Saturday, 12 March 2016

How education theory could be used to help shape genuine democracy

How education theory could be used to help shape genuine democracy

Philip Machanick, Rhodes University
Come 1994, many South Africans assumed that the official end of apartheid meant “job done – we are a democracy.” But despite an excellent constitution and world-class public institutions, the country looks increasingly dysfunctional.

So if a great constitution and carefully designed public institutions don’t make a democracy, what was left out? I believe that, crucially, civil society was not retooled for freedom. Two concepts drawn from education research may hold a possible solution to this shortcoming: first, the idea that knowledge is socially constructed and, second, the notion that self-efficacy is a significant factor in ability.

Issues of agency

In an authoritarian state, there are a limited number of levers of power. Control of those levers is centralised. Ordinary citizens cannot easily fix societal wrongs, nor safely organise themselves into groups that aren’t sanctioned by the state.

In a democracy, though, ordinary citizens should have access to lesser levers that work to their personal or, in small groups, collective benefit. The workings of government are open to ordinary citizens. They can attend public meetings and access government policies and documents. This is particularly valuable at a local government level, where officials who control the processes that affect ordinary people’s lives are close to hand and should – in theory – be easy to reach.

But such levers are not familiar to most citizens in a country like South Africa, which has a strong culture of protest. This culture does not recognise that there are other levers of power besides those held by leaders in high places. At my own university, I’ve asked protesting students how the institution’s management could do better. Their response? “Don’t ask me. We have highly paid leaders who should be solving these problems.”

This suggests that change can only be achieved by supplication. Whether this is polite but possibly ineffectual or expressed with extreme anger, such supplication starts from the same place: the view that an individual or small groups of individuals lack agency. One of the biggest drawbacks of this approach is its short-term nature. An example from my own small town: in 2014, 3,000 residents signed a petition calling on the owners (government rail monopoly Transnet) to save the historic railway station from being dismantled by looters. The municipality and the provincial heritage authority had failed to act on earlier complaints.

That is an instance of supplication – asking or trying to order the authorities to fix things. The property was fenced off, security guards installed and the worst of the damage was repaired. But it was just a quick fix: residents were not empowered in any way. They have been excluded from planning the future use of the station site. They do not have the leverage to demand such inclusion unless they start another petition campaign.

This illustrates how problem solving has stalled in South Africa. The government is trying to take on too much and failing. Many transitional societies run into the same problem: there is too much to do and government becomes bogged down. With a more activist civil society, the weight of doing everything can be lifted from government so it can focus on bigger problems.

But how can these alternatives be introduced to South Africans?

Can we learn from education?

The idea that knowledge is socially constructed deviates from the earlier view of education theory that was more cognitive. In the social construction view, knowledge is not just about what you know, but also about how you interact with others and what you are.

What is missing in South Africa is the knowledge of what it means to be a citizen of a free, democratic society. That is not just about knowing that one is a citizen, but knowing how one should behave and interact with others. A social discourse is part of that knowing: when we enter a situation where we are unhappy with how others perform, how do we interact with them? How do you react when someone criticises the way you perform? These are not trivial questions in a multicultural country.

Self-efficacy is the perception that individuals are able to control events that influence their lives. In education, that sort of belief leads to better educational outcomes. It confers a kind of self-belief that you will be able to solve a hard problem.

This idea fits well with what Black Consciousness leader and activist Steve Biko called psychological liberation, which calls on oppressed people to liberate themselves from the externally imposed idea that they’re incapable and so should be looking for external salvation.

These ideas apply equally well in understanding how to reconfigure a failing society.

What is ‘normal’?

In a dysfunctional society, the norm becomes doing what is actually antisocial. In a place like South Africa that has never been “normal” in the sense of a free, open society where individuals have agency, there is no norm on which to build. Antisocial behaviours become the new normal when the shackles are loosed. There are some who believe that a return to an authoritarian society is the answer. It’s not.

Instead I propose drawing on those two ideas from education theory to build a functioning civil society in which the “normal” involves behaving in a socially aware manner, rather than doing what you like.

Many levers for democracy

I am not dismissing protest as a tool, but merely arguing that it is not the only tool. Stopping at protest implies that a society is not really democratic because treating supplication to the powerful as the only option for change implies that power relations cannot shift.

Ultimately a society can only work if the levers of power are effectively wielded. In an authoritarian system, that means the levers are centralised and tightly held. In a democracy, they are distributed and loosely held. For a genuine free democracy to work, citizens need to learn what it means to live free. A large part of that involves grasping the levers of power at their disposal.

The Conversation

Philip Machanick, Associate Professor of Computer Science, Rhodes University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Great Right Wing Attack on Feminism

Right wing sites and their followers on social media love bashing feminism. The usual tactic is to highlight some extreme action or statement as if it is all feminism is about. Sometimes this is made up or something more reasonable is taken out of context – but any movement has adherents who take things to an extreme. If you take those extreme events – whether imaginary, exaggerated or real – as representing an entire movement then it says more about you than it says about feminism.

What has feminism achieved? Here’s a short list of what it was like to live in a pre-feminist world:
  • women could not vote
  • women were paid a significantly lower wage for the same work and often did not have the same benefits (such as employer-sponsored retirement fund)
  • women could lose their job just for getting married
  • control over reproduction was considered wrong; a woman was supposed to make babies whether she wanted to or not
  • victims of rape were considered at least partly responsible
  • if women could get maternity leave at all, there was no matching paternity leave, meaning that they took the sole career cost of having a family
  • women were not considered suited to management jobs
  • women could not aspire to any professions out of the limited pool of teaching and nursing
  • women were not expected to take credit for scientific discovery even if they played a pivotal role (Marie Curie shattered that barrier by winning two Nobels in different sciences)
You could argue that some of this could have been achieved without feminism. But if you look for the opposite kind of society that has not only failed to develop feminism but retains a dogmatic pre-modern patriarchal outlook, very few of the above have occurred.

Try Saudi Arabia, for example, where women are not allowed to drive and are not even allowed out of the house if they may encounter unknown adult males without a male relative chaperone (a mahram:a young child will do). In practice, this is not strictly enforced in situations like shopping but a Saudi woman may not be examined by a male doctor, for example, with a mahram companion. I asked a Muslim work colleague about this and he explained that the Quran requires that a women have male company in a situation of danger – as a practical guideline because men are on average stronger – and the ludicrous implication of the Saudi law is that their society is unsafe in ordinary day-to-day situations.

Afghanistan, despite the overthrow of the Taliban, remains a deeply misogynistic society, as do the tribal regions of Pakistan, with horrendous practices like “honour” murders.

Even more so: regions under control of ISIS.

Generally speaking biggest the enemy of feminism is literalist, patriarchal interpretation of religion.

And that also is found in Western society in the form of movements like the Tea Party (which fortunately is constrained by a robust constitution that they clearly would like to tear up).

So do we still need feminism – aren’t the achievements I listed enough? As long as we still have patriarchal and misogynist attitudes in society we need a movement to counter that. As one example, the mentality that a rape victim “asked for it” or at very least ought to be ashamed still persists. Why, if that is not the case, is a rape victim entitled to anonymity?

If you get drunk and fall asleep without closing your front door and wake up to find your house emptied by thieves, does society expect you to be so ashamed that your identity should be concealed? Even if you did something stupid that left you vulnerable, no one has to take advantage of that. In fact you could argue that a crime taking advantage of vulnerability is worse than taking on someone able to defend themselves.

So: yes, feminism is still relevant and there is still work to be done. And no: I do not support ludicrous interpretations of feminism, even if those interpretations are real and not the product of the fevered imagination of rabid right wingers.

Update: Some right wingers may argue that feminisms past achievements are good but – job done – we can stop the whole movement now. However the right side of politics bitterly opposed all these advances at the time and it is unreasonable to suppose that they would not attempt to backslide if the pressure let up.