That’s me in the corner
By Carla Lever
High school. It was a long time ago. I can’t say, though, that I’m terribly sad about that – there’s nothing glamorous about “trappe van vergelyking” and organic chemistry unless you’re planning on becoming the next Antjie Krog or Agent Scully (and even then, I suspect, it’d be a push to ignite a spark of anything particularly dashing over your Bunsen burner).
Despite struggling my way through the nastier elements of a school syllabus, once I left school and realised that real life tends to be riotously messy, I began to see the joy in things like matric-level maths, where no matter how horrendous things look, there’s a method and – somewhere out there – a certain answer. In fact, on particularly bad days, I still sometimes dream of quadratic equations.
It got me thinking, though, what does our education leave us with? What things can we say, with absolute certainty, we gained from twelve years of starched shirts, school songs and sunstroke-inducing sports days? I started thinking about it and, I’ve got to say, it left me worried. See, when it comes down to it, the syllabus you follow doesn’t really matter. Whatever vague notions I grasped of history, biology, music, have sort of blended into each other. I couldn’t tell you the finer points of Roosevelt’s New Deal if you paid me. Arteries from veins? That’s what Dr Google is for. But that’s not what an education is. An education is learning how as much as what to learn. It’s a tried-and-tested method of disciplined brain training where we hopefully pick up basic communication, retention and concentration skills and don’t get into too much trouble along the way.
In that, I suppose I did just fine. I came out of the system able to cobble together a basic sentence. I sensibly dropped all subjects I had no aptitude for (Home Economics, where I singlehandedly smashed, burned and bulldozed my way through an entire school wing), so I suppose you could say I learned good judgement. I weathered the social indignities of being a 5”9, spotty thirteen-year-old with braces, glasses and a posh accent and wasn’t caught doing anything worse than talking in the corridors. But then, success is a relative term.
Never mind the things I’ve forgotten along the way. It’s the things that I do recall, recall with absolute clarity as if they happened yesterday, that really worry me. Because, I’ve got to tell you, a lot of them are pretty darn disturbing.
I remember having compulsory Bible education classes at my bog standard secular school – not Religious Studies, mind, Bible Studies. I bunked these with rather a self-righteous indignation after the first class, when an aged teacher passed a piece of paper around the class and asked all of us, regardless of religion, to write the number of times we went to church on it every year for him to weigh up.
I remember hour upon hour of school assemblies being devoted to proselytising groups asking anyone who wasn’t of their religious preference to stand up in front of the school in order to be prayed for and saved.
I remember sex education classes where, in one particularly memorable presentation, we were asked to pass roses along each line of students, with every male student taking a petal. The resulting stalks were brandished at the end of this rather odd procedure, with the message “Girls (it’s always just the girls, isn’t it?), do you see these stalks after every man has taken a petal? What man would want you if you became like that?”I remember thinking that my biggest social handicap wasn’t my gawkiness or my greasy hair, but actually my atheism.
It’s made me wonder, have things changed? What are our kids being taught in school? Seeing as it’s been over a decade since I was there, I take my view only from things my students say. This needs to be taken with a hefty sack of salt, of course, because they regularly say things like “did the internet exist when you were in your twenties?” and “tycoons? Aren’t they those little furry animals with black rings around their eyes?” (both actual questions).
Whatever else they may or may not have gleaned from their dozen or so years in our school system, I hope they’ve been allowed to get it free from overt moral judgements. Awareness of world religions is a fundamental part of creating well-rounded, tolerant and informed students and citizens. Heck, understanding religious and cultural sensibilities are vital for any judge, doctor and teacher. Religious dogma, on the other hand, doesn’t belong in our legal system, it doesn’t belong in our healthcare system and it certainly doesn’t belong in our mainstream school classrooms.
Follow Carla Lever on Twitter (@carlalever)
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