Social Education 59(2), 1995, pp. 82-86
National Council for the Social Studies
Given the significance of these dramatic changes, and the events that led up to them, we wondered what educators in the United States and in South Africa taught about the much-heralded, multiracial elections of April 1994.
Additionally, considering the lack of information about South Africa in American textbooks (Labbo and Field, 1994; Randolph-Robinson 1984; Wiley 1982), we also wondered what American teachers used for resources when teaching about South Africa. Finally, we decided to turn the tables and explore what South African educators and students wished that American teachers knew and taught about their country and government. Both American and South African teachers share common concerns about accuracy, but they teach in very different contexts and situations (Brook and Brook 1993). We felt that this exploration could help inform teaching about South Africa in this country.
To tackle these issues, we surveyed American teachers and interviewed educators and students in South Africa. Our findings suggest that teachers in both countries have grappled with issues of what is relevant, what is essential, and what is possible: We found that in many cases, teachers in both countries did not teach about South Africa at all-for entirely different contextual and situational reasons.
We included teachers in Georgia and in South Africa in our research. Although we chose our American sample from this one state, the 36 participants-46% of whom were male and 6% African-American-came from a variety of rural, suburban, urban, public, and private schools. They had a wide range of teaching experience, grade levels taught, and variations in age. The responses are therefore multifaceted and may be suggestive of the experiences of teachers of a similar background in many parts of the United States. The survey consisted of thirteen items designed to elicit written responses about what was taught about South Africa and its historic elections; which materials and resources were used and in which subjects; how effective the lessons were; and what teachers wished they knew more about to enhance their teaching about South Africa.
In the South African portion of the study, we used non-random, judgement, and snowball sampling to choose key schools and "typicaquot; schools. Altogether, the survey included seven urban and suburban schools in Johannesburg, Kimberley, and Soweto Township, and six remote, rural Roman Catholic mission schools in the former Lebowa, Northern Transvaal, and the Mozambique border area in KwaZulu. Three of the urban/suburban schools are highly progressive "pioneer" schools; they were among the first to integrate or establish innovative programs in South Africa. The township schools are good examples of those that continued to function despite prevailing violence and unrest in the surrounding communities; and the rural mission schools (to which we gained access through a related project) are classic examples of strong academic schools in rural areas.
Some 114 people were interviewed, including teachers, principals, and some students from these private and public schools. The male interviewees constituted 46% of the sample; and 69% of the respondents were Black Africans. These respondents were asked open-ended questions in semistructured, informal interviews. We recorded their responses as field notes, but captured specific quotes in anticipation of use in this comparative study.
Analysis: Coding the Results
We used various forms of coding to analyze the survey responses from our sample in Georgia and the field notes from our interviews in South Africa. We employed overview coding to identify broad themes and emphases; microscopic coding (word by word, line by line) for key events, emic categories, and content area indications; and structural coding to facilitate further connections across the data sets, from which new interpretations emerged (Strauss 1987). After initial rounds of independent coding, we combined and cross-checked our three analyses to ensure internal validity and inter-observer reliability (Guba and Lincoln 1981). Our overall analysis took the form of the constant comparison method (Bogden and Biklen 1987).
While some of the results of this investigation surprised us, we found that others were predictable. All are worth scrutiny.
Teaching about South Africa: The American Perspective Is Often Limited
We were startled to find that only a meager 17 percent of the respondents to our survey of teachers in Georgia taught about South Africa's elections at all. The vast majority of respondents, 83 percent, revealed that they did not teach about South Africa during the time of elections. Those who did teach almost always considered the issue to be a "current event." While almost all who taught about South Africa saw the elections as a "thrilling time in history," and "a cause for celebration," the American teachers did not see the elections as a major historical event. The teachers who reported that they included South Africa in their curriculum relied almost exclusively on information from newspapers, television newscasts and Channel One, newsmagazines, and maps. Only one teacher cited "books"; it was unclear if this referred to textbooks or to literature.
Additionally, some teachers taught about the country's location and provided their students with a general overview-a "history of the conflict."
Other teachers included content about "elections and change," which suggests an attempt to address the topic as a process.
South Africa's internal geography was not included in these minimal lessons.
The Risks of Oversimplification
Several teachers teaching about South Africa demonstrated inadequate knowledge of the topic. For example, one teacher reported having taught only about the "oppression of blacks living in poverty . . ." rather than of the full range of complex issues. This approach presents the danger of misleading students into thinking that only blacks are impoverished or have been disempowered in South Africa, when other non-white groups are also involved and the number of impoverished whites is increasing.
Some teachers seemed to associate racial segregation and oppression only with South Africa, much as many people think of fascism only in terms of Germany and Italy or totalitarianism in terms of the former USSR or other communist nations. Others made oversimplified comparisons with racial issues in the United States. For example, the American teachers frequently reported that their teaching appeared to have been effective because of the positive responses of their students. They believed that they had dispelled many of their students' misconceptions. One teacher reported her students to be "incensed by the oppression . . ." and that they excitedly noted, "Mandela is like their [South African] Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King."
This attempt to connect South African events with U.S. history is important, but the struggle for civil rights in the United States should not be seen as the equivalent of the demise of apartheid in South Africa. South African blacks, for example, constitute the majority of that country's population, while blacks are a minority in the United States. Also, while American school children drew parallels between Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this focus on only one South African leader needs to be broadened to include other political figures with important constituencies. These include Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and F.W. DeKlerk. As Merryfield (1987) cautioned, inappropriate comparisons between the South African struggle and American racism and the civil rights movement that triumphed over legal segregation can foster serious misconceptions.
The large-and curious-number of teachers who responded that they did not teach anything about the South African elections had a number of reasons for not doing so. Among them were statements that the subject wasn't "important," that they had been instructed to teach American history, or that they were teaching about other countries-in one case, Argentina. Other teachers reported that the content was "too complicated," and one teacher said that students could not be expected to "comprehend" the issues involved. Basically, these teachers felt either that the topic was of low priority or had little relevance in light of pressing curricular demands. Most of these teachers reported that had they taught about South Africa, they would have done so as a "current event." When asked what specific issues they would have addressed, they frequently cited the elections, apartheid and its "breakdown," "new divisions," culture, and geography.
What American Teachers Wish They Knew
We assumed that both teachers who taught about South Africa and those who didn't might have "wish lists" of teaching resources. Our hunch was on target: The teachers in our survey not only listed a large number of resources, but also expressed the desire to learn a lot more about South Africa themselves. When asked what they wanted to know about South Africa, teachers listed history, location and cultural geography, news media issues, and current events. Moreover, the teachers frequently expressed a desire not just to know the "reality" of events in South Africa but also to have the benefit of "experiential knowledge" or a South African's perspective. The teachers wanted to know more details about South Africa, and, encouragingly, were quick to admit that they felt limited by their lack of personal knowledge.
High up on the wish list was more information about the history and geography of South Africa. In fact, the information the teachers wanted came close to covering most aspects of the country's history: The categories cited were "colonial," "pre-twentieth century," "social," "cultural," and, perhaps for good measure, "entire." The teachers also sought a better historical context; one cited the need for information about "how things got that way besides [just British Colonialism]." One respondent was also curious about the context for future trends, as in "what kind of future changes are expected," and "their impact on the country."
The references to geography, however, indicated a serious problem. The teachers listed the need for information on "terrain, climate, culture, language, various tribes/peoples, jobs, housing, transportation, place name/locations, cultural factors, and standard of living." None of the teachers wanted information on specific places. Altogether, there was little curiosity about physical and environmental geography. The American teachers displayed a lack of desire-or, perhaps, the wherewithal-to relate the five themes of geography to the topic.
Perhaps the most positive sign in the survey was the recognition by teachers of the value of experiential knowledge and viewpoints from the region. They felt they would benefit from knowing the "inside story," "how whites live [compared to non-whites]," "real issues," "the child's view," "what life is really like in the area," "what it would be like to live there," and "what everyday life is like." Similarly, several teachers wanted to gain an "inside view," wishing for a South African visitor to come to class or to go to South Africa themselves.
This need for an "insider's" perspective is an acknowledgment, perhaps, that much of the information available to American teachers is slanted and incomplete. The availability of such current information is a major issue, obviously, because information in textbooks and other books is, by definition, outdated when significant events in history are still unfolding. As a result, part of the "inside story" must necessarily come from reports in the news media. The teachers voiced a need for access to current maps, pictures, videos/films, and demographic data-all of which would help them learn about the "realities" of South Africa.
Some responses to the survey caused concern about misconceptions and inadequate knowledge among teachers. One respondent wrote, "I wish I knew why blacks in South Africa were segregated," while another expressed a desire to know more about "perceptions of the political system from both sides" (emphasis ours). Despite a frequent lack of knowledge, the American teachers overwhelmingly supported the idea of teaching about South Africa on the grounds of "global literacy" and global interdependence, as well as of relevance for Americans in (some) historical contexts.
South Africa's Teachers Talk about Their Milestone in History
In South Africa, two factors determined the desirability of teaching about the country's elections. The first was geographic location and the political "surroundings" of a particular school; the second was the degree of worry by the faculty about reprisals for whatever they might have taught. Responses from those interviewed in rural and remote schools were different from those in urban/township schools.
The rural schools were in areas where political violence and factionalism were serious enough that all but one of the schools sampled closed for the last six weeks before the elections. Some of the schools served as polling places on the voting days. Teachers, principals, and students at these schools all reported a real fear of violence, and even death, associated with the elections. One principal made this telling statement: "This is dangerous turf, you know . . . and this school was going to be a polling place, so everyone was convinced we'd all be killed . . . we did a lot of praying for peace." In another school, most of the pupils and staff felt vulnerable because they were supporters of the African National Congress, while the school was remote in KwaZulu, deep in Inkatha Freedom Party territory.
These contextual factors were paramount in determining the nature of treatment of the elections in class. The faculty and administrators showed varied degrees of concern about teaching the elections as content. For example, one teacher replied, "That was too dangerous!" while another noted, "It was not really something we did in class, because we had to be careful, you see." Many felt that specific election-related lessons would incite or inflame factionalism and tensions among their students. Thus, emotional involvement and the possibility of political repercussions were strong inhibiting factors.
In contrast to these rural schools, in the urban/suburban and township schools, teachers more uniformly addressed the elections as content, although here, too, teachers admitted some trepidation about the content being risky or sensitive. The black principal of a high school in Soweto offered this answer to the question about teaching about the elections: "Oh yes! It is too important [to have been left out]. And I made sure the pupils showed respect for the different ideas. No one must tell you you can't support someone. We had no trouble here, just outside [the school] and we had to be very careful." This school remained open and functioned without disruption even in the worst of the pre-election protests.
The principal of another "calm" township school added, "We made a study of it as part of 'Civics and History.' We did not have much to work with (materials) but we did our best. If this had been one of the schools with all of the violence we would not have! But we thought it was important."
A typical reply from township teachers was, "I was worried about saying the wrong thing. Not everyone is on the same side, and you have to be careful." When South African teachers did teach about the elections, the treatment of the topic ranged from a matter-of-fact examination of the voting process, respective political parties and candidates, structure of the new government, etc., to only informal discussion with students outside class.
In formerly all-white suburban schools, some teachers encountered disapproval from colleagues. A white teacher of history said, "Some of the teachers were cross with me for having this [ANC] flag in my class, but I showed the pupils what the different colors mean." In some cases, students in rural schools were discouraged from being too "politically conscious" or "aware." At the other extreme, in urban schools students were sometimes asked in class who they might vote for, and the topic was addressed in detail, as part of the class content for "Integrated Studies," a course that has examined current issues for several years (Brook 1994). A white English and history teacher/principal in a progressive urban setting remarked, "Yes, I showed them a film of 'A Tale of Two Cities' and we compared it to the South African situation . . . in the history classes. They were interested. They liked the idea of a revolution."
South African Schools with American Teachers
In schools where Americans were present as teachers and as volunteers (for example, an American priest serving as a visiting member of the faculty), the elections, democracy, voting, and the principles of freedom appeared to have been more freely taught. Students asked more questions of these teachers, and some South African teachers reportedly referred many students' questions to these Americans who, presumably, had the experiential knowledge of their own country to provide the best answers. One African teacher in a rural mission school said, "We enjoyed talking with the volunteer teachers about their experiences in America since they have voted often . . . it was such a new and exciting thing for us. I was shocked to hear what they said about so many Americans not voting." Other teachers reported that they believed that the South African situation was beyond the Americans' experience or knowledge.
South African teachers reported that after the elections and the transition to post-apartheid democracy, discussion of these historic events took part in English classes as well as history classes. In the former, the elections and associated events were fodder for both instruction in writing and for learning English by non-native English speakers. Thus, English and social studies were the vehicles for teaching about this landmark in African history.
It was clear from the discussions with many of the South Africans interviewed that there was still a strong fear of violence. While most of the South Africans said that they recognized the need for political participation and for teaching their pupils about politics, many, except in schools that were both progressive and largely insulated by location from the pre-election protests, expressed concern about both backlash and reprisals, especially in rural areas that had been riddled with violence.
The Revolution of Rising Expectations
We asked the South African teachers in our study what they wished American teachers would teach about South Africa. While this question met a generally ambivalent response, some strong opinions surfaced, too. Perhaps most telling was the following response from a white principal/teacher of a highly progressive urban school, widely known for courageous and relentless pursuit of providing educational opportunities to African students during the era of white rule:
Whatever you do, tell the Americans (teachers and students) . . . how these kids think a new government will make all of them rich . . . that they will all have cars and fancy clothes, and big houses with white walls, like the rich whites, and like they see on Dynasty and Dallas . . . and also The Bold and the Beautiful. They have these soap opera values from watching television and it's very hard for us to bring them down to earth about jobs and what they can really expect.
An African teacher of Integrated Studies at this school said that she hoped American educators would address the issue of what she described as a "clash between First World and Third World values in students."
South African Teachers' Wish Lists
Like their counterparts in Georgia, the South African teachers also had wish lists. High on theirs was a genuine desire that American teachers present South Africans as "real people" and not just group them by race. These comments came from black African and white teachers alike in both rural and urban settings. One white teacher in an urban school with an all-black student population stressed, "Don't label all whites . . . not all whites are bad, many of us are doing everything we can for the good, risking, too [sic]." Many teachers suggested that instruction about the different peoples in South Africa, and what life is like in the "real South Africa," would be desirable content. Others hoped for a focus on the reality of major changes and the realization that they would not happen "over night." Others suggested the entire electoral process, and the events that led up to the elections, as possible topics.
Many teachers spoke of the "miracle of peaceful elections" and wanted American teachers to be aware of the "wonder of it." Less optimistically, others wanted Americans to know about South Africa's "stark realities," and the "fear and worry" during the tense period leading up to the elections. Some suggested instruction in comparison with the American, French, and other revolutions. Most telling, perhaps as an indicator of national or cultural pride, several of those interviewed wanted Americans to have a deep "curiosity" about South Africans, much as they were curious about Americans.
What South African Students Had to Say
Students, on the other hand, said, "They [Americans] must not believe just what they see on television." They stressed experiential knowledge-much as did some of the teachers in Georgia-and firsthand experience. One student drove home this point by saying, "Tell them they must come and visit to learn . . . all the things about our country." Another student focused on geographical and aesthetic awareness, saying, "Tell them about what a beautiful country it is." Other students suggested that Americans study South Africa as a positive example of multiculturalism. Summing up the students' concern that American students have a clear perspective of the current situation, one said, "I want them to know we try hard and the people work hard . . . and we don't all just fight."
Almost all the students and teachers we interviewed expressed one striking worry: Regardless of race, profession, and urban or rural home, all were deeply uncertain about the future, whether about their schools, jobs, and changes in education (the teachers) or about what lay ahead of their schooling (the students).
This study presented an opportunity to discover areas of difference, as well as points of agreement, on both sides of the Atlantic on the question of teaching about South Africa.
Even though most American teachers surveyed did not teach about South Africa at all, they viewed it as an important topic for fostering geographic literacy and for identifying comparative points of American history. Many of the American teachers freely admitted that they did not know enough about South Africa's varied culture, geography, or government to feel comfortable teaching about the country. On the other hand, many of the rural South African teachers who decided not to teach about their own country's pivotal elections did so out of fear of reprisals. Others, in urban areas and townships, taught it, but with some caution.
Our findings indicate that both American and South African teachers are concerned that information taught about South Africa in either country be accurate, authentic, and representative of an "insider's" perspective. Teachers from both countries wanted to be able to teach their students about the geography, history, key current events, politics and government, economy, and the realities of everyday life in South Africa. Despite their admitted limitations, American teachers adhered to the belief that, had they access to current and appropriate instructional materials, knowledge, and innovative teaching practices, teaching about South Africa could be a cornerstone of global understanding. Similarly, South African teachers, administrators, and students wanted Americans to have a realistic picture of their country and to reciprocate their curiosity about America.
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Sherry L. Field is Assistant Professor of Social Science Education in the College of Education, University of Georgia. Her research interests include global education and children's historical thinking.
Linda D. Labbo is Assistant Professor of Reading Education in the College of Education, University of Georgia. Her research interests are in children's early literacy, reading education and global education.