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Philosophy of Education

Philosophy of Education as a Means to Educate Humanity in a Diverse South Africa

Elza Venter
University of South Africa

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ABSTRACT: In pre-democratic South Africa, people never learned to listen to the stories of their fellow human beings because that was seen as a threat rather than a challenge. With the long-awaited political and constitutional changes taking place, a different societal structure is being established and a new democratic value system formally and officially being embraced. It would, however, be naive to imagine that policy changes would transform deeply-rooted attitudes, practices and existing structures overnight. The change into a democratic society does not mean, unfortunately, that a political, social and educational utopia is being created instantly. All learners will have to develop the skills, knowledge competence and attitudes to function effectively in a culturally diverse society. It will require a major paradigm shift from most educators, philosophers of education, and teacher trainers, as well as parents. I will argue for a pluralistic, problem-centered approach to teacher education and training that would be helpful in educating students to respect others and diversity.

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In 1948 the National Party won the election in South Africa and introduced its policy of apartheid. Education became a political battle field, without considering educating human beings for a human society. A narrative of power was followed. The school was used as an instrument to support and legitimise the position of the dominant group and its political interests.

The culturally divided population was kept divided to ensure the dominant group's position in all spheres of society. Conformity to and continuity of the ideologies and culture of the dominant group were more important than social change (Venter et al, in press) .

Christian National Education was the ideology which was responsible for the transmission of Eurocentric values and culture to everyone in the school system and assimilation to that became very important (Squelch, 1993; Venter et al, in press). The perception was that objective knowledge and education could only be found in Eurocentric content. This kind of knowledge resided outside the immediate context of especially the black student.

With the long-awaited political and constitutional changes taking place in South Africa a different societal structure has been established and a new democratic value system formally and officially embraced. It would, however, be naive to imagine that policy changes would change deeply-rooted attitudes, practices and existing structures overnight - the change into a democratic society does unfortunately not mean that a political, social and educational Utopia has been created instantaneously (Venter et al, in press).

There is, however, a clear distinction between the pre democratic and the new democratic South Africa. Not only does this distinction refer to a shift in political and constitutional conditions, but in more general terms, it refers to a major shift in the value and philosophical frameworks which underpin the basis of South African society (Venter et al, in press).

All learners in South Africa will have to develop the skills, knowledge, competence and attitudes to function effectively in a diverse society. It will require a major paradigm shift from most educators, philosophers of education and teacher trainers. This kind of transformation is not an easy task. It requires an open mind and the willingness to understand others and to change one's own presuppositions (Venter et al, in press).

The question, however, remains whether policy changes will necessarily cause a paradigm shift towards a more humane co-existence of a diverse population within the same society? Should philosophers, philosophers of education and educators in general not give more attention to educating humanity and education for humanity to bring a divided nation together?

With reference to the emphasis on social diversity, Svi Shapiro (1995) asks the following question: "If we all speak only from within our specific situations and identities (the sexually oppressed, native peoples, the old, the mentally disabled, women) who speaks for humanity?" - Perhaps humaneness might be a point to advance towards, instead of only concentrating on differences. A public discourse which includes the experience, needs and hopes of a broad spectrum of people without privileging any one group might be the answer; this discourse should have the healing of society as its concern. Unity in difference should become increasingly important (Venter et al, in press).

In this article I propose a way of educating humanity in a diverse society in Philosophy of Education. What is proposed is a pluralistic problem centred approach as one way of meeting the needs of student teachers to cope with a variety of viewpoints, but also of empowering teachers in practice to cope with difficult situations in their diverse classrooms.


South Africa is a country of many nations, cultures and value systems. South Africans differ inter alia in race, religion, heritage and ideology.

For decades the white Afrikaans speaking South Africans, through the social structures and mass media, dictated which values and cultural norms dominated in the country. The values in the school system, enforced through state policy, were Christian National in nature. Although the white Afrikaners were not the dominant group in numbers, they dominated politics, the church and the school system for years (Venter et al, in press). According to Schoeman (1995) general social stratification and human alienation were reinforced in this way.

Western culture and values dominated without acknowledging and considering the African origin of the vast majority of people. The western, capitalistic, individualistic view of life is often in direct opposition to the more group-oriented outlook of the African cultures. The task of getting balance in the core culture of such a disparate society is a difficult assignment for its people (Venter et al, in press).

According to Mkabela and Luthuli (1997) the building of a unified South African society will require the recognition of diversity in the country in its education system. "Integration, separatism, accomodation and tolerance will provide an education base for understanding interracial relations across the country... An ideal type of education places emphasis on unity in diversity."

In the African culture the concept of 'ubuntu' plays a major role. It emphasises the humanity of a person and is seen as the most important quality of a person. "Humanness is characterised by generosity, love, maturity, hospitality, politeness, understanding and humility. It has to do with ... existential peace. It implies treating other people with dignity and respect" (Mkabela&Luthuli, 1997). Teachers should be educated to nuture humanness among the youth. Teachers and learners should realise that we have our humanness in common, despite differences.


South Africa's first democratic election took place in April 1994. Part of the preamble to the Constitution which was amended in October 1996 sounds as follow:

We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

An overview of the prominent policy documents released since the establishment of the new political dispensation in South Africa, displays a marked change in attitude and spirit in favour of democratic principles and human rights at all levels and areas of governmental concern (Venter et al, in press).

Section 29 of the Final Constitution of South Africa (1996) determines:

-the right to basic education

-equal access to education institutions

-instruction in a language of choice where it is reasonably possible

-the right to establish educational institutions of common culture and religion provided that there is no discrimination on the grounds of race.

In a formal sense the Constitution obliges education authorities to ensure that democratic structures, education models and curricula are put in place. In a more informal sense it has to be ensured that democratic values and tolerance are cultivated in schools and that a change in attitudes is brought about (Venter et al, in press).

The increased awareness of human dignity and diverse perceptions in a multicultural South African society form part of the change in the moral perceptions of many South Africans. There is an awareness that individuals and their personal contexts and values are important and these values should be accommodated in a more humane South Africa (Venter et al, in press).

To function in a democratic system, cultural differences and value plurality need to be acknowledged, but somehow, South Africans now also need to recognise similarities. Because of its variety of cultural groups, adequate cultural interaction becomes very important. Young ([1990] cited in McLaren, 1994; Venter et al, in press) affirms the necessity to assert the positivity of group difference by inter alia claiming that formerly oppressed groups have distinct cultures, experiences, and perspectives on social life with humanly positive meaning. The emphasis on humanness and that which would promote humanity is, thus, very important.

Trinh T. Minh-ha (see McLaren, 1994) says that multiculturalism is not

"...the juxtaposition of several cultures whose frontiers remain intact, nor is it to subscribe to a bland 'melting pot' type of attitude that would level all differences. It lies, instead, in the intercultural acceptance of risks, unexpected detours, and complexities of relation between break and closure".

This attitude of unity in diversity is also echoed by Bhiku Parekh (see Aronowitz and Giroux, 1993) who gives the following description of multiculturalism:

"Multiculturalism doesn't simply mean numerical plurality of different cultures, but rather a community which is creating, guaranteeing, encouraging spaces within which different communities are able to grow at their own pace. At the same time it meant creating a public space in which these communities are able to interact, enrich the existing culture and create a consensual culture in which they recognize reflections of their own identity".


Burbules (1996) is of the contention that difference theory should be committed to "promote the agenda of solidarity and self-respect within diverse groups, freed to define the meaning and significance of their own identities". Communication, however, is important for identifying grounds of common interest and understanding, because contexts of radical or incommensurable difference are rare.

In South Africa relationships between people from different cultures are torn between on the one hand the tendency to embrace otherness and difference and on the other hand there is the fear of otherness. Bishop Tutu ([1995] cited in Segal, 1997) articulated the fear of otherness as follows:

In a time of transition such as ours, people are insecure and uncertain because well-known landmarks have shifted or are shifting, and they look for security in sameness and homogeneity. They are scared of difference which heightens their anxiety, and so we see an aversion to diversity, be it of opinion or ethnicity or whatever.

If people could learn to listen and talk to each other with the humanness of the other in mind, the possibility exist to transcend the barriers of race, gender, class and religion.

Educating humanity and education for humanity in a diverse society should start at school level, but before that could happen teachers need to be educated to assist the children in their classrooms to explore humanity and their own humanness. People should learn to listen to each others' stories, even if they differ in background and belief. Education should assist the individual to live life to its fullest within a heterogeneous society.

Education should have as its concern that which is perennially distinctive of the human condition. Human values, rather than particular cultural values are important. It is, however, not a denial of social or cultural values or a negation of particularity, for human values are captured and expressed in human particularity (Higgs, 1994). It is an attempt to enable individuals to understand themselves in relation to other persons and to understand what it is to live a human life (Taylor, 1985).

Giroux (1995) contends that it is "crucial for educators to develop a unity-in-difference position in which new forms of democratic representation, participation, and citizenship provide a forum for creating unity without denying the particular, the multiple, and the specific".

Educators need a "definition of multiculturalism that offers schools the possibility to become places where students and teachers can become border crossers engaged in critical and ethical reflection about what it means to bring a wider variety of cultures in dialogue with each other ... [W]e need a language of politics and pedagogy that is able to speak to cultural differences not as something to be tolerated but as essential to expanding the discourse and practice of democratic life" (Aronowitz&Giroux, 1993; Giroux, 1995).

Giroux (1981) suggests that students should be provided with theoretical models that would support interests such as "human understanding, contextual inquiry, aesthetic literacy, and social reconstructionism". These models could be drawn from fields such as "hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, semiotics, and neo-Marxism". A climate for dialogue and critique, as well as heuristic devices based on different languages and different modes of rationality should be provided.

According to Mkabela and Luthuli (1997) a "course to prepare teachers to deal with diversity should be included in the teacher education curriculum. South Africa needs to restructure teacher education programmes if teachers are to be trained and equipped with the necessary skills, attitudes and behaviour that will allow learners to be comfortable to learn in a culturally diverse classroom ... Teacher education programmes should encourage all teachers to adopt a pluralistic approach".

A pluralistic, problem centred approach to teacher education and training could be helpful to educate students to respect humanity and diversity. By critically studying different metatheories, as well as several education theories, and by being exposed to divergent ways of thinking in Philosophy of Education, student teachers might be better prepared to accommodate children from different cultures and backgrounds in their own classrooms. In this respect, metatheories and education theories should always find application in the various practical teaching situations.

Whilst being exposed to the wealth of insight to be gained from exposure to more than one perspective, people also learn the need to respect the unique contribution of each perspective and to be on the lookout for possible points of convergence. Higgs (1995) argues that a pluralistic approach in their studies will involve philosophers of education in the task of:

* analysing, researching and critically reflecting on the influence of different metatheoretical perspectives in educational discourse;

* assisting teachers and students with concepts necessary for critically assessing claims made about the nature of education and teaching;

* providing teachers and students with conceptual tools necessary for creative and independent thought; and

* assisting teachers and students to develop an understanding of the relationship between education and the context in which knowledge and understanding are created and shared.

After being exposed to different metatheories and education theories, student teachers should learn how to apply these theories in the practical classroom situation by using the problem centred approach. Knowledge, thus, becomes context bound again.

By contextualising knowledge learners would realise that knowledge is largely relative and that each person should decide his/her preferred way of constructing it by appropriately addressing problems from a variety of contexts (Van der Vyver, 1998).


"Teacher education has to undergo fundamental change if it is to adequately prepare learners for the challenges presented by a pluralistic and democratic dispensation ..." (Mkabela&Luthuli, 1997).

Shapiro (1995; Venter et al, in press) affirms that the young should be educated for a socially just, socially responsible, democratic, and compassionate community, but at the same time education should not turn into a monolithic, moral straitjacket where educational concerns are narrowly defined. The struggle for a more humane society may mean different objectives in different contexts - in one place it may be literacy; elsewhere it may mean the possibility of jobs; or in some other place political participation and empowerment.

People should be enabled to accommodate the cultural diversity of their own society, before being exposed to cultures in the global community. In a world where borders are becoming more and more diffuse, South Africans will have to work hard on accepting each other in order to enter into the global world (Venter et al, in press).

Education is one way of humans to define their humanity, to practice humanity, to maintain humanity and to change humanity. Education is a way to connect oneself to the past and to project into the future (Boyd, 1992). Philosophy of Education might be one vehicle to use towards this purpose.

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