The history lessons I should have learned in school

MIND YOUR Ps AND Qs: The writer says Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma's Model C comments will make it difficult for teachers to encourage free-thinking from pupils. Picture: Matthew Jordaan

I recently spent time at a public library to organise and write up my research data. As I took a seat to connect my laptop, I came across a Maskew Miller Longman FOCUS grade 12 history textbook. Initially, I looked at it with disapproval imaging that I would offend myself with colonial images and texts about how great European conquerors and colonisers such as French Napoleon and Dutch’s Piet Retief were in civilising the African lot. Unimpressed, I went on to open my laptop and began writing on my research while the book laid next me. 

Briefly, Maskew Miller Longman has long supplied the South African education system with textbooks including the inferior Bantu education texts I was educated with –hence my suspicion when I saw the book. From the company’s self-description, “Maskew Miller Longman has over 100 years of publishing experience in South Africa…” This includes the apartheid years of the inferior Bantu education. In 2017, 100 years of publishing experience means that Maskew Miller Longman has been publishing South Africa’s educational materials since the early 1900s. But by the company’s description, its existence and educational service to South Africa goes beyond 1917. And as the oldest anti-colonial movement, the African National Congress was formed in 1912. It was the ANC’s western educated elite class that formed the organisation against the colonial empire, including and primarily its education system. So Maskew Miller Longman, by their own description, was an important institution in the processes of the inferiorisation of Africans through Bantu education. This is what informs my suspicion about their books.     

But Maskew Miller Longman’s history notwithstanding, a young girl kept opening and closing the book while she waited in line to use one of the library computers. After some time typing, I took a break and decided to view the contents of the book. To my surprise, I landed on a chapter explaining the Chinese Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong. I was never taught about this at school, I thought to myself. I only came to know about Mao Zedong and his Cultural Revolution when I began reading for my first year politics course at university. I paged to the following pages only scanning the headings and images without reading all of the contents. 

By the end of the book, I was surprised to learn that the 2017 grade 12s are actually learning the history I wish I had learned in high school. The contents of the book are transformative enough for them to already be politically and economically engaged young adults. It took university education for some of my generation to be exposed to the same contents they are now exposed to in high school. What progress!  

The last time I read history was in grade 9 (then standard 7). We were taught on the history of the Napoleonic wars and the Dutch histories of Piet Retief and company in South Africa. The difficulty I had in absorbing the then history contents led to me failing the subject by a dismal 19%. That was the last time I read history until I began reading politics and social anthropology at university.

When I began reading the Maskew Miller Longman history textbook, I could not believe how fortunate the 21st century learners reading it are. At grade 12, they are learning historical contents that are not mainstreamed at universities. Chapters 10 and 11 of the textbook are the case studies of the US Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement respectively. And chapter 14 is the history of black consciousness and the apartheid regime. These are topics the university is currently challenged to allow into mainstream curriculum. One of the Rhodes Must Fall movement’s decolonisation demands was for the change in the university’s curriculum to reflect the African perspective on the history of humanity. 

To come across a high school textbook containing the contents university students are actually protesting for, among other things, and yet universities do not understand the need for it in higher education is troubling. This is the information that transforms the mind positively towards the self and one’s community.  
It makes one wonder why black learners have not yet begun forming social and economic institutions to transform the social and economic conditions in their communities. In high school, they are taught about the historical conditions that have led to the human experiences that exist in their communities today. And yet, they have not developed a necessary consciousness to transform themselves and the social conditions within which they live. 

The university protests were informed by the transformative contents of black consciousness and pan Africanism that is not allowed into mainstream academic programs. High school learners have access to this content at grade 12 but somehow there is a stumbling block for them to organise their communities into order for self-preservation and growth. Something is amiss.  

University students argued and protested for this content to be part of the mainstream curriculum but only to receive retribution from society. But high school learners’ core reading is the content students are demanding at universities and somehow they do not seem to be transformed by it. 

Learning in high school that your community has a long history of resistance against inequality and injustices ought to naturally transform you, for the better, in your interactions with the world around you. It ought to make you question yourself and the conditions in your environment. Naturally, it will make you take steps towards changing the prevailing circumstances in your community. This does not mean protests and disruptions of social or economic activities but an introduction of different social consciousness and behaviours as individuals and as groups. But somehow the youth is still trapped in the mentality of social violence in their communities instead of engaging with transformative innovations.   

It took university experiences and protests to transform some of us who were educated through the inferior Bantu education system. The 21st century youth does not need to be on the streets protesting to make social changes; they ought to resolve as individuals and as groups to innovate social institutions that will propel different social cultures while in school. This is what our ancestors fought for. 

And I am still surprised that Maskew Miller Longman has such contents with the inferior Bantu education they subjected my generation to.  

Lindiswa Jan is a Researcher & Masters Candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town