Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Slavish insistence on English limits us

by Pamela Johnson, Mail & Guardian

For centuries the language has defined what knowledge and truth are and by embracing it Africa will always be in a unequal position.

How transformative is our practice of "academic development" in South Africa? I pose the question in the light of several recent articles in the Mail & Guardian on the subject, most recently by Chrissie Boughey and Penny Niven ("Common sense fails our students", August 10 to 17).

I was briefly involved in academic development in the early 1990s after returning from Spain, where I had been teaching English as a foreign language during the 1980s.

In a post-fascist society that had been politically isolated from Western Europe, Spain was trying to make up for lost time and insert itself into a global system in which computer and English language skills were seen as the basic prerequisites for development and progress.

Of course, that was only one ­element of the subjugation of Spain to various requirements for ­integration into the European Economic Community. Having followed the recipe for economic success, the Spanish economy today lies in ruins as large sectors of national industry have been closed because of their inability to compete with powerful German and French competitors.

However, this slow deterioration occurred after my return to South Africa in 1991. At the time I experienced a sense of déjà vu on discovering that, when I started teaching at post-school level, the prevailing concerns and priorities in education were much the same as they had been in Spain. Without proficiency in English and computer skills, no education was complete as South Africa prepared for its debut in the theatre of neoliberalism.

A pedagogical base

After 18 months of working on a pilot project in which nearly all the students were isiXhosa speakers and the teachers non-isiXhosa speakers, it occurred to me that it would probably have been more worthwhile to spend the same amount of time and money developing good study materials and glossaries in isiXhosa to establish a sound pedagogical base.

Despite the intentions of "enhancing the effectiveness of teaching and learning", which seems to be an ubiquitous tag line in academic development, what we practitioners were doing was perpetuating a relationship of power and a ­division between those with and without proficiency in English while contributing to the growth of a vast and lucrative global industry that is premised on the assumption that Western forms of knowledge constitute the "truth".

The size and scope of the academic development publishing industry is mind-boggling in geopolitical and financial terms, not to mention its impact on the way that citizens the world over perceive their own languages and cultures vis-à-vis English.

In Frantz Fanon's seminal work Black Skin, White Masks, first published in French in 1952, Fanon illustrated the effect of colonisation in that the dominated continue to aspire to the culture of the dominant, as a result of which black people end up emulating their oppressors.

He also pointed to the lasting effect of the inculcation of inferiority on Africans and African nations, who continue to seek affirmation from their former oppressors.

It is this hidden and insidious element that we need to be aware of because, even though we may not consciously perpetuate a relationship of domination in which the former colonisers still exercise control over what constitutes knowledge and truth, we unwittingly retain positions of power by defining the nature and purpose of teaching and learning.

If there is a genuinely transformative aim in academic development, can it be achieved by advancing the language and academic literacies whose origin lies in dominant societies to the foreground?

An awkward position

This question places us in awkward positions we may not wish to acknowledge, but we have to do it. Notwithstanding the sincerity of intent of academic development practitioners, what can be done so as not to groom students towards particular ways of thinking about what constitutes knowledge within the parameters of a hegemony that has been exercised by the Western world for centuries?

Those who "join the club" abide by the rules and norms, so academic development of necessity aims to enable students within the domain of the dominant without engaging critically with the very substance of what constitutes knowledge and the role that this "knowledge" serves in perpetuating relationships of power.
I would like to invite reflection on Fanon's observation on a post-colonial Africa in which he foresaw continued subjugation.

"Colonialism and its derivatives do not, as a matter of fact, constitute the present enemies of Africa," he wrote in his notebook while on the battlefront in Algeria.
"In a short time this continent will be liberated. For my part, the deeper I enter into the cultures and the political circles, the surer I am that the great danger that threatens Africa is the absence of ideology."

This, I think, is the critical issue. By aiming at a global homogeneity and compatibility within an education framework that is defined according to the criteria established by the hegemon, will Africa not be locked for perpetuity into a relationship in which it is always the recipient of knowledge and therefore deemed deficient relative to the Western world?