On Democracy and Agency: Lessons from the classroom

On Democracy and Agency: Lessons from the classroom

As a teacher, I am often confronted with many questions in the classroom. Recently, some of my learners heard about South Africa’s ranking in education, fourth from the bottom out of a 100 countries, and they demanded to know how this is possible. They also wanted to know whether they had any chance at succeeding if the education they were getting is inferior. I had to convince them that our school forms part of the functional 10% in this country..  This ranking is lower than countries that are poorer than we are and spend less on education. This is not surprising given the shambolic state of the education system where only 10% of the schools in South Africa are functional. The majority in this country do not receive a quality education. This is in a country where the Freedom Charter declared that the “doors of learning and culture shall be open”. This raises many critical questions about what democracy means. Is democracy ‘worth it’ when the majority of the people in a country get an inferior education?

Democracy and education are portmanteau words that are clouded by the grand ideas of the relationship between education and its purpose in society. I am constantly faced with questions about the purpose of education. My learners are constantly asking me why they have to learn certain content but seldom do they tell me what it is they would really like to learn about. When given the opportunity to bring content to class that would engage them, they seldom take the opportunity. This makes me wonder about whether they are aware of what it is that they would like to learn t. Do they have the insight into considering what knowledge really interests them and how this can be integrated into the classroom? This is a very small scale example of the role of democracy and what it means for schools and education broadly. Who should be making the decisions about what happens in the classroom, learners, teachers or administrators?

The same could be asked of national governance. Who should be making decisions about how a country is governed? It’s simplistic to say that democracy is a form of government “for the people, by the people” because in order for democracy to work, we make assumptions about the agency of citizens. We have to assume that citizens know what they want and they know what demands to make on their government. However, this is often not the case. The existential situation amongst many citizens is one where people are happy to abdicate their responsibility as citizens, especially when their interests are secure. We leave people in power to make decisions for us. And when we eventually get tired of this pattern, we have a revolution as we saw in with the so-called Arab spring and the service delivery strikes in South Africa. But is this sustainable?

By making a comparison between my classroom and governance I am trying to show that in order to understand democracy, we needn’t see it as a grand gesture but a daily experience of how people see themselves in the world and how they articulate their agency. Even when I do give my learners the opportunity to take control of the classroom, they do so reluctantly, as though they don’t believe that the classroom is their space. Could the same be said of citizens and the level of responsibility they show towards their democracy?

Athambile Masola

Athambile Masola is a teacher at Claremont High School. She has a Masters in Education from Rhodes University. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans. She also writes for FeministsSa.com, the Mandela Rhodes Scholars Thought Leader page and on her blog: ixhantilam.

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