Maths and Science vs Morals and Values – A Reply to Julie Staub

Wednesday, 10 September, 2008 - 08:05

Staub does not show how the investment in morals and values at the expense of science itself is going to raise the student’s morale and turn them into engineers, technicians and artisans.

When I first read the article “Maths and Science vs Morals and Values” by Julie Staub, Fundraising Coordinator at OutwardBound (NGO Pulse, No.139), I thought there was a new dark comedy section in NGO Pulse - the kind you find captioned with a cartoon.

In response to what has been described as the cause of the skills crisis in this country, Staub writes: “I believe that we need to teach our youth more about morals and values than maths and science.

They need to learn life skills before they can qualify as doctors or engineers. They need to be made aware that they all have potential; they just need to be helped to achieve it”. She does not mention how this latent potential is measured and how it translates into skills that the economy demands.

She goes further to state what is a delayed response and aught to have been part of a Marshall Plan in 1994, “as one response, the Department of Education is on a drive to improve the maths and science qualifications of students in South Africa. As a result, most corporate donors are now focusing their funding only on projects that are directly related to maths and science, thus cutting out a huge section of the community”. Cutting them from what?

According to Iraj Abedian, CE of Pan African Advisory Services, South Africa has as many as 500 000 vacant posts for computer technicians, financial managers, artisans, and other professionals. The massive scarcity of skills, of which brain drain is but a small contributor is regarded by many right minded South Africans to be directly linked to the national crisis in maths and science passes with an exemption.

Staub correctly observes that the majority of students in this country do not believe that it is even worth finishing a schooling career. They feel that there are very few job opportunities available to them, even with a matric certificate; as a result, they resort to crime and drug abuse. What she fails to reveal is how the investment in morals and values at the expense of science itself is going to raise the student’s morale and turn them into engineers, technicians and artisans, the jobs for which there are vacant posts.

The situation is exacerbated by the scarcity of political moral leadership, she alleges. She makes no mention of the responsibility of parents and the role of churches in moral regeneration. Every delinquent’s deviant action can now be directly apportioned to a crooked politician if it is not rock music or hard core metal.

Instead of striving for excellence in maths and science, Staub presents an alternative to solving a problem of lack of skills, crime and drug abuse, through OutwardBound’s life skills programmes. Through these programmes, students are taught, through adventure, to face and overcome their fears. “They do things that they never believed they could, or would, ever do in their lives”, she claims. “They see stars at night, listen to the quiet of the bush and watch the sunrise from a mountain top”, she marvels, as if these things do not constitute the grinding daily existence of the majority of rural children with a bucket of water on the head. To make matters worse, someone is supposed to pay for these children to access these life changing experiences these children are trying to escape from.

Instead, of facing the enormity of a Regression Analysis, the Outbound Website, invites our children to “go outward bound …on a voyage of unexpected discovery…to leave behind the restrictions that their daily lives impose on them and discover more within themselves than they ever dreamed of”. This, apparently, is what government and corporates should redirect resources into to solve the skills crisis, crime and drug abuse and restore our moral standing among nations.

What utter gobbledegook!

According to the 2007 Centre for Development Enterprise’s (CDE) survey, less than seven percent of Senior Certificate candidates passed higher grade maths in the last 16 years. The reason for this, one deduces from Staubs article, is because of over investment by government and corporates in maths and science as opposed to organised thrill and adventure.

In the fantasy world Staub lives in, somehow, somewhere, there is an employer out there who requires employees with these scarce skills as a sole determinant of employability: Character, will, values, self-belief, and the impossible “ability to constantly make the right choices” instead of advanced scholastic acumen in mathematics, physics, accounting, chemistry, computer science, etc. For the benefit of the rest of humanity, Staub promises that “through transforming individuals, we could ultimately transform whole communities”. Our youth’s propensity to quaff drugs, its lack of drive and purpose, aimlessness and miserable existence will become a thing of the past!

In “From laggard to world class: reforming maths and science education in South Africa” the CDE lists poor maths and science education as the “single biggest obstacle to the advancement of the African child in South Africa today”. Presumably, Staub, disagrees with this, to her it is lack of sunlight and fresh air.

The CDE report presented credible recommendations including:

  • Mobilise for national effort, pull together all the energy and commitment of leaders in both public and private sector
  • Increase the supply of qualified maths and science teachers
  • Build on the potential in our schooling system, support high performing schools
  • All maths and science education initiatives should include appropriate language components, etc.  

The report ends by exalting all to treat maths, science and language as the country’s top educational priority with a goal of doubling maths and science passes. The situation of unsatisfactory outcomes has not changed today, despite the increased investment in maths and science by government and the private sector. The situation is not expected to change overnight. The issues are complex: there are in-class, in-school, and out- of-school and interrelated complications. One teacher described the economic hardships of her learners with a question: “How do I teach a child that vomits water because it has not eaten in three days to excel in anything?”

This is not to say that life skills are not relevant in the holistic development of a child. Life Orientation is a compulsory and examinable subject in the South African education system.

LEAP Science & Maths School is one of many private sector interventions that recognise the exceptional set of circumstances that children from disadvantaged backgrounds grapple with. These monumental challenges include erosion of a social fabric, trauma, rape, violence, and disintegration of family life through AIDS-related deaths. As a consequence, this school with two campuses at the Old Mutual premises in Pinelands, Cape Town and one more in Bramely Park Johannesburg is required to act as a safety net and devotes 45 valuable teaching minutes of every day to each learner providing real life orientation.

In the current series Kaelo Stories of Hope, John Gilmore, the Founder and CEO of LEAP states, “ultimately, our goal is to develop good mothers and fathers who will look after their own children”. Even in his sleep or wildest imagination, there is no possibility that he thinks corporates are funding LEAP with the sole objective of achieving this. It is a built in ideal. The only objective measure that any corporate can invest in and measure is whether students pass maths and science with exemption.

But, Staub warns us not to focus on the results. She says we must first get our youth to a magical stage where, apparently, they will be ready to face Calculus head on!

The place to do this is at night, gazing at the stars, listening to the quiet of the bush and watching the sunrise from a mountain top. She says this with utter disregard and disrespect for children who are still studying under trees today and still expected to compete with the rest of the world in the 21st century global economy.

It is possible that some people have not noticed this - the crisis that is unacceptable pass rates in maths and science necessitate that we all look beyond the rooi gevaar state of paranoia that used to be induced by the mere mention of “brain drain” and “crime” to support badly conceived solutions to real problems in our country.

One is left with no other option therefore other than concluding that the article is a bad fundraising idea, or a joke or both.

- Andile L Ncontsa is the Head of the Old Mutual Foundation

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