Friday 20 October 2017

Towards a Socially Just Pedagogy: Seminar by Jonathan Jansen, Senior Professor at the University of the Free State

Blog Post by Najma Agherdien, Roshini Pillay, and Puleng Motshoane

Johnathan Jansen

The title Can the institutional curriculum be untaught? Facing the complexities of teaching for social justice in the post-apartheid university suggested that we are on a slippery slope: it is up to u
s to make a difference. The talk provided by Jansen was enlightening but somber and at points felt like we were sitting around the kitchen table listening to an elder question the state of affairs. But this is not so, Jansen is an academic who has grappled directly with issues of transformation in Higher Education (HE), had literally gone away (to the United States) to think and write and has now returned to his hometown, Cape Town. What his talk did highlight for us were some of the contradictions that underpin many of the discussions around the #decolonising, #coloniality #social justice debates. We’ll touch on some of these in this blog entry.

The seminar was well attended
Jansen began by saying that the things that he does not enjoy include unreason and being disrespectful of knowledge. He then goes on to say that the Higher Education sector is in trouble. He sees the student uprising (#RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall) as more an issue of apartheid than colonialism or decolonizing the curriculum. He condemns the associated student violence in the strongest terms and says: “We cannot destroy on Friday what we will need on Monday”. A tension here is how does one separate the one from the other? Is decoloniality not part of the struggle (or movement) against apartheid? Also, while we agree that the violence cannot be condoned, a more balanced view of student uprising would have been helpful. Globally, students have been struggling to make their voices heard (e.g. #blacklivesmatter) and are crying out for help against institutions, governments, societies that exclude and are alienating. More of these contextual issues needed to be unpacked and the talk would then have been more balanced.

He sees himself as playing a critical role - that of a social scientist who questions the truth value, especially the language of decolonization - and notes that there has been poor use of the word. Decolonization as described by Fanon (2008) who was referring to a post-colonial period is not well understood today. Thus, he is of the view that this term is misunderstood as well as the term “radical economic transformation”. He worries that decolonization is used as a word for every problem and therefore has lost its meaning. He further suggests that the meaning of terms (in general) need to be unpacked and understood. For us, what needs to be added here is: who gets to define it and to what/whose benefit? Who decides how we should think about decolonizing apartheid/transformation?  In other words, inherent power issues need to be part of this debate. 

Many students who enter higher education have emerged from a hugely dysfunctional schooling system and trying to teach within this environment is problematic. He makes a distinction between the terms colonialism and bad teaching and learning and poor assessments as a result of the apartheid project.

He provided an example of the teaching he had observed at a public “mud school” in Worcester in the Western Cape and noted that there is “far more excitement at a funeral in the Cape Flats” than in the classroom. Thus, he was invited to teach Grade 8 students about light refraction. He took up the challenge and what he learned from this experience was that it was difficult to teach learners who do not have the background knowledge of the subject matter. He came to the realisation that in under-resourced schools “every act of teaching is a compensatory act because the students were not taught the basics. This problem continues in higher education where the students are still struggling and hence they think that decolonisation would be a solution. We think that more than compensatory approaches, the issue of resistance to curricular transformation need to be tackled as a matter of urgency. We agree with Jansen that some/most public South African schools are not functioning well or are in crisis. However, such blanket statements need further debate. We would invite further discussions on what can practically be done at individual, institutional and also an African continental level to address these challenges in a constructive manner. What professional development opportunities and disciplinary training are teachers exposed to? How can we cultivate socially just spaces that allow students and teachers to be who they are, embrace what they bring with them and foster a sense of belonging?

The University
The role of the university, Jansen argues, is to advance or add to the body of knowledge. He makes the case for a need to change the meaning of the experience – the policies, rules, regulations and the routine of the university. This he calls the exoskeleton. He questions why outdated curricula, pedagogical approaches and behaviors (the endoskeleton) are left intact. The rules and regulations that transform the knowledge of the institution are important. He is of the view that only the exoskeletons of HEIs have changed but the soft, sensitive endoskeleton remains. It is precisely here where disruptive change is needed but he remarks that it is the exoskeleton that protects the endoskeleton. Hence, the call is for institutional curricular reform as opposed to individual curricular reform. He feels that if the latter is targeted, efforts are not sustainable. 

He reflected on his experience at the Free State Council Chamber where many framed pictures of old, serious-looking white men were up on the walls and he questions the impact of this on a young black person within this space. He says that in his capacity as Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State, he removed most/all these paintings. However, most have been put back after he left.  
Jansen says he has asked many students from the rest of Africa why they attend South African institutions and they have told him that their universities were destroyed. He added that South Africa is going this route and the wealthy will send their children to study in the developed countries. Highly rated academics are already leaving and he has written references for them on a weekly basis. He noted that countries such as Canada are offering immigration packages to top professors. Jansen noted that South Africa is not any different from other countries where the middle class is required to cross-subsidize the lower class.  

A clear contradiction that emerged from the university regarding institutional curriculum/ social justice discussion was, for us, the individual (self-serving) vs socialist values and ideals tension. What role does the academic play in furthering decolonialty and social justice? If the role of the university, as Jansen argues, is to advance or add to the body of knowledge, who should produce this knowledge and to whose benefit?
Jansen notes that Afrikaans was only contested in Johannesburg during the 1976 student uprising because they did not understand how the language evolved in South Africa.  For him, it is his mother’s tongue. He questions why there are no debates regarding the use of English. He argues that the real language issue recently was students being given different information by the same lecturer to predominately black students in English compared to mainly white students in the Afrikaans classes. Thus, the problem was that Afrikaans speaking students were advantaged over non-Afrikaans speaking students. 

There was some discussion on the contested view between English and Afrikaans language. Jansen added that there is much complexity and recommended we watch the movie “Victoria and Abdul” to provide another example of how complex the issues are. A University of Johannesburg (UJ) lecturer questioned the stupidity of the language policy and asked why we provoke students. She noted that policies can be alienating and offensive and asked where the faculty voice is in such matters.
We agree that the language debate certainly is very complex and warrants further discussion. For example, Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1986, p.390) argues: 

Language as communication and as culture are then products of each other. Communication creates culture: culture is a means of communication. Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. How people perceive themselves affects how they look at their culture, at their politics and at the social production of wealth, at their entire relationship to nature and to other beings. Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.

Questions that come to mind are: Whose culture are we carrying? What does the adoption of English as medium of instruction say about our place in the world?  If language is inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings, are we not alienating ourselves from ourselves and how could we recognise and address this in our institutions?

The Q&A Session
Jansen stopped and invited questions and noted that his purpose was to disrupt thinking. There was some discussion about how decolonization of the HE institutions are occurring.  Mention was made of a scoresheet developed at UJ as part of the decolonization project which allowed educators to indicate progress being made.

A UJ professor questioned the set of breaks (obstacles) regarding conception and approach and how the curriculum should be delivered. He refers to these as epistemological breaks and questions the apartheid/colonialism distinction. Jansen responded by saying that the concepts are different and interrelated. For example, in the University of the Free State, English is never questioned but Afrikaans is always questioned. He questions why the debates on decolonization are not happening at UniVenda and other historically disadvantaged universities.

An educator in educational psychology at UJ spoke about her lack of confidence regarding challenging Western normed psychometric tools. Jansen inquired about the actual aspects of the test that were problematic and rather provocatively suggested that she get her PhD and do Post Doc work on developing indigenous theories. He seemed to be suggesting that she will not be taken seriously unless she gets her PhD and starts publishing.  He questioned why we were silent and calls on all young Black academics to get their PhDs and advance the scholarship, redefine the curriculum, as it were and become the authoritative voices. 

Final word
We do not agree with the view that the United States/West is great, South Africa (SA) is bad narrative. Jansen says that SA will be left with mediocre academics who are unable to question the status quo or even provide powerful knowledge for their students. He maintains that the difference between Trump and Zuma is that the Americans will self-correct and South Africans will not. Could it be because Jansen studied at Stanford that he articulates such strong criticism about the South African education system? We feel that without hope, we have nothing. We agree with Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of hope which states that… “Without hope, we are hopeless and cannot begin the struggle to change” (p.8).

Despite all the doom and gloom, Jansen noted that he was invested in the country hence, he came back and he has a responsibility to be critical and thoughtful. In highlighting some of the tensions that emerged from Jansen’s address, we have actually taken up the gauntlet, to be critical and thoughtful, or rather, we hope we have been. While many of the examples given by Jansen were his own experiences and not based on solid research, he noted that these experiences are potential powerful entry points. We agree and value his contributions. As novice academics and scholars, we are struggling to make sense of it all, but wish to follow - and contribute to – the ongoing #decoloniality #socialjustice #transformation narrative.

The authors of the post from second left: Puleng, Najma, Roshini 

Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks. London: Grove press.
Freire, P., Freire, A. M. A., & Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2003). A human being died that night: A South African story of forgiveness: Houghton Mifflin.
 wa Thiong'o, N. (1986). Decolonising the Mind The Politics of Language in African Literature - Studies in African Literature Series. Available from  Accessed on 18 October 2017

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