Why South Africa needs as much elite education as possible

Every time a multi-millionaire spends a ridiculous amount on private schooling, we should all applaud.

Why South Africa needs as much elite education as possible

Every year, somebody posts on Facebook how much South Africa’s most expensive schools cost, and people, as is their wont, take glee in expressing outrage that our country has lots of wealthy people in it willing to spend massive amounts on schooling.

And every year, I wonder why the same outrage is not directed against people shopping at Woolworths, buying their own car or house, or going to private hospitals.

The reason why is fairly clear, I think – we all recognise how powerful a quality education is. And thus we fear elitism in education more than in any other sphere.

But that’s exactly the wrong attitude to have – elitism in education is not only necessary, but desirable.

This is because, first of all, education is meant to make you elite.

You don’t enter a school to become like everybody else. You enter a school to be initiated into a set of mysteries that will grow you as a person and give you unique skills and knowledge which will allow you to serve your community in a unique fashion. (It’s worth noting that the word ‘mystery’ was often used in the Middle Ages to describe a trade which one had entered and mastered.)

Therefore, part of any education is indeed to give you privilege in your society (the word ‘privilege’ has to do with knowing, or being privy to, things others don’t), but equally to help you understand that privilege and knowledge is also geared toward service. Yes, you will earn a good salary as a doctor, because you know stuff others don’t – but by knowing that stuff, you are then obligated to serve the community by ‘professing’ your knowledge in your work (hence the word ‘professional’).

So, yes, there are going to be schools that want to do this outside of the state system, and crank up the value they offer, in order that they can cater to a market of wealthy people willing to spend that amount on their children’s education. As a society, we should want that market to increase – not decrease.

And equally, expensive insitutions should always maintain a social conscience, and offer massive bursaries to those who cannot afford such an expensive education.

At the same time, government should direct some state revenue more efficiently to ensure elite schooling is available at a subsidised price to the middle and working classes. (Personally, I think they should just give the money to the schools and stay out of the actual running of education – see SAA for my argument as to why.)

Second of all, education in its very essence is elite.

As implied above, education always involves hierarchy. Nobody learns from their equal in knowledge – they learn from the wise and learned.

Therefore all decent education systems will designate certain people as authorities in certain areas and give them resources and a certain kind of power to practise their expertise in such a way as to pass it on to others. This is the very definition of elitism! And it is a good thing.

Some people prefer to think of everybody as being completely equal in every way – everybody’s opinions and skills should be regarded equally. But that is just not true. There are lots of people cleverer than me, for example, whose opinion should count more than mine on many issues because they know more than me.

Yes, we should all be equal as people – equal in dignity and before the law (an idea based on the elitism of humanity as made in the elite image of an elite God), but when you are dying you don’t just ask anybody to heal your body or your soul. Such people need to know what they’re doing.

Thirdly, without a sense of elitism in education, we offer no path to a better future.

We have to give young people a goal and aspirations. That must always involve offering them elite positions of knowledge and service to which they can aspire.

Now, such positions do not by any means have to be restricted to the white-collar Constantia/Umhlanga/Sandton default dream life – becoming an accountant/doctor/engineer after doing high school at an old boarding school in KZN and then going to UCT or Stellenbosch.

I am personally of the opinion that we need to go back to a more classical conception of schooling, whereby all young people study the classical ‘trivium’ – grammar, logic, and rhetoric, in other words, everybody should be taught how to govern their own minds – to think, to speak, and to argue well.

Following the ‘trivium’, and its mastery over ‘mind’, students should then move to studying the world of ‘matter’ – the ‘quadrivium’ of yore which studied the sciences of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. (Obviously science has changed somewhat – but not as much as you’d think…)

According to ability, students would have less or more mastery over ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, and they could then choose one of three options in concluding their studies.

They could follow the classical model, and, having mastered ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, they could move on beyond matter to the study of metaphysics and theology (philosophy), by entering an academic university devoted to asking and answering the big ‘universal’ questions which concern us all. (This was the original premise of all the old universities.)

They could choose to enter the professions, which are generally also taught at universities. These are associations which are devoted to special knowledge and skills in certain sectors of society – accountancy, the law, medicine, engineering, architecture, teaching, etc.

Or they could enter a practical trade, or mystery. These trades were so venerated in the Middle Ages that members of trade guilds had their own feast days in the church, their own special clothing and ‘trade secrets’. And despite modern opinion, the trades are also elite. Think of the old stages of becoming a master tradesman. You must be an apprentice first, then you can become a journeyman (a tradesman who has the skills but is still being supervised), and finally, you can become your own boss, a master, who is not only responsible for his own work, but equally the skills of the trade itself.

Whichever path you choose, in my own vision of education, you should become an ‘elite’ – skillful and valued by society.

Finally, it should be noted that an ideology of ‘anti-elitism’ is actually a massive cancer in our education system.

Progressive education philosophy tears down the very signposts that guide children along the path to success.

It suggests no knowledge is more or less valid than any other knowledge.

OBE, or the idea that the child should be at the centre of the teaching process, harms children. Education is meant to be about informing the child, not giving the child a platform to express their own immature knowledge. And thus the system discourages capable people against becoming teachers, and so mediocrity is passed on, generation to generation, because, hey, that’s where an absolute belief in equality will always lead.

Yes, let’s fight for as many people to get well-educated as possible. But worrying about some schools being expensive and elite is not part of that battle.

You don’t tear things down while you’re trying to build other things up.