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South Africa: Sinking deeper into mediocrity

I have in front of me the 2010 "Statement of Results" for the National Senior Certificate statement of a youngster who demands to study at university. They are: Afrikaans 43, English 39, mathematical literacy 38, life orientation 78, business studies 41, computer applications technology 31, life sciences 28

At the bottom of the certificate is this unbelievable statement: "The candidate qualifies for the national senior certificate and fulfils the minimum requirements for admission to higher education." Read more.

Understandably, this young woman takes these words literally, and correctly demands a seat in any place of higher learning. With the young woman's claim to study I have no problem. With the society that sets the bar for performance so low, I have serious problems.

Slowly, slowly we are digging our collective graves as we fall into a sinkhole of mediocrity from which we are unlikely to emerge.

We make excellence sound like a white thing. Behind a massive wave of populism, and in the misguided name of regstelling (setting right the past), we open access to resources and universities to young people without the hard work necessary to achieve those gifts and to succeed once there. Of course, you're a racist if you question this kind of mindlessness; how else do you, as a politician, defend yourself against the critics of mediocrity in an election year?

I miss Steve Biko. In the thinking of black consciousness, he would have railed against the low standards we set for black achievement, in the language of the 1970s.

This young (incidentally black) person did not achieve anything above 50% in her Senior Certificate results for any exam subject, but we tell her she can proceed to higher studies. What are we saying? That black students are somehow less capable and therefore need these pathetic results to access higher education? No, I am sorry, but today I am angry about the messages we send our children.

I saw black parents and students squirm the other night when I addressed a racially diverse group of parents and students and made this point clear: "If a black student requires from you different treatment and lower academic demands because of an argument about disadvantage, tell them to take a hike." (Okay, I used stronger language.)

I saw white teachers squirm when I made the other important point: "If you have lower academic expectations of black children because of what they look like, or where they come from, that is the worst kind of racism."

Our society, schools and universities have adjusted expectations downwards, especially in relation to black students, and that is dangerous in a country with so much promise for excellence.

As stories come rolling in from across the country for our Great South African Teachers book, I am struck by one thing. That many black professionals who are chartered accountants, medical scientists or corporate lawyers tell of attending ordinary public schools under apartheid, often in rural areas, and having teachers at the time who, despite the desperate poverty and inequality, held high expectations of their learners. There was no compromising on academic standards; there was homework every day; there was punishment for low performance; and there was constant motivation to rise above your circumstances.

Not today. Mathematical literacy is a cop-out, a way of compensating for poor maths teaching in the mainstream. Parents of Grade 9 children, listen carefully - do not let your school force your child into mathematical literacy because they will struggle to find access to academic degree studies at serious universities. Insist your child does mathematics in Grade 10 for that important choice determines what your child writes in Grade 12.

It is not, of course, mathematical literacy that I am concerned about; there are good teachers of the subject. It is about the message we send: that children can't do maths.

In other words, a message again communicated of low expectations. Do not buy into this culture of mediocrity in the way your child makes subject choices. Also, tell your child not to take life orientation seriously; as you can see in the above results, there is no positive relationship between high marks in academic subjects and this thing called life orientation.

Small wonder young people with better results than those above are without work. The marketplace, and serious universities, know this child will not succeed with these kinds of results, even if Umalusi does not "get it".

By Jonathan Jansen: Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

This article was published by Leader.

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