Colonial education is a grave crime against our students

Understanding is led by language

Most people involved with the education of our students, especially at university level, probably take it for granted that the language of education in South Africa is English. Most of them have probably never imagined that perchance this fact renders the contents of the courses they teach virtually unintelligible to students.

If they ever thought about it, they probably also thought “what to do!?” That is how things are. This is the only way things can be.

This situation is a relic of our colonial past. Ngugi Wa Thiongo, the prominent Kenyan novelist, put it thus in a recent BBC interview: “the problem has been that in a system of oppression and aggression, languages and cultures are seen as existing in a hierarchy…it’s in terms of power relationships.”

In the colonial logic then, it makes sense that we could not possible employ our African languages in dealing with such sublime matters as knowledge involves.

This has engendered a form of harm against Africans. We have been torn away from our identity as a people who speak a certain language, and who share the worldviews which these languages are an expression of.

But in my job as a philosophy teacher, I have sensed a different way in which this harm to us continues to be done even now. Permit me to illustrate this harm by sharing an experience I had in a class I teach at the University of Fort Hare.

On Friday 21 April, I had an Introduction to Philosophy class with my foundation students. This particular lecture was about Epistemology. Now, after presenting Gettier’s Problem (what this is is irrelevant to the story) to my students, I asked them if they understood it.

Most of them said they didn’t.

I took another ten minutes or so to explain it again. On asking, again, if they now understood it, fewer (but still too many) of them said they still didn’t understand it.

At this moment, a student of mine, perhaps my best student, raised her hand and asked me if I could allow her five minutes to explain it in Xhosa. It was a risk, because I don’t quite understand Xhosa. But I trusted that she understood Gettier’s Problem because of the questions she had been asking earlier. So I let her try.

I did not expect what happened next.

My lecture room was practically set alight. My usually dull students came alive, agreeing and disagreeing with Edmund Gettier, left, right and centre. They were now lobbing all sorts of counterexamples at me, mostly in insufficient English, but clearly enough for me to discern that they now understood Gettier’s Problem.

It was beautiful to watch. The seal had been broken. The proverbial Holy Spirit had descended upon my class and now my students were philosophising. Alas they could think. What is more, they now appeared better able to follow the lecture even though I continued in English (occasionally calling on our Xhosa explainer to help hammer a point home – I have decided that henceforth I will enlist the help of my assigned tutor for this task).

Of course, it may well be the case that I am just such a horrible teacher. That what I had perceived as their inability to follow was in fact due to my inability to teach. But having worked as a tutor for courses other people taught, at different universities, I shudder to think there are so many bad philosophy teachers in South Africa.

I think the problem, among other things, was the language.

Many of our students fail their modules, or perform poorly in them, not because they are in over their heads with respect to philosophy, but because most of them are definitely in over their heads with respect to the language of instruction (English).

But I don’t think the solution is to redouble our efforts at teaching English. The solution is to teach them in a language they are at home with.

And this is not a radical suggestion. That it sounds radical is a testament to how we continue to be colonised even today.

In 2016, I spent an exchange semester at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. Almost all the German students I met there spoke good English. But these students do not study in English. They study in their mother-tongue (German).

Likewise, in some of the most technologically advanced countries in the world today, who themselves are former colonies or protectorates, such as China and South Korea, students learn to speak English from an early age, but the medium of knowledge transfer is the mother-tongue of the students (Chinese and Korean).

There is nothing inherently more education-enabling about some languages, as opposed to others.
Xhosa does not defy philosophy. Neither does it defy physics, mathematics or geography. It’s just a medium, like all other languages.

You can explain Gettier’s Problem in Xhosa. You can also explain longitudes and latitude in Xhosa. I dare say, you can even explain quadratic equations or calculus in Xhosa.

The only difference is, now the students actually understand you.

Some well-meaning people may object to this idea because, as they see it, they would like our students to be able to compete on the world stage. They believe English enables this.

That is a valid concern. So, I suggest that our students learn English, as a subject, at all educational levels. They also need to learn other languages, including other African languages like Swahili. But it has to be understood that English is no more than an additional tool for success, much in the same vein as helping them develop a habit of reading and admonishing them to keep abreast of world events, are tools for success.

But teaching them in English evidently is not readying them for the world-stage either. It’s actually disadvantaging them. Chinese, Korean and Japanese students have shown themselves able on the world-stage. In fact, Korean kids are among the best in the world in Mathematics and Physics. This is not inspite of their studying in Korean. It is, among other things, because they do so. Where are South African kids on those ratings?

Xhosa kids dream in Xhosa; think in Xhosa; soliloquize in Xhosa; make mental associations in Xhosa; perform even the most mundane of their daily activities in Xhosa. Yet, for some reason, they are expected to do philosophy (or any other subject) in a language other than Xhosa, and be proficient at it.

That a post-colonial African government allows this to continue is a crime against our students.