Populist-Driven Frustration and Access to Education


February 15, 2022

By Steven Roy Goodman


The growing inability for people in South Africa and the United States to understand appropriate and inappropriate ways to voice frustration about court actions and political events is in part an educational issue.


On opposite ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum, both countries face education deficits that impact political discourse and fuel populist movements with respect to the judiciary and other societal sectors.


The US is inherently a centre-right country, with governmental structures that make significant change challenging to achieve. As a centre-left country since 1994, South Africa’s government, NGO sector, corporations, and legal system have also been unable to change economic conditions of the vast majority of citizens materially. Uneasiness makes the environment ripe for populist demagoguery and political violence that can lead to instability.


Unrest in SA and in the US


Last year’s unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and at the US Capitol showed how quickly things can escalate regardless of constitutional protections. During each crisis, I bemoaned the lack of educational outcomes that are still not the reality for many learners in either country.


The OECD’s study of student performance worldwide, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), puts a number on this predicament. Despite a $68 billion US Department of Education annual budget (more than R1 trillion), the US didn’t make the top ten in the world in reading. South Africa didn’t even make the top 79 countries in the survey.


It is easy to feel disillusioned about seemingly intractable problems with numbers like these. However, education and training can help both countries build the human infrastructure needed to progress.


On the education front, the quality of secondary and tertiary public education must be improved. Targeted resources are urgently needed for skill development, physical school facilities, books and libraries, teacher training, internet and data connections, and curriculum innovation that includes reasoning and analysis for the information age.


The education-to-training pipeline is more subtle. Economic uncertainty and recent political events point to expectations of the public that governments are not always meeting.


People seek stable and meaningful employment, safety, reliable infrastructure, affordable consumer prices, and schools that offer topics relevant in the marketplace. Statistics South Africa cites the current unemployment rate at 34.9%. Parents and educators know that youth unemployment is considerably higher.


Quality education and training


While the best civic education in the world can’t compensate for the lack of job opportunities, quality education and training can lead citizens to more constructive political responses and to help avoid destructive ones.


Expanded educational training leading to potential employment can help more people plan for the future while learning to appreciate political and economic nuance, decision-making, and difficult trade-offs that are often made in the judicial and political arenas.


The need for understanding subtleties through education brings us back to the tendencies that helped generate populist-fueled crises in the first place.


To expand educational access, we should immediately increase the numbers of internships and apprenticeships. This will demonstrate to our general populations that educational training is a worthwhile investment, which can improve nuanced understanding of our times and raise collective standards of living.


–  Steven Roy Goodman is an educational consultant in Washington, D.C. and host of the television talk show Higher Education Today.


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