This was going to be a letter to the matrics of 2014. It was going to be one of those wry, heart-squeezing things that go viral and get printed on canvas in gold ink and nailed up over log bars.
It was going to contain quirky bits of advice like “Wear underpants!” (the exclamation mark indicating that it was fun but true) and would end with something uplifting like “Anything is possible”.
The trouble, though, is that sometimes you shouldn’t wear underpants, and not everything is possible. Some impossible things include teleportation, creating a unicorn by cross-breeding ponies with narwhals, and, apparently, fixing South African education. Also, I’m not sure that all our matrics can read, and besides, those who can read should be busy studying their notes or at least the fine print on boxes of tranquillisers.
So this isn’t for anyone currently writing their final school exams, which includes me, for which I am very grateful. My own experience of those exams made me sad, angry, depressed and confused – and that was just me trying to find my allotted seat. But time and distance have given me some insight and I now understand what high school in general and matric exams in particular were all about: pretty much nothing.
I’m not knocking education. It’s very important. But in my experience matric and education don’t really have much to do with each other. I mean, why spend months memorising facts about Stalin’s five-year plans if I’m not allowed to assassinate my enemies with ice picks? And as for those “vital” subjects: my only memory of matric maths is of the exquisite neck of the girl who sat next to me. Solve for Y? For why? I didn’t have a clue and still don’t.
Some argue that school is important not for what you learn but how you learn it, because apparently shame, peer pressure and the anxiety of adults are super-healthy soil in which to grow a love of lifelong learning. But perhaps the real point of school, and of the final paroxysm of arbitrary examinations on arbitrary factoids, is that it teaches us how to survive the insane, arbitrary systems into which we move as we grow older.
So much of the world seems to be a collection of largely lunatic tasks that we are required to perform without ever being told why. We report for work at 9 (not 8 or 10 because those are obviously silly), and we file forms and write reports and tick boxes, all the while trusting in some sort of vast unknowable reason for it all. And that is just as well because if we listened to ourselves and reacted to the madness with authentic human feelings we’d go to jail. After all, when you’ve queued all morning and reached the official’s window only to be told that the printer is broken, the healthy response is to give all employees half an hour to evacuate, go home, fetch your flame-thrower and then reduce the place to a glowing heap of slag. The establishment would probably call our meek response self-control or civic-mindedness. I suggest that it’s simply 12 years of anaesthetic, dripped into us at school to serve as a long-lasting buffer between us and our true responses to a profoundly dysfunctional world.
In the next few months some of our leaders will begin to do a laborious dance, slowly waving their arms in the air and making jazz-hands with their little pork-sausage fingers as they sing lullabies about pass rates and building for the future. This is the Education Dance, an annual performance designed to help us go back to sleep. It might seem wrong of them to do this, but only if you believe that politicians are in favour of quality education; which, of course, is fundamentally not the case: the only natural predator of the inept politician is a genuinely educated voter.
Cynics might suggest that our government is deliberately leaving our children uneducated to produce an endless source of cheap labour kept alive and voting by government grants; a bizarre resurrection of Bantu education to serve capitalist supremacy rather than white supremacy. Perhaps this is a reactionary conspiracy theory, perhaps not. Perhaps incompetence, rather than malice, is the culprit.
Either way the fact remains that politics has always been a Ponzi scheme in which pious rhetoric about tomorrow buys you a seat at the trough today; and while some politicians might feel a responsibility to the electorate, the most pressing responsibility of those in government is to stay in government. And, despite their good intentions and worthy words about a better tomorrow, they understand the truth about quality education: that when the doors of learning are truly thrown open, the doors of parliament are likely to be kicked open soon afterwards.
First published in The Times and TimesLive