Bad educations, bad science, bad students…

While some readers may want to argue against my oft-repeated claims that specific types of woo (religion) – and woo more generally (pseudoscience/quackery) – help to make us stupid, it’s regrettably the case that regardless of the role religion may play in our dumbing-down, for whatever reason our students certainly arrive at university unprepared for “higher learning”.

The recently completed pilot of the National Benchmarking Tests Project (NBTP) indicates that only 7% of university entrants are proficient in mathematics, while 47% scored as “proficient” in the academic literacy tests. In both cases, not being proficient means that the universities need to provide “extensive support in language development, for almost half of registered students”, and support would likewise be called for in the case of mathematics for 93% of students.

So says Nan Yeld, Dean of Higher Education at UCT. And as the UWC Vice-Chancellor points out, seeing as UCT attracts the best students, the situation would be even more dire at other institutions.

It’s true that the situation is dire, and I can find no evidence in my own teaching that we should be anything but deeply concerned about the future of education in South Africa – and by extension, the future of South Africa itself. But while bureaucracies slowly work their way through the issues, implications and possible remedies, we should not forget that there’s maybe something that the soldiers on the ground can do. My concern is that despite its intentions, OBE (outcomes-based education) has generated school-leavers that think in literal terms – students who find it difficult to imagine that the world could be other than what it is, and that one needs to become proficient in being a thinker, and being a rounded human being, before it makes sense to think of being a good economist, plumber, musician or whatever.


It’s not all the fault of under-prepared teachers and the absence of textbooks. It’s also the fault of parents, who encourage their kids to think in terms of vocations before those kids can think at all, and of the media who persist in reporting complicated stories in ways that are simple enough to appeal to the sensation-hungry masses. The universities are also implicated, in not committing the necessary resources to bridging courses, except in the case of selected “previously disadvantaged individuals”, and in not showing sufficient respect for the skills my colleagues call “soft”, namely things like writing, reading and – unfortunately –  thinking. For example, my course (which teaches basic critical thinking and business ethics, contextualised via the examples of globalisation and social media) was recently described by a senior colleague (to my face) as “the same sort of rubbish” as sociology. While I hasten to add that I’m in general not a big fan of sociology either, I do believe that some essential skills are embedded in disciplines like that, and that they only go wrong once they start believing their own dogma, which unfortunately seems to happen quite a bit in the Humanities.

So, parents, remind your children that it’s okay to not known “what you want to be” at the age of 12. In fact, remind them that they should focus first on “being” a competent and coherent human being, so that the choices they make later are less likely to harm them in the long run. Remind them not to uncritically believe the crap they hear on TV, in church and in print. Debate with them, and give them truckloads of books. Lecturers, please remember that your students may claim to want to be actuaries, lawyers or economists, but at some point they may also experience a twinge of regret that they don’t know how to have an argument, and that they will forever be stuck at dinner tables with equally grey people, who have nothing to talk about besides the size of their investment portfolio’s. Remind them that possibly the best way to become proficient at anything is to have certain fundamental skills in place, as Matthew Stewart has recently argued in The Management Myth. And teachers… please just do the best you can.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.