Kyle has been involved with educating the underprivileged of Johannesburg since 2013 through various educational non-profit endeavours.
Have You Heard About This?
Doesn’t the mere mention of education get the adrenaline pumping? No? I think it should. I’m a South African, born and bred, and this topic has become of late, how do they say, hot. In 2015, a student-led protest called #FeesMustFall started to quickly gain traction. It was a response to an increase in fees by the country’s universities. What started as a predominantly mainstream protest, that is, more geared towards the larger universities in the country, soon became a symbol for students in every tertiary institution nationwide to demand lower fees.
Like wildfire, the protest surged across the country and soon there was nothing else on the news. Universities were shutting their doors. There was violence in the streets. Estimated property damage of 600 million rand or approximately 45 million dollars was caused. Of course, political parties jumped at the chance to garner some votes, which complicated matters. For a few months, the country talked about nothing else. Questions that were only mumbled before reared their heads as hot topics. And eventually, the big question was asked. Is free education possible?
Before We Get Stuck In
Before we delve into the main course, let’s quickly review what the issues are. Also, if anyone who is not from South Africa is reading this, there is a good chance your country has experienced similar events. At the time of this happening in my country, I was aware of almost exactly the same thing going on in America and England. And that’s just because I read the news and they’re first world countries.
The protests originally began in the middle of October 2015 when the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) in Johannesburg announced that fees would be increased by 10.5%. Students got angry and responded by locking down the university. Fast-forward through the riots, rubber bullets and back and forth between the government, students and the universities and we’re left with the question as to why.
The basic answer isn’t that hard to wrap one’s head around. The income level in the country compared with the cost of living was and still is highly disproportionate. At the time of announcing the increase in fees, that difference was, only because we can now reflect, at a volatile point. People were initially, and then obviously on occasion coaxed, into believing it was wholly unreasonable to be asking such an amount for tertiary education. And they showed it. Vehemently.
Another factor should be taken into consideration. The value of education. The students felt that they should not be asked to pay high prices for something that is regarded as a constitutional right. Soon they were asking why they should pay at all. And you know what, I agree that the question should at the very least be asked.
Without Education We… Wait, That’s Impossible
Before applying any ethical value to the idea of education, let’s break it apart. If one looks up its definition from various sources, the common thread seems to be the idea of imparting and absorbing information. Now, as far as natural law is concerned, it may be a little ambitious to claim education as one of them. However, one would be hard pressed to deny that the absorbability and dissemination of information is as natural as our ability to breathe.
At this point of the definition, there is no right or wrong attached to the concept of education. It may go either way. I can impart and absorb information that may be false or true. Right or wrong. Teach to kill. Learn to heal. In and of itself, education has no moral agenda. We give it one. This paper, however, is not written to investigate the moral dilemma education presents, but rather the more specific and earthly question of whether or not free education is possible.
The imparting and absorbing of knowledge can logically only lead to one predominant result – evolution. Don’t think of it as Darwinian evolution. Think of it like this: If I’m really hungry and I find a berry lying on the ground, I’m going to absorb that information and take advantage of it. If absorbing information stopped there, and assuming I’d still continue to feel hunger, I would until my death keep on looking to the ground for berries. But if I were to continue to absorb information and found the tree from which the berry fell, I would make that my primary source for berry picking. The process evolved from finding a berry on the ground to identifying its source. Absorbing and disseminating information breeds a kind of evolution.
Specifically through this evolutionary process, education breeds advancements in technology. Technology in turn makes education more efficient and easily digestible. One day we absorbed enough information to conceptualize computers. Eventually enough to build them. Computers now immensely aid us in continuing to further our education. More than ever advancements in technology go hand-in-hand with advancements in education.
For the Love of Money
One of the main, if not the only true opposing argument to free education, is held within the polar opposite of its identifier "free". The argument is that it is simply not financially viable to practice free education. The cost of educating 60 million people (approximate population of South Africa), let alone 7 billion people, cannot be done. Barring some global shift in defining values of currencies, I’d have to agree. But it’s not that simple. Just because I’m aware that absolute free global education is unattainable from a financial point of view, this doesn’t mean that I should rule out the broader notion altogether.
Institutions and organisations around the world are providing free education as I write this. Education is free for everyone in some parts of Europe. Like the suggestion that education is a natural law, getting rid of it is impossible.
Divide and Educate
In this part I will briefly explore the idea that, specifically amongst the educational sector, division breeds division. With regard to the question of whether or not free education is possible, I will attempt to show that the basic act of charging varying amounts for different levels of education further inhibits the possibility of a thriving society and of free education becoming a reality.
A large part of our global society is dedicated to the idea of competition. A kind of Darwinian undercurrent runs through many of our populations with individuals and groups competing for the most attention, respect and money. Education seems to be no exception. It isn’t a foreign concept to suggest that the more money you pay for your education, the better your education will be. There is also no steadfast rule dictating that if I pay x amount for education I will receive a quality level of y. If I paid more for my belt than my friend paid for his, there is no guarantee that my belt is better than his. There is only the guideline that more expensive things are a sign of better quality.
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Education surely pre-existed the monetisation of it, but which came first doesn’t matter. What matters is that if someone pays less for education, they are much more likely to become educated at a lower level than someone who paid more for their education. At this point the division has already begun. By the time they graduate, the person who paid more is likely to get a better job, lead a more comfortable life, have better insurance, etc. It’s clear how the basic division of education by means of varying costs contributes to socio-economic division later in life.
Does this mean that we should adopt a Communist-like system where everybody pays the same amount (or no amount) for the same level of education? No. If anything, the failure of communism has shown us the inherent need of the human instinct to compete. To attempt to implement such a thing would inevitably result in similar protests as described in the beginning of this paper. There must always be room for competition. So what is actually being spoken about here?
It seems what is being spoken about but very rarely mentioned is the bottom line. Not the “bottom line” as in profit. The “bottom line” as in the lowest amount to be paid and its equivalent level of quality. The state should provide a minimum level of education. That level is by which a country’s aptitude at educational practices is measured. If that level produces individuals who possess the skills needed in order to be competitive in today’s world, then the country is probably doing a good job and is more inclined towards a first world state.
My country is not proficient. The state provides education but at a distinctly poor level. Textbooks aren’t delivered, children are being crammed into classrooms and being taught out of date, substandard content. Because of this my country is predominantly a third-world state. It’s happening all over the world to some degree or another. Substandard education for those who simply can’t pay for the better stuff.
I’d like to use this part to point out the stupefying and bewildering reasoning that we as a species seem to employ.
I propose a simple query. Is it in a country’s interest to educate the most amount of people possible? Let’s look at two scenarios. The first is of a state (much as mine is now) that answers no to that query. The second is a state that says yes.
Scenario one: The state provides a poor quality level of education for those who can only afford the cheapest option. This produces numerous members of society that, instead of contributing, detract from the state’s proficiency. This is quite simply because these individuals don’t possess the skills in order to provide, so the state has to provide for them with such things as grants.
Scenario two: The state provides a high level of education for anybody who requires it. This produces numerous members of society that actively contribute to the economy through innovative thinking and critical awareness on a global scale. Very little grants are given out because the economy is thriving as a result of holding so many capable individuals.
The two scenarios are extremely simplistic and don’t take into account the subtler aspects of the problem. However, I challenge anyone to suggest that not educating the people of a country will benefit it more than educating them. The idea is simply ludicrous and yet, is practiced globally. The basic logic of it suggests that if the state outlays the cost to educate its people at a high level other costs won’t be incurred.
Oh Man, We’re Back at Costs
So what are we asking of governments? To suddenly dedicate the majority of their resources towards attaining a high level of education for their populations? Well, yes, that would be fantastic. If only it were that simple.
Let’s jump back a little to part four which spoke of the inherent link between technology and education. The most proactive way to educate people is through technology. We’ve invented this wonderful thing called the Internet where information can be distributed on a global scale in an instant. The catch is that you need the technology in order to access it. If you don’t have the technology you’re in a tight spot.
A province of my country is called the Eastern Cape. Most of it resembles the stereotypical African grassland with mud hut scattered hills. It is the poorest of the provinces. Internet? Much of the Eastern Cape doesn’t have electricity. There’s a challenge. The cost of implementing a province-wide distribution of tech would be overwhelmingly exorbitant with all things considered. There are more basic strategies such as centralising the tech in a community centre instead of trying to hand every single individual a smart device and install Wi-Fi everywhere. Getting organisations to commit is the problem. The return doesn’t seem worth it for them. Of course it doesn’t. We’re only talking about the well-being of our country and its people. That’s all. It does happen through private initiatives, but the scale isn’t big enough to make a meaningful impact.
The Heart of the Matter
I’m afraid I offer no solution. I can only conclude the matter is a complicated one. To implement free education in a predominantly third world state seems improbable considering the agendas and mandates governments hold over such countries. However, there is another way to approach it…
Near the beginning, I spoke of the permanence of absorbing and disseminating knowledge. This gives me comfort. It tells me that no matter what happens education is always possible. If I possess the will to teach someone how to write a letter I’ll find some sand and go from there.
If I am to ask one thing of this paper, it would be to alert people of the idea that free education doesn’t start at how much it costs. That’s where it ends. It starts by freely deciding to educate. We are all teachers and we are all learners. We must aim to enhance those two notions whenever possible. Ask me if I know something. I just may. And if I don’t, we’ll find a way.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.