Resisting the tendency to sort
Long before Carolus Linnaeus grouped organisms in a hierarchical system of classification, human beings have been sorting themselves into groups.
What the 18th century Swedish naturalist, however, did for different organisms, human do to other humans – group them.
For the Schweizer-Reneke teacher, sorting all four black children into a small group and all the white children into a larger group is the most natural of human actions if you were brainwashed by apartheid ideology into thinking that there is something inherently different about human beings based on the colour of their skin.
Yet it is easy to make a meal out of this North West primary school teacher when so many teachers do exactly the same thing.
We classify children according to our assessment of their ability to do mathematics or to read fluently or to recite the periodic table of elements.
Class 8A is the smart class (maths and science) and heaven help you if you find yourself down the alphabet in 8H (hospitality and tourism).
Some schools try to conceal the obvious elitism in this classification by naming the class after its home room teacher – 8Z for Mrs Zuma, for example (no, do not ask, “Which Mrs Zuma?’ Stay on task.). Regardless, we classify. The problem with classifying children according to ability is that such assessments are completely subjective.
Not all children learn at the same speed.
Some children excel in some subjects, such as art and history, and others in technology and economics.
What gives the teacher the right to make such decisions about talent and ability when children are still learning to become accomplished in one or other subject?
Nothing actually, except that human compulsion to sort and classify people and things.
To classify is to label, and to label often has devastating social and educational consequences for the affected children.
Think of the far-reaching effects of classifying children according to ability in mathematics.
From grade 10 onwards there is a smaller group doing mathematics and a much larger group doing mathematical literacy.
The “maths lit” children really believe that they cannot do “the real maths” and, as a result, they are cut off from pursuing any science-related career such as engineering or optometry or medicine.
Worse, more and more nonscience degrees now also require mathematics, not because you will “use” maths in the conventional way but because it says something about you, your ability to reason and think abstractly, and your ability to do hard thinking.
But when teachers make those decisions about which maths stream a child will be classified into, all the school thinks about is the pass rate at the end of grade 12, not the long-term consequences for the high school graduate.
It is not only teachers who sort children in the classroom.
Young people sort themselves into groups as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Go onto any university campus today and you will more often than not find black African students in one corner, coloured students in another, Indian students on their own and white students separated from the rest.
If you have an ear for music, you might even hear that it is white Afrikaans students sorting themselves out from white English-speaking students.
These, sadly, are our future leaders.
When you see courageous and open-minded students crossing these racial and ethnic boundaries, you stare.
Apartheid’s criminal legacy is not so much that it separated humans but that it assigned value to those it classified differently.
The Schweizer-Reneke teacher might feel emboldened by the bureaucratic ineptitude of the North West education department – the wrong authority suspended the teacher (she was a governing body appointee, not a department employee) and therefore she won her case in the Labour Court on procedural grounds.
That ruling was not, however, about a harmful pedagogical practice but about an administrative bungle by the government’s education department.
Sadly, the public attention has moved on to await the next racial flare-up while the problem of transformation remains unaddressed in this little rural town named after two white men who died attacking a garrison of indigenous Khoi people.
Of course if you really want to see the power of classification wait until a white and black South African approach their parents about dating or, worse, marriage.
White parents fly off the handle, threats of disinheritance are common and social reprisal is swift.
When a Muslim woman recently married a Hindu man in Cape Town, all hell broke loose in parts of the conservative Muslim community and someone even mentioned the dreaded word “fatwa” – all because two beautiful young people fell in love.
Regardless of our polite middle class demeanours or even our struggle credentials, far too many South Africans believe in sorting out humans into “the same and different” based on race, religion and culture.
Deep down, we are all like the Schweizer-Reneke teacher.
The way to change this instinctive tendency to separate is for more and more South Africans to cross the line and place ourselves in spaces, social and educational, where we do the hard work of living together, learning together and loving together as the human race.