Beware of the hidden curriculum of schools by Eusebius McKaiser

6 September 2016

In 2013, I accepted an invitation to be the guest speaker at the Pretoria Boys' High School valediction service for matrics. I did so because I have many friends who attended this school, and so by friendship association, I have always thought highly of the place.

It is a school that has an enviable list of old boys, including my friends advocate Nick Ferreira, one of the country’s best lawyers of our generation, and Justice Edwin Cameron, one of the country’s best jurists. The school also boasts the reputation for having the highest number of Rhodes scholars in the history of the scholarship to have been selected to study at Oxford University.

This is quite apart from heroes in other fields such as Springbok legend John Smit.

Over the past week, I recalled my visit to the school as discussion raged about exclusionary and unjust practices and archaic values across former whites-only schools. I was sitting on stage as the awards for 2013 were being announced and handed out to the boys who had achieved exceptionally.

One award, to this day, has stuck with me, but I was way too polite that evening to ask my hosts about the award’s place in a school that imagines itself to be progressive and cognisant of the unequal society within which it is located.

Indeed, I reserved my praise back then for an incredible speech by the headmaster, Tony Reeler, that evening in which he appealed to parents and boys to think through their unearned privileges as the ones lucky enough to be on the cushy side of the inequality divide.

Looking at the boys, Reeler told them: “As boys you may think that you have a long way to go before you can exercise influence from your position of privilege. I disagree. As a university student, you can tutor schoolchildren in the subjects they struggle in - for no financial gain. You can take part in public protests and join civil rights organisations that work to improve the lives of others.

“You can debate, argue, disagree and discuss with others. You can give of your time and of your soul to others. And, as you complete your studies and move into the world of work, so the generation you helped starts to help others.”

But one of the awards handed out reminded me that the process of institutional change is slow even when there is a headmaster in charge of an institution whose heart might be in the right place.

And it underscores the importance of not just looking out into the world to seek opportunities to go and fight injustices “out there”, but also in our own backyards, and indeed inside our own homes (and inside our schools, as the case might be).

The Trebot Barry Award is one of the awards that were handed out. The inscription for the award reads as follows: “Awarded to the boy whose home language is not English and yet has embraced the values and ethos of our school.”

I cringe just thinking of that award now because of the unsubtle project that such an award is about. It is as an example of how exclusionary norms are institutionalised long after a school has nominally opened its doors to boys of different backgrounds.

First, the award is an explicit endorsement of the dominant values and ethos of the school that are based on producing an English-speaking matriculant imbued with colonial-era values and habits exported from Britain to the tip of the African continent. That is the template; that is the hidden curriculum.

I don't recall an award that evening for the boy who, despite speaking English at home, has embraced the values and ethos of a country that's predominantly black and not taking its cue from British social mores. The award is, crudely put, for the school's most popular coconut. That isn't changed if a pupil with Spanish or German parents gets the award now and then.

White kids aren’t, by contrast, incentivised to learn African languages, embrace kwaito rather than classical music, and maybe line up for, I don’t know, the Johnny Clegg or PJ Powers Award.

The award - which should be ditched, if it hasn’t been already - is a blunt instrument to incentivise black boys to mimic what they found at the school upon arrival. It institutionalises assimilation, and signals a refusal to imagine a new set of values and an ethos fitting for a truly diverse school body.

This is why we can't let the hair policy debate started at Pretoria Girls' High be reduced to hair. It's about linguistic apartheid, cultural hegemony, and keeping value pluralism outside the school gates, while pretending that a school magazine picture of black and white learners huddled together suffices as evidence of inclusivity.

Black kids may be a numerical majority, but they remain strangers at former whites-only schools.