDE. Rather, let us draw on international resources to create ourselves a safety net while we learn to balance and find our own ways.
For example, the Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) in the USA has defined some of the conditions that support DeSDE best practice. The European Democratic Education Community (Eudec) helps to facilitate international exchange programmes. We can learn from the playful approach of The People’s Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development, Shikshantar, in India. There are other initiatives we can share with and learn from in South America, and elsewhere. Just as our leaders brought in books from beyond their walls, let us bring in what will be useful to us.
And then, like our leaders, let us co-create what truly works for us at the most intimate micro levels – community by diverse and wonderful learning community, month by month, and year by year. Let us leave behind the myths that global and standardised are the ways to meet our unique and changing needs. Let us legally and financially support our grass roots communities as they discover and embrace a process of educational evolution that can grow and evolve with each student and each community, for the good of our country as a whole.
DeSDE communities until now have been niche, tiny islands of sanity within the vast and turbulent ocean of globally Imposed Schooling. It will be exciting to find out how much impact DeSDE can have, once it becomes the educational norm of a given society.
Whether or not DeSDE can indeed deliver us from all social evils, it is inarguable that it can play an invaluable role in helping South Africa transition to a society that better embodies the Freedom Charter vision – and the heritage of our leaders.
*Dr Alexander’s address Education in South Africa – Limits and Possibilities of Independent Interim Action, delivered to the inaugural conference of the Education Co-ordinating Council of South Africa, 1993
Part 2 – How DeSDE Speaks to each part of the Freedom Charter
The People Shall Govern
Representative Party Political Democracy was the only viable way to govern before we had the internet. Now that we have almost universal connectivity and cell-phones even in the pockets of manual labourers, participatory democracy is viable for the first time. We can organise ourselves according to our personal values and priorities, spending time to make happen, that which matters to us personally.
Spontaneously and increasingly, we are already organising ourselves along these lines. Community Whatsapp groups coordinate a range of issues – from repainting stop-streets, to preventing crime, to upgrading parks. Students are able to organise as never before, as are unions and special interest groups.
However, our “Imposed Schooling” education system still trains our citizens to be recipients, not participants. We don’t do a fraction of what we could, because schooling has sapped our confidence. At the very least, our masses wait for permission, at worst, they passively wait to be paid – or forced – to act. Let’s note – less and less of our citizens even bother to go to the polls to cast a simple, single vote.
Some voices have suggested that this is deliberate on the part of our government – that an ignorant and passive populace is more likely to allow themselves to be exploited by those at the top. If so, this has backfired, since the country is losing international status as a result, making those top positions a lot less powerful and rewarding than they could have been. It is also leading to an increasingly destabilised and dysfunctional system that takes a lot of effort to govern.
Democratic Self Directed Education raises citizens who are used to taking initiative and being proactive, while still being responsible and accountable to the whole. It accustoms them to taking responsibility rather than trying to shirk responsibility. It gives them lifelong practice in doing what needs to be done.
All national groups shall have equal rights
An authoritarian school system that emphasises interaction with textbooks over human interaction, gives little opportunity for children to learn real social skills. Emphasis on competition incentivises a ‘better than’ aspiration in students. Children under pressure are more likely to bully others. Teachers under pressure to deliver a curriculum seldom have time or skills to deal with bullying.
Treatment of children as lesser citizens is not only a de-facto oppression of a group of people (children), but it teaches children to scorn and mistreat the ‘other’. This lesson is not lost when they reach adulthood, instead, it seeks out new ways to apply itself. In this way, Imposed Schooling keeps racial and gender prejudice and xenophobia alive.
Democratic Self-Directed Education is primarily an experience of relationship. Each interaction is subject to the rules or agreements within that community. There is less bullying because there is less stress. Where there is problematic interaction, it is dealt with directly, because every ‘victim’ has full and equal access to the mechanisms necessary to address it.
In this way DeSDE provides citizens with childhood experience in conflict resolution and gets them used to seeing things solved. They grow up with an expectation of equal rights for both themselves and others, as well as practical experience in putting things to rights when they go wrong.
DeSDE also offers a rare advantage in terms of making education in all home languages everywhere, a real possibility.
The people shall share in the country’s wealth
“Imposed Schooling” trains us to accept what we get and don’t get. Everything comes from the top down. It simultaneously instills a sense of entitlement (we sit still and wait to be given), and a sense of helplessness (if we don’t get, we have no idea what to do about it). It raises citizens who either suffer in silence or lash out in resentment when they get sick of suffering in silence. Neither is constructive.
Democratic Self-Directed Education offers direct practical experience in collaborative negotiation around resource management and sharing. It equips citizens with the ability to be sensible and realistic about resources, at the same time as giving them an expectation of fair participation.
The land shall be shared among those who work it
In Imposed Schooling, there is an expectation of a free handout of a textbook for each and every student – whether they use it or not. In the same way, some citizens currently have an expectation that arable land should be given to them, or kept by them, even if they are not realistically able to do anything with it.
In Democratic Self-Directed Education, you use what you use, and when you’re not using it, someone else gets to use it. You don’t sit and passively hog something that someone else could be using. It’s a good lesson. At both the micro level – and the macro.
What is the point of sharing out the land, when nobody will work it unless someone else first finds the money to pay them to sweat? What is the point of sharing out the land, when those who are paid to work it have learned farming from a book and haven’t the practical experience to apply that ‘knowledge’?
Imposed Schooling puts immense emphasis on academic education, actively preventing children from participation in practical community activities. White collar jobs are the only aspiration, and trades and manual skills are stigmatised.
In Imposed Schooling, children are warehoused apart from adults so that they have no opportunity to learn naturally through assisting and apprenticing, and the transmission of applied traditional wisdoms is prevented. Child labour laws that appropriately protect children from exploitation, can also prevent children who choose to, from having rich childhood experiences in natural and traditional occupations.
In a recent radio interview Thabo Mbeki shared a conversation that he had with his mother, lamenting that previously farmed land stood fallow due to the lack of labour that has resulted from the loss of children to schools, and adults to cities to try and earn school fees for quality education.
When working to ‘pass’ Imposed Schooling exams, there is indeed no time for the child to benefit from more natural educational opportunities.
Democratic Self-Directed Education offers an incredible opportunity for children to remain embedded in what functional communities remain or can be repaired, while getting the kind of education that gives them a real choice about what to do with their lives later on.
We could see fields tended by inter-generational communities, with children getting all the goodness of the outdoor environment while learning how to nurture the land. With DeSDE it is no longer an either/or – the very same children can also get what they need to become doctors, professors or lawyers – if that is truly their individual aptitude and passion.
DeSDE offers us the opportunity to combine the best of all worlds.
What is more, because DeSDE equally supports each child’s unique talent profile and interest range, it does not create artificial emphasis on some learning pursuits rather than others. The ‘academic’ child does not receive more attention and praise than the child who masters practical skills. DeSDE allows children to grow up with full respect for self and others regardless of choice of occupation.
In this way, the child with a heart built for farming will not feel inferior, and will not grow up to go to the city for no good reason to become yet another squatter when they could have been proudly and successfully working the land in sustainable ways. Finally, their DeSDE education would give them practical skills from a variety of sources, instead of only knowledge from a book, equipping them for agricultural excellence rather than disaster.
All shall be equal before the law
In Imposed Schooling we learn that the younger and physically smaller or more marginalised we are, the less the law protects us.
We learn that the bully’s buddy and the teacher’s pet are positions to aspire to.
Instead of learning to follow the law, we learn how to not get caught.
Is it any surprise that our country is plagued by corruption and buddy-economics? That’s exactly what we taught our citizens, in school. That’s what they learned to master, because that’s the implicit curriculum they were given.
Democratic Self-Directed Education gives equal and sufficient access to due process, to each and every person. The four-year old can take on the errant adult, safely, easily and with good results. The five year old can be a social justice champion for the teenager. Everyone learns that they are accountable, and everyone gets used to transparency.
DeSDE offers training in the kind of citizenship that our country needs – desperately.
All shall enjoy equal human rights
There is a very subtle kind of social cold-war around the globe right now, between competitive individualism vs collective welfare.
Democratic Self-Directed Education is the only model this author has encountered, that successfully supports full individual rights and self-actualisation, within a collaborative context that prioritises the good of the whole.
It has the capacity to educate us in a new way of being, to bring about a social order where individual and collective needs can finally be reconciled.
What is more, DeSDE is the only system this author has found, that can accord children the full range of rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), while involved in educational activities. As stated in General Comment 1.8, “Children do not lose their human rights by virtue of passing through the school gates.” Imposed Schooling, for example requires significant compromise on children’s rights such as freedom of association and expression, the right to play, and more.
For this reason, DeSDE is also a most effective system for teaching children an implicit human rights curriculum in a way that is effective and can be integrated into adult practice. This is the topic of an entire separate document by this author and will not be repeated here.
There shall be work and security
At the time of writing, more than half of South African youth are unemployed. What are those youth doing?
In South Africa today, there is so much that needs doing. Houses need building and repairing, children need feeding and educating – but far too many adults make no contribution, because not ’employed.’
It is all very well for wealthy countries to use a style of education that actively trains citizens to sit and wait to be told what to do. Very possibly it may suit some of them to have docile masses who will quietly watch TV while living on social services handouts.
Africa cannot afford that style of education.
We cannot afford to keep training our citizens to passively wait to be spoon-fed jobs just like they were spoon-fed lessons. We need citizens who will create their own employment, and, do what our country needs doing on the way.
We cannot keep training our citizens to duck and dive and try to get away with not doing the jobs they have. It is this author’s experience that Imposed Schooling creates an avoidance culture, where one hates the work, so one tries to get away with doing the minimum. That is the lesson learned and carried to adulthood.
Worst of all, by rewarding students for completion of what they know is pointless ‘make work’, and rewarding them with marks simply for complying with commands, Imposed Schooling does not give citizens the necessary discernment to evaluate their contribution. “I’m not here to achieve something real, I’m here to get rewarded for showing up and being obedient” is a problematic attitude.
The change we need is not about teaching more agriculture and tourism classes instead of physics and geography. The big shift comes when we realise that the impact of education doesn’t come from the content of the curriculum, but from its subtext.
It’s not just what you teach – it’s how you teach it. The implicit lesson is far more important than the explicit lesson.
Teach your populace to sit still and wait, doing nothing till they are supervised – and you will get a passive populace that sit and do nothing but wait, when there aren’t enough jobs. It doesn’t matter whether you taught them physics or domestic science, maths or agricultural theory – they will be more often passive and dependent than proactive and self-sufficient.
Let children grow up active, creating their own education, and you will more likely have a populace that is active, responding to what needs doing rather than waiting for supervision. The content of what they learned becomes almost irrelevant – because they have learned how to learn, and have confidence in themselves. This enables them to learn what they need, flexibly, as life circumstances change. It gives them the drive to get something happening, because it feels unnatural to sit and wait.
Empowerment is more easily maintained, than entrained. Children are naturally empowered, naturally active and spontaneous. Stop killing that off with stuffy classroom rules, rewards and punishments, and exam papers full of right and wrong. Let their confidence and spontaneity remain, and let it mature.
And for those in whom it has been suppressed for 12 years, let us try to resurrect it, because…
The doors of learning and culture shall be opened
It’s not too late for our unemployed youth, but we need to take action – urgently.
We sold them the dream – that education was their ticket to freedom and wealth. The dream was a bubble that burst, and now they lie around in depression – or strike out in resentment, searching for someone to blame.
They dragged themselves through the misery of school – and now the illusion has shattered. Their studies have given them nothing.
If anything, their studies have taken away exactly what they need most (and what our country most urgently needs from them) – initiative, a sense of personal efficacy and agency, and a sense of collaborative responsibility.
Imposed Schooling largely trains them to compete and not team up; to attack each other rather than supporting each other. Imposed Schooling largely divides to rule.
Imposed Schooling trains them in self-doubt, trains them to look to some authority for permission and reassurance that they are on the right track. To check if they are right or wrong. To never make a move on their own initiative.
Imposed Schooling trains them to fear experimentation and giving things a try, because they were punished for making mistakes.
We need to tell them, urgently – “sorry, you learned how to pass tests, but you did not get an education.”
Education is indeed still the key to a full and successful life, but education is not learning how to regurgitate a textbook.
The beauty of SDE is, that it is a life-long learning model. It is never too late.
Instead of a clear division between grades, between child and adult education, DeSDE is a fluid model that can easily make it feel natural for a thirty-year-old to learn the same things as a ten-year old, without shame.
Those unemployed youth could return and finally get a real education:
They could take the chance to discover their own sense of empowerment. Regrow their confidence.
They could find out what it is they enjoy, what makes them tick, what gift they have to offer.
They could get a sense of their impact on the collective – and start to make choices about how to use their time and energy.
They could learn to collaborate, and find their place in the team – not in competition, but in construction.
Can you imagine a South Africa where the 15-30 age group comes alive? Learns to build by building? Learns to plant by planting? Learns to grow by growing?
Can you imagine a South Africa where the twenty-or even fifty-year old can study advanced levels of organic chemistry, theatre or art history just because they want to and are capable, without having to first go back through all the red-tape to try to get a ‘matric’ let alone trying to win a bursary to do so?
The “Imposed Schooling” model cannot offer that. DeSDE can.
There shall be houses, security, and comfort
What do we do when there are not houses, security and comfort?
“Imposed Schooling” trains us to expect authority to provide for our needs. As much as it is indeed a government’s responsibility to provide for the people, it is far better for all concerned when this is done in an inclusive and participatory way.
A government rushing to supply houses, often makes slapdash, standardised houses that may or may not suit the needs of the people who occupy them.
Democratic Self-Directed Education teaches citizens to look for support and resources, to support them in meeting their own needs, rather than to have things done for them.
Imagine a South Africa where communities petition the government for specific resources that fit their local needs, and work together collaboratively to create their own, custom-built housing that supports their own community needs. Imagine.
There shall be peace and friendship
Overall, South Africa is suffering from a leftover ‘top-down’ structuring that leaves everyone disempowered and the country impoverished.
The spirit of the Freedom Charter is not one of vertical charity where those who ‘have’, get to choose between hogging the goodies for themselves, or supplying on demand to disempowered ‘have-nots’.
The spirit of the Freedom Charter, the legacy of our struggle, is one of solidarity. It is about horizontal, mutual support between equals.
Education is enculturation.
For as long as South Africa enculturates the populace using an Imposed Schooling system that works top-down and implicitly teaches disempowerment and inequality, there will be problems implementing the vision of the Freedom Charter.
Instead of the old divide and rule, we need to unite and collaborate in a spirit of personal empowerment and mutual dignity.
This is what Democratic Self-Directed Education can help our country to learn.
This is how DeSDE can help us make the Freedom Charter dream, a living reality.
Part 3 – How DeSDE Can Help Us Tackle Some of Our Current Educational Crises
As previously stated, DeSDE is the one and only educational model that this author has seen so far that is able to truly reconcile optimal individual development and expression, with communal sustainability and collective well-being. It brings the best of individualism together with the best of ‘uBuntu’.
Let’s take a brief look at a few of the issues South Africa currently battles with, and how they can be remedied by DeSDE.
- Education for social justice and equality.
Conventional colonial-style schooling can never offer effective education in equality and social justice.
Even if ‘equality’ and ‘social justice’ are explicitly taught as part of the prescribed curriculum, they are taught within a non-consensual context where equality and social justice are practically compromised in order to deliver the lesson to the learner.
The learner has no right to choose whether to learn this, or even a choice about whether to attend the class, or the school itself. The learner does not feel equal to the teacher, or even to the learner at the next desk. The learner has no power to shape, challenge or change the lesson, the curriculum, or the institution itself. There is no access to decision-making and no mechanism to resolve social injustice.
So the learner learns ‘about’ equality and social justice, but does not personally experience equality and social justice – if anything, they experience the exact opposite. So, the subject becomes academic – at some Platonic level out there, equality and justice may reside, but here in my life, they’re just a fairytale that might one day become true once I ‘grow up’. So, these become buzzwords to debate, without real world application.
Chester Pierce and Gail Allen in 1975, and following their traditions Elisabeth Young-Breuhl in 2012, contend that what they call “childism” (prejudice and maltreatment against those of small size and young age), is the root of all prejudice, oppression, alienation and violence.
It is the original and almost universal experience of oppression that teaches each of us how to be an oppressor, as well as motivating us to socially externalise vengeance for our own oppression, and become oppressors of those we perceive as having less power.
If these theorists are right (and my own experience suggests that they are,) then only an education system that treats children completely without prejudice, as true moral equals to adults, can lay the necessary foundations for the eradication of all other forms of prejudice.
The DeSDE alternative –
* Everyone in the learning community gets a first-hand, full-time experience of what it is to be a valued equal among valued equals.
* The full spectrum of children’s rights are lived in full, whether or not they are learned ‘about’.
* Social justice is a daily practice in process – a way of life learned at the micro, interpersonal level, which can then be extrapolated out to a critical experience of the world out there.
* Every individual is empowered to make their own choices, and to shape their learning environment.
* At the same time every individual is accountable for their actions, and responsible for the sustainability of the whole.
* Communication leads to empathy for the other, which leads to ethical behaviour rooted in compassion and comprehension rather than superficial fear of consequences, rewards and punishments.
Free to grow in a space where they can openly challenge adults on age-ist/’childist’ attitudes and actions, children do not internalise a sense of inferiority and therefore have no need to act out and project it at others – either as children, or as adults.
It is notable that iterations of prejudice such as sexism, racism and xenophobia, don’t seem to feature much in DeSDE facilities with long-term well established communities, in comparison to the rest of society and mainstream schools in particular.
It would be worthwhile to document this with detailed research – because if this true, then this form of education could significantly change the face of our society in a single generation once it goes to scale.
Why attend school when to do so means I could be discriminated against, bullied, abused, even raped?
A place where so many people are stressed and unhappy that negative interactions are almost the norm?
A place where only the ‘top’ few people in my class of forty-odd students will ever get to feel like ‘winners’?
When so little that I’m taught interests me, or feels relevant to my life.
Where there’s no place for my personal problems or current passions – I have to put aside my grief at my Grandmother’s passing, as well as my questions about why the sun casts shadows, (on pain of punishment) and learn this list so I can compete to compete in the Spelling Bee.
It does not help to penalise children and parents for truancy when the underlying causes of truancy are not addressed. DeSDE addresses these underlying causes.
The DeSDE alternative –
* Learning community members attend with joy because attendance is meaningful and fulfilling.
* Participatory democratic conflict resolution means that empathy and respect are learned, and bullying and abuse are effectively resolved and prevented.
* It is not up to ‘authority’ to make sure this happens – every individual is personally empowered and able to set in motion the necessary processes for conflict resolution.
* Non-competitive and collaborative values mean that every individual is respected and valued regardless of ability and achievement.
* Participation is voluntary in any case, so there is no attendance to monitor and enforce.
* Learning is always meaningful, because it embodies my interests rather than forcing them aside.
Even when our children succeed in passing their matric, they often can do nothing with it. They often sit in despair, unemployed.
The DeSDE alternative –
* I have never been educationally spoon-fed so I won’t expect that of life.
* I have equipped myself to find and create ways to live well, regardless of ‘job offers’.
*I know what it is to live in harmony, and help shape and sustain the best of a collaborative world.
*I know what it is to be a functioning part of a social ecosystem, where I have unique and inherent value.
*I can take that knowing forward, and help make a larger social reality just as good as the one I learned as I grew, regardless of whether I am paid to do so, because –
* I haven’t learned to perform for external rewards, so I will only pursue these when they align with my internal satisfaction –
* I have learned that work towards an end I value is intrinsically rewarding.
* I have learned to initiate, collaborate, innovate – everything I need to make my own employment.
What is the point of a matric, when getting my matric leaves me, still, qualified only to mow a lawn or mop a floor?
Why bother to study to achieve university entrance when even a tertiary degree won’t guarantee a job?
In a system set up to winnow out only the best of the best within an ultra-narrow skill set, and write off everyone else, where do I fit in if my skills, talents and interests don’t even fall within that narrow range?
How do I study when I urgently need to earn a living, or care for a child or relative?
If we want to address our growing dropout rate, we need to address these questions.
The DESDE alternative –
* Not only do I attend simply because it’s a wonderful, fulfilling experience to attend, but I know I am effectively preparing myself for a self-sufficient, meaningful future.
* I am developing my own unique talents and abilities, and learning to create my own opportunities.
*If I need to earn or spend a significant amount of time on family responsibilities, I can still self-educate in the time I have, in flexible ways, accessing informal resources.
* My educational career is individually defined so there is nothing to “drop out” of – only different options to choose in my life-long learning. There is no sense of failure, no reason for despair. Just a new set of choices to make.
Lack of Infrastructure and Materials
South Africa has a considerable number of schools without classrooms, without desks, without chairs, without toilets, with too few textbooks and not enough stationery. This can be crippling for Imposed Schooling models.
The DeSDE alternative –
*When each person pursues their own educational journey at their own pace in their own way, you very seldom need a desk and textbook for each of forty students at the same time. A few ordinary tables and chairs are enough to share between several students since they use them at different times, and don’t need them all day every day.
*Ditto reference books and even pens.
*Ditto computers, microscopes, art materials and sports gear.
You still need resources, but no longer need one of each item for each person, since they are time-shared.
Also, with less reliance on formal classes and specialised learning resources, and more emphasis on life-learning and peer-supported exploration and participatory process, there is more reliance on informal resources.
More creativity makes up for less affluence.
And finally- personal empowerment within a can-do community means we will pull together and construct or fix toilets if it’s genuinely a need – as a powerful and empowering part of our learning process!
Micro-communities of between 30 and 250 people are better for DeSDE purposes, which means that we can use houses, community centres, churches that stand empty all week, and disused farm buildings rather than needing big, custom-built campuses.
In a South African context, bigger, more richly resourced main campuses could offer special resources and activities that could be accessed on a flexible, part time or exchange basis with smaller satellite groups. It’s simply not necessary for each and every satellite to have sports fields, swimming pools, and chemistry labs.
Poor quality teachers and huge class sizes.
So much of education is relationship, yet we have so few teachers who are able to relate, connect, and inspire. Even an excellent teacher cannot realistically connect with and give personalised support to each and every learner in their enormous, rotating classes.
Even worse than this, what can we do about the huge number of corrupt and abusive teachers we have picked up along the way? How do we root them out, let alone replace them with anyone better? How do we ensure that they are better? How do we do quality control?
The DeSDE alternative –
* DeSDE does not require large numbers of full-time highly qualified teachers with in-depth knowledge of speciality subjects. This is partly because we are not trying to teach every single learner the same array of ‘subjects’; partly because it takes less special skill when you’re not trying to get someone to learn against their will; and partly because we want learners to learn how to access information vs handing it out on platters.
* It’s a lot easier to provide a large group of age-mixed peers, and a handful of caring, respectful adults who are willing to help the children find ways to access the people and resources who can help them – when they want help, which isn’t as often.
*With a laptop and a dongle, we can access the best subject matter specialists in the world.
* Drawing on our local community, we can access mentors and apprenticeships.
* What we need daily from our staff, is respect, companionship, and human kindness – we need real-life role models rather than experts.
Given that distance learning teachers can support our learners from one side, and peer interactions can support them on the other, we don’t need astounding staff/learner ratios in order to provide the non-academic personal support that makes all the difference.
As for abusers and incompetents – quality control is in the hands of those who are motivated to do what’s needed – democratically empowered learners simply vote them out of the job.
A well-rounded curriculum that equips learners for life in this century but also embraces our diverse linguistic and cultural reality, rather than obliterating our heritage in favour of colonial values.
With so many national languages, which do you choose to teach, since you cannot have every learner learn them all?
How do we make space in a day to fit in everything needed for the future along with everything we treasure from the past?
How do we get a balance between the arts and the sciences, and still fit in life skills?
There are already complaints that CAPS is too content-heavy, without even covering everything.
The DeSDE alternative –
*DeSDE doesn’t aim to deliver a standardised and rounded array of knowledge to each human unit. There’s no point. It’s not about trying to cram the same enormous package into each recipient.
* By allowing each individual to be unique, we grow an ecosystem where we cover it all – between us. * When we step out of competition, into mutual support and collaboration, we learn how to value what each of us brings, and work together and complement each other rather than trying in vain to become self-contained replicas of the others, only better.
* We build a rounded community.
* We open the way for true national unity, where the traditional homesteader is valued and respected just as much as the avant garde academic – because we have learned that we each have a part to play, and that a healthy whole requires each and every one of us.
A form of education that has roots we can be proud of, rather than being a leftover of apartheid and colonialism.
How does our developing nation customise an educational model that is truly our own?
Inserting indigenous knowledge into a standardised factory-style Imposed Schooling curriculum is like putting South African flag stickers onto chopsticks.
The DeSDE alternative –
This quote is worth repeating: “We taught one another what we knew, discovering each other’s resourcefulness. We also learned how people with little or no formal education could not only themselves participate in education programmes but actually teach others a range of different insights and skills. The “University of Robben Island” was one of the best universities in the country”¦ it also showed me that you don’t need professors.” Dr Neville Alexander, speaking of experiences co-created with Nelson Mandela, Mac Maharaj, and other prisoners and even warders, during their imprisonment.
When I first read this, I laughed in delight – here were some of South Africa greatest icons, discovering the wonders of participatory education.
It’s a lovely description of what was clearly an SDE community. What a heritage to call on as we work towards new solutions for education in South Africa.
How do we roll out an innovative education system across the board, successfully?
Top-down change is always imposed, by definition.
That which is imposed, tends to be resisted, or simply misunderstood because it is alien to those who receive it.
Often, attempts to make sweeping changes, end in disaster. How can we avoid yet another disaster?
The DeSDE alternative –
* DeSDE by definition cannot be imposed and ‘rolled out’. It can only grow, organically, from the roots up.
* The first step is to give legal protection to DeSDE facilities and make it safe for them to publicly showcase their best practise.
* Incentivise them to support each other, and to take in interns and participate in exchange programs both locally and internationally.
*Let children know that such options exist – and give children and their communities permission to create them where they are wanted – for wanted they will be.
* DeSDE is at its best when provided by the people, for the people.
Instead of trying and failing to provide everything for everyone, all the government needs to do is behave like DeSDE staff: provide some budget and freedom, then wait for requests to be made – and the SDE facilities will deploy those resources bit by bit, as they grow.
If we want to see the South Africa envisioned in the Freedom Charter, it is not enough to work on changing our political, social and economic structures.
Education is enculturation. We must prepare our children to live in the way we envisage.
If we aspire to a land where all live in equality, justice, peace and harmony, then we cannot continue enculturating our children for competition and oppression.
Democratic Self-Directed Education offers us a concrete, achievable way to educate our society for true, responsible freedom.