What causes a nation to rise or fall is how it thinks about knowledge. Knowledge is either something from the past that needs to be corrected (let’s call this corrective knowledge) or something for the future that needs to be appropriated (let’s call this prospective knowledge).
What devastates South Africa is its obsession with corrective knowledge.
You find this in every governmental policy paper (such as white papers) and in every university protest action.
We are so captured by our past we fixate about making it right.
Every education policy since 1994 has long preambles reminding citizens about how terrible the past was (and it was, as if we did not already know), and how saddled we are with that legacy and how righteous we are in seeking to correct that knowledge.
There must be few nations in the world whose university students would go apoplectic about what to do with a dead white man’s statue.
It was as if all the grievances of the past were concentrated in the massive bronze statue of the dead imperialist.
In the meantime, almost eight out of 10 children in Grade 4 cannot understand what they read.
There, right there, is South Africa’s problem – not fixing the present or preparing for the future, but obsessing about a stone that has long lost its political currency, as the Rhodes University council understood when it recently voted by a majority to keep the name of this little island of education excellence in an otherwise barren Eastern Cape.
Predictably, a group of student leaders threw a fit about what they name Uckar – the University that is Currently Known as Rhodes.
Great nations invest in prospective knowledge.
When I travel around the world, and especially in the Silicon Valley where I am invited to teach at local high schools in the San Francisco Bay area, I find children learning about automated intelligence, robotics, neurobiology and applied mathematics, and some schools make learning to code a curriculum requirement.
In smart countries from India to Singapore young people grapple with the knowledge they require for a future that has radically been altered by new technologies.
This is what South Africans fail to grasp – that social justice is just as much about positioning our youth for the future as it might be about correcting the past.
When I made this point about our national failure to attend to prospective knowledge, one man from a Cape Town audience responded to the effect that “that’s nice but we have much more basic problems”.
Imagine we used that argument against mobile phones when they arrived on the scene – the one technology that has opened up communication for the poor in the deep rural areas of the country and democratised connectivity among activists during social protest movements.
Time and again our default reaction when faced with prospective knowledge is to retract into our pity pool of past grievances, corrective knowledge, in other words.
Prospective knowledge requires a very different kind of thinking in education and training as the world changes before our very eyes.
The other day I walked up to a checkout line in a shop on the other side of the world.
Instead of cashiers there were self-checkout machines.
You scanned your own goods as an automated machine rang up your bill.
An automated voice spoke to you if you skipped an item.
You swiped your debit card and off you went.
Instead of 10 cashiers there was one person standing nearby to help Luddites like myself who stood mesmerised by this technology.
This is what the new economy looks like, and we are stuck with a dummy subject called mathematical literacy and 30 to 40% pass marks for subjects because this helps those who are burdened by the past to get over the line.
Make no mistake, in the economy of the fourth industrial revolution jobs will be lost, but new jobs will be made and that is the main reason why we need to change our thinking about the knowledge of the future.
Mastery of new technologies lies within the reach of every student, and can be the great leveller across race and class if those curricular opportunities are made available to teachers and their pupils.
But it requires a mind-shift on the part of the government and the schools, one which no longer sees education simply as a great redemptive act that compensates for the past, but as a strategic asset that prepares all of our youth to access critical knowledge of the future.
This can, of course, be done with strong leadership.
Now if only we could find just three wise men somewhere to lead us.