Prof Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, on mediocrity. 9

I follow Prof Jansen’s wise commentary because he identifies real issues. This is his take on “an oversupply of mediocrity”. We have to act to correct this already entrenched culture in education for the sake of survival.

I have in front of me the 2010 “Statement of Results” for the National Senior Certificate statement of a youngster who demands to study at university.

They are: Afrikaans 43, English 39, mathematical literacy 38, life orientation 78, business studies 41, computer applications technology 31, life sciences 28

At the bottom of the certificate is this unbelievable statement: “The candidate qualifies for the national senior certificate and fulfils the minimum requirements for admission to higher education.”

Understandably, this young woman takes these words literally, and correctly demands a seat in any place of higher learning. With the young woman’s claim to study I have no problem. With the society that sets the bar for performance so low, I have serious problems.

Slowly, slowly we are digging our collective graves as we fall into a sinkhole of mediocrity from which we are unlikely to emerge.

We make excellence sound like a white thing. Behind a massive wave of populism, and in the misguided name of regstelling (setting right the past), we open access to resources and universities to young people without the hard work necessary to achieve those gifts and to succeed once there. Of course, you’re a racist if you question this kind of mindlessness; how else do you, as a politician, defend yourself against the critics of mediocrity in an election year?

I miss Steve Biko. In the thinking of black consciousness, he would have railed against the low standards we set for black achievement, in the language of the 1970s.

This young (incidentally black) person did not achieve anything above 50% in her Senior Certificate results for any exam subject, but we tell her she can proceed to higher studies. What are we saying? That black students are somehow less capable and therefore need these pathetic results to access higher education? No, I am sorry, but today I am angry about the messages we send our children.

I saw black parents and students squirm the other night when I addressed a racially diverse group of parents and students and made this point clear: “If a black student requires from you different treatment and lower academic demands because of an argument about disadvantage, tell them to take a hike.” (Okay, I used stronger language.)

I saw white teachers squirm when I made the other important point: “If you have lower academic expectations of black children because of what they look like, or where they come from, that is the worst kind of racism.”

Our society, schools and universities have adjusted expectations downwards, especially in relation to black students, and that is dangerous in a country with so much promise for excellence.

As stories come rolling in from across the country for our Great South African Teachers book, I am struck by one thing. That many black professionals who are chartered accountants, medical scientists or corporate lawyers tell of attending ordinary public schools under apartheid, often in rural areas, and having teachers at the time who, despite the desperate poverty and inequality, held high expectations of their learners. There was no compromising on academic standards; there was homework every day; there was punishment for low performance; and there was constant motivation to rise above your circumstances.

Not today. Mathematical literacy is a cop-out, a way of compensating for poor maths teaching in the mainstream. Parents of Grade 9 children, listen carefully – do not let your school force your child into mathematical literacy because they will struggle to find access to academic degree studies at serious universities. Insist your child does mathematics in Grade 10 for that important choice determines what your child writes in Grade 12.

It is not, of course, mathematical literacy that I am concerned about; there are good teachers of the subject. It is about the message we send: that children can’t do maths.

In other words, a message again communicated of low expectations. Do not buy into this culture of mediocrity in the way your child makes subject choices. Also, tell your child not to take life orientation seriously; as you can see in the above results, there is no positive relationship between high marks in academic subjects and this thing called life orientation.

Small wonder young people with better results than those above are without work. The marketplace, and serious universities, know this child will not succeed with these kinds of results, even if Umalusi does not “get it”.

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9 thoughts on “Prof Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, on mediocrity.

  • Dr Jacqueline Baumgardt (Jax)

    Chris makes the point about “the lowest common denominator rather than one with the highest common factor” – this is exactly what the OBE system does. We need to get back to basics in education – teaching children to “read, write and do arithmetic” – when they know this and have a solid foundation in the three R’s then the sky is the limit. Let’s stop making education about political ideologies and social engineering experiments. I also believe that if the children are expected to write their matric exam through the medium of English, we should teach them in Grade 1 to read and write in English and forget about “mother tongue” education. That’s one thing Zimbabwe has got right. Their young black people are taught from the beginning through the medium of English and come out of the school system literate in English, able to write and communicate and argue and debate in that language – the language of academia in at least Southern Africa if not middle Africa. I think if the govt had conversations with ordinary parents they would say teach my kid to read and write English – the language of business, a language that is internationally understood. This is NOT to demean the other offical languages in South Africa, but let’s get real, here. Give the children of this nation this foundation and I believe we would see a difference in Matric results, as well as progress at University.

  • Chris Reay Post author

    I think if Paul were to investigate the UCT approach he would discover that upholding known standards, proven by eons of users, is one fundamantal factor behind their philosophy. I assist UCT with external examination services so that seems fairly evident to me. I do not buy the contention that the ruling elite, whoever they may be, impose the standards (set by accreditation bodies internationally) to further their social or political aims. Does he blame Sir Isaac Newton for the fact that the laws of motion apply universally where ever you are? He simply verbalised some laws of nature and put them into a format that enabled people to apply them to the challenges of the built environment. Try and change them, but it will be at your own peril.

    It’s time we kept the objective in mind: students want, and need, to get educated such that they can add value to society and to their own lives by earning a living. Those in the role of educating them have a responsibility to set the process and the standards. When you next need a medical operation or a sanitaton plant designed and built or a skilled technician to maintain your airplane, what is the bet you will call for those with proven qualifications obtained from applying current known standards? Perhaps you have other options, I would like to know what they are.

    A 30 % pass rate in maths may mean only one bridge in three you design will not fall down.

  • Sylvia F. Hammond

    Paul, thank you I really appreciate your response.  Now my question is, who of our members can articulate for us the University of WC approach/where do we find further reading? 

  • Paul Germain

    I am not really convinced by statements about how great Prof Jansen is (or isn’t), this is a side issue to the debate.But thanks for raising this serious issue!!

    So let me give to the debate some incidents that I was involved in during my University career.

    In  the early years it was the declared policy (one university) to DOUBLE the matric points of the highest grade achieved by a student…so if a student achieved an A = 8 points…the student automatically achieved  16 points…s/he then only had to obtain about 6 further points from all other subjects to obtain university entrance. At that time we were intent on filling the University and so the student was accepted.(bingo).How far the student progressed along the road to qualification no one knows. And so much for academic excellence and standards!! Of course there were stong objections from the :Health Sciences”

    Also at that time the cry from many students was “Pass one Pass all” and there were death threats to lecturers who tried to maintain “academic” standards.

    The problem arises is “What is an academic standard”…who makes these standards…where do they come from…and from what Authority? More often that not it is the ruling elite who has the power to impose these so called standards.

    I am clearly not of the opinion  expressed by Chris  when he says “One solution : keep the standards because they are set by the laws of nature and ultimate survival” This sounds like the ultimate arguments set by Richard Dworkin in the “Selfish Gene”…debates about universal laws are highly problematic and are not set in stone, they merely offer those in “power”  the means to justify what they do and are locked into a singularly “Scientific ideology” Please read “The Black Swan” to see the fallacy of inductive arguments.

    Remember we are dealing with the reproduction of our youth and the continuation of our society, and this is generally the ideology of most  State social systems. It should also be remembered that students have different learning styles and ways of understanding what we call reality and “facts”.

    Can I endorse Sylvia when she says “Let us put our creative endeavours to constructive use–how do we interrupt the cycle of deprivation, what should we do?

    I suggest we look carefully at the models generated by the University of the Western Cape and learn from them how they became leaders in the quest for assessment. They were the poineers during the dark years and are so today.


    Paul Germain

  • Sylvia F. Hammond

    I absolutely agree that we should not drop our standards – in fact we should be raising them to compete internationally. I also absolutely reject any suggestion that our people can’t make it.  Given that, what should be happening to very quickly raise the level of education of our youth.  As I understand our current school system, an enormous amount of contribution is required from the home,be that parents or other care-givers.  Now we know that is not possible given those years of exclusion.  So those who have will continue to benefit.  There is an element of the quality of teachers, but that is not the whole answer. Our economy isn’t badly managed – it’s been extremely successfully managed. So how do all those children who need support now – from primary through to current university and FET get the appropriate support? Some further thoughts for discussion – Should there be special “homework” classes at schools, for those who don’t have internet access at home? (Needs school access) Should every one of those students entering university have extra tutorial support? How do we get all the people who spend all their time criticising, to do something constructive to solve the problem? 

  • Chris Reay Post author

    Hi Sylvia, I think Prof Jansen says it clearly and it is certainly my own view: don’t drop the standards to accommodate the quantities. We have a rule in the hard sciences and I think it applies as much to soft science as well: don’t mess with the laws of physics. We cannot “adjust” the correctness of mathematics because it is difficult or we have bad teachers. It is not fair on the youth trying to grow up in our crazy world to have them believe that there is an easy way out. That will be a legacy that will set them up for failure. If we drive out the best intellect, competence and skills for reasons of political expediency then we must expect a nation of mediocrity and the lowest common denominator rather than one with the highest common factor. That will render us an uncompetitive nation, increase unemployment and social revolt. Our standards have not dropped because of the need to uplift the many: how did the Eastern countries do it with equal poverty levels at the start and they surged ahead achieving superb skills levels? Hard work, dedication and survival of the fittest. We have too much sloppiness, laziness, entitlement syndrome, with neglect, corruption and untried experimentation by the education authorities. Dropping the standards is tantamount to national suicide. And the real challenge is, can we ever reverse that once it is entrenched?

    You ask how to interrupt the cycle? One solution: keep the standards because they are set by the laws of nature and ultimate survival. Our high levels of unemployment (and counting) are a testament to the unemployability of so many “educated” youth. Is is bad teaching and training or a lousy economic policy? Something to debate here.

  • Sylvia F. Hammond

    All valid points from individual perspectives – but the big question remains:

    how do we go about redressing half a century of statutory exclusion from land, education (including specifically maths and science), and work? 

    It is not a case of when, or to whom it happened, as there is now clear evidence of the heritage affect – that is: if your parents have been excluded from land, education, and work it will impact you – the children.

    Let’s put our creative endeavours (& tertiary educations) to constructive use – how do we interrupt the cycle of deprivation, what should we do?   

  • Chris Reay Post author

    This shocking situation gets worse by the day. Today I as told by a (white) matric student who had achieved 7 distinctions in matric that he was not eligible to be accepted at the SA university to which he had applied. The usual blurred reasoning: wrong colour and heritage, although he was about one year old in 1994, and not particularly advantaged.

    Perhaps his place has been reserved for the applicant mentioned in Prof Jansen’s letter.

    He is off overseas now to an Australian university, and will undoubtedly settle there to provide the Australian economy and country with his skills. We just do not “get it”, as Prof Jansen states.



  • Andy Kieswetter

    Hi Chris

    You are very much on the spot by posting this statements from the Prof. He is a great man – a real leader who does not squirm at speaking the truth. In SA one could regard him as a very brave man because the notion exists that the truth needs to be wrapped in cotton wool.


    You are an enemy of tha state if you dare speak the truth. You are a racist if you dare tell it like it is. You are an anti-revolutionary if you dare call a spade a spade. Njalo, njalo, njalo…..etc. etc etc…..


    I say an earnest prayer today: God , please make Prof Jansen the next President…..or the next Minister of Education….Please God….please!!!


    We MUST stop making excuses for the ineptitude, the mediocrity…the apathy….the damn laziness….the crookedness….the list just grows longer by the hour….


    Banana republic???  ….watch this space!!!