Stop selling the lie that formal education is the only way out of poverty


Aaah … Good ol’ education!

The new old bitcoin… I wonder if it will ever have any real value again.

Back in 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers announced it was scrapping degree requirements for employment and more recently Elon Musk told us he doesn’t really care for degrees. I love it. Finally, the world is coming to its senses that the piece of paper that represents you have some knowledge isn’t as valuable as we’ve made it out to be.

Why? Because often that knowledge it represents is hardly held by the graduate and if it is, it’s hardly useful in the world of employment.

Commodification of education has to be one of the most uneducated moves we’ve made as a society in a world where education itself is actually freer than it has ever been. I mean, pop onto YouTube with your neighbour’s stolen Wi-Fi and you can learn how to make rock candy, which would probably make you more money than being 400k in debt among your peers of unemployed LLB graduates.

But for some reason we have socialised ourselves into believing that with education comes status. I went to university with some idiots and walking across a stage getting a rolled up paper and posing for a photo didn’t make them any smarter or wiser.

Sure, they may have read a book or two between matric and then, but for some it’s not like it changed much. Some people did excel, sure. Yay! But three years and a couple of hundred grand to say I got knowledge, 80% of which I’ll never use and the other 20% I could have gotten if I spent two months in a public library, it all seems kind of ludicrous.

But it was our political overlords on all sides who made education seem so important and politicised it as a must! The kids bought into it and fought for free education. Companies who were lazy started this rubbish about valuing a degree.

All the while, ironically, nobody was doing the math.

Let’s do it together now, shall we class?

Exactly 725,034 school pupils wrote the matric exams in 2020. Of them, 210,820 qualified for admission to bachelor studies. There are 26 public universities in South Africa. so assume that on average each university can take 5,000 new first-years.

Companies, politicians and society are telling kids they need a degree. Solve the following: how many kids are stuffed with knowledge after getting a matric certificate?

Remember when Helen Zille was taking on Eusebius McKaiser years ago, alleging how he embellished his time at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar? That was fun, wasn’t it? Ironically he’s not doing so badly right now and the party she’s chairing, despite its range of qualified individuals (scandal or no scandal) isn’t doing so hot right now.

It should tell you a thing or two.

What it tells me is that we have come to appreciate and value the piece of paper more than the knowledge it’s meant to represent. Probably because it’s easier to do so. But when the market is saturated with unemployed graduates anyway, what value is that paper, especially next to a non-graduate who spent those two, three, four or five years building experience, a portfolio and investing in freely available knowledge?

I got into trouble for saying this publicly once, which ironically led to me teaching at a university for a semester.

When one of my 600 students would come to discuss a test paper with me and they were clearly uninterested in the subject matter (and surely it is difficult to be uninterested about communication ethics), I would ask them why they were studying this. The answer nearly always was that they wanted any degree to get a job.

C’mon! That’s no way to build a society. Selling a dream that’s hardly realisable is not only unfair but abusive!

So, I am obviously ecstatic that the school curriculum is being shifted so that after grade 9 you can venture into different trajectories. I am obviously excited that we’re finally recognising the lies in the promise of “education”.

I’m even more excited that the offering suggests vocational and artisan training seems less like bricklaying and more like how to work with programs and robots. From a usefulness perspective, it’s likely that the kids going that route will be better for society than many in academia.

I just hope that our companies, politicians and society follow suit. Because if they don’t and we still glorify the rubbish that is our current view on education, which is that it doesn’t matter how many options you offer the kids nor how good they are, daddy’s still going to force them to take the straight six.

Richard Anthony Chemaly. Entertainment attorney, radio broadcaster and lecturer of communication ethics.

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