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Application: Colonialism at the root of modern education and its impact to children’s separation fro

1. Introduction

The dualistic mental models, based on largely Judeo-Christian beliefs of human’s supremacy over nature and non-believers, in conjunction with the advent of modern Western scientific explorations, are argued to be the driving force behind humankind’s lost connection to nature and lack of global ethic for how to right the current ecological predicament. The application of this statement will be demonstrated through a review of the colonial and modern education systems in South Africa, with specific focus on the perpetuation of dualism and lost indigenous ways.

2. Background to the case study – postmodern education based on Christian

education models

The mental model pervasive in the postmodern world, described in Part A, is acknowledged

to be a fundamentally Western-based extractive and consumption focussed model which is

separated from nature severely enough to allow for exploitation with indifference (White Jr.

1967). This mental model is arguably deeply linked to its Western Christian based founding.

Argued by several authors, including the church’s own teachings (The Acton Institute n.d.), to

be dualistic (Wilke 2013, Schmidt et al. 2016). Dualistic between humans and nature, man

and woman, and humans and other ‘primitive’ men (White Jr. 1967, Kelbessa 2015).

Part A has argued that colonisation can be attributed to the roots of the current ecological

predicament. This is because colonisation was the carrier for specific ways of being and

knowing. Western ways, which when coupled with the Christian based teachings, which

followed the colonists, embedded a specific mental model which continues to this day to

transmit through those postmodern societies impacted.

In this case study I will attempt to demonstrate the longevity of the mental model whereby

humankind is separated from nature through a brief history of colonial education into modern

education curriculums. This model has enabled the persistence of the ecological predicament

and hindered the redefinition of a global ethic to address the predicament (Gardiner 2006). I

will illustrate that the Western education system installs a dualistic and dominance based

grand narrative founded on a Christian premise which is separate and isolated from nature.

Thus not only does the colonial dualistic mental model persist, it takes a significant amount of

time to remedy and reset. Consequently I would suggest that colonisation of indigenous

mental models and loss of knowledge in the South African context, coupled with a strongly

religious based education system dominates in the separation of humans from the humannature

dynamic (Wilke 2013).

3. The education system’s perpetuation of installing a separateness from nature

In introducing his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit

disorder, Louv speaks of connections and deep unspoken understandings lost from children

not raised in environments where wilderness is freely explored (2005). Although children are

nowadays significantly more aware academically of our ecological predicament such as

knowledge of acid rain, rain forest destruction, and climate change, they have likely not lived

a connected experience with nature and the impacts of the predicament may not truly resonate (Louv 2005). According to Louv (2005) this disconnection degrades our human experience. As a result, nature becomes abstract rather than a reality (Louv 2005). The following sections will briefly illustrate the evolution of South African education policy in an attempt to define the current level of environmental awareness of children in schools today moulding their mental models.

The following sub-sections will explore two periods in education systems which are believed

to be drivers for the enforcement of the Western metals models into education. First, colonial

education in South Africa resulting in the penetration of Christianity and second, the

reductionist approach to learning.

3.1. The premise for education during colonialism – the first shift in the grand


According to Ranger, during the process of colonisation settlers in Africa drew on the Western

traditions of education in order to instil the mastery of colonists over indigenous peoples

(2012). As a result the value of education in colonies was amplified even above its value in

the European colonial countries but as a means for control and superiority (Ranger 2012).

Gatiskell (N.d.) outlines two distinct periods in colonial education: the British missionary

education system, followed by the Afrikaner Nationalists’ ‘Christian National Education policy’

and the Bantu Education Act.

Early education in colonial South Africa for indigenous peoples is portrayed as a far cry from

education in its modern understanding in that the focus was on the delivery of agricultural

knowledge through mission stations (Ranger 2012). Gaitskell further highlights that for black

girls in South Africa under British rule, education was solely designed to perpetuate the

ideology of a woman’s place in the home as “good Christian wives” and for black girls that

also meant as women in the position of housemaid or domestic servant (N.d.: 2). While, at the

same time, non-gentile white men in the British colony were provided public education aimed

towards ensuring colonial administration and maintaining a nationalist ideology (Ranger

2012). Gatiskell maintains that “there is little doubt that African Christian schooling was part of

a process of conquest and dispossession” (N.d.: 3).

One might suggest that the Christian based colonial education systems were the start of

colonisation of indigenous mental models and a forced shift towards a dualistic model

between men and women and interracially, and the penetration of the church’s dualistic model

towards humankind’s relationship with nature through its teachings.

Following the Anglo-Boer War and the end of World War I, diminished faith in British Imperial

rule and Lord Milner’s attempts to anglicise conquered Afrikaner republics sets the

background for a shift in colonial education (Gatiskell n.d., van Heyningen 1960).

One might argue that colonial education was aimed at providing administrative skills to white

men, and agricultural skills to black men working on or near to missions. The connection to

nature was purely for the purposes of utilitarian application. As the ideological purpose at the

time was for conquest and ensuring dispossession (Gatiskell n.d.) any form of indigenous

knowledge or connection would likely have been quashed.

3.2. Postmodern education curriculums – the second shift in the grand narrative

Wilke asks, where did we lose the value of poetry and at what stage did we decide to look at

nature rather than engage with it (2013). In The Acton Institute’s report on the represented

church’s view on environmental degradation, religious men’s observations of nature is opined

to be the start of the advent of scientific discovery (N.d.). Might it be useful then to describe

our postmodern education systems, based first on religious teachings and later evolving into

curriculum based systems, as foundationally reductionist learning facilities? It could be

argued that in today’s schools literature, poetry and art are taught in a manner whereby a

reductionist approach is used to decipher and understand through breaking the matter into its

individual components, lines, brush strokes, and images (Dorkin 2017).

Interviewing a teacher trained under the pre-democracy South African teacher training college

system, she notes that all disciplines were defined through teaching manuals (Dorkin 2017).

These guide books defined the methods of instruction through which learning was to take place. The manuals covered all matters of disciplines including music, physical education,

and home economics. Louv (2005) also notes the shift from broad studies of, for example

zoology, to disciplines such as genetics, demonstrating the shift from nature as a complex

reality to an abstract resulting in a shift in education structures thus supporting a reductionist

approach (Louv 2005). The South African Department of Education’s current purpose

statement for the grade R to grade 12 curriculum ensures that learners can transition to

tertiary education, contribute and participate meaningfully in society, and move into the

workplace (South African Department of Education 2017). The curriculum “promotes

knowledge in local contexts, while being sensitive to global imperatives”, and is based on the

country’s constitution including environmental rights, justices, and valuing indigenous

knowledge systems.

The shift in the country’s approach from earlier teacher training colleges and manuals may

well be the first step towards a systemically less instructive medium for teaching thereby

allowing for a new way of teaching and educating (Dorkin 2017). Fantastically, the

Department of Education lists several publications of Folklore Anthologies in indigenous

languages for use in grade 12 literature studies. The consideration for indigenous knowledge

and connection within the curriculum is exemplary.

How then can the connection to nature be established, or reiterated for today’s children?

While the environment is obviously included in the curriculum, little evidence of Louv (2005)

and Lindholdt’s (2012) requirements for ‘healthy’ children - a connection to the environment

and inquisitiveness for wildness – could be found. How then should the curriculum cater for

additional pressures on our mental models, such as increasing urbanisation resulting in more

penetrative behaviours such as modern living arrangements further from nature, and

increased societal pressures for consumptive behaviour?

3.3. Urbanisation and its impact on connectedness to nature

The result of modernisation and increased urbanisation, brings with it increased pressures on

the connection between humans and nature, and further distances us from nature and

environmental degradation (Dorkin 2017, Swilling 2017). Louv notes that in the United States

of America the baby boomers are most likely the last generation to have familial bonds to

nature as “familial and cultural links to farming are disappearing” (2005: 19). In the South

African context, rapid urbanisation and land degradation mean that fewer families have any

link to the land or nature, and many live in high density urban settings devoid of natural

environs (Turok & Borel-Saladin 2017). One must ask, what affect do these nature-devoid

conditions do to the mental model of a young adult or child and how might schooling systems

offer respite?

The answer is not so easy in that in itself it highlights a dualism in the post-colonial

postmodern South African context. In discussion with Dorkin (2017) she notes several new

ways of thinking and teaching focussed on reducing distance from nature and aimed at

addressing nature-deficit disorders. These techniques are taking shape in response to

children in the postmodern world increasingly being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder

and sensory deprivation. Syndromes of modern life in dense housing estates where freedom

to play and explore natural environments is at the expense of personal safety. The impact to

the mental model or grand narrative here is that nature is not a safe place to be and should

be looked at from a distance if at all. Louv recognises this as a highly impactful situation to

our health and our understanding of our connectedness to nature (2005). He notes that

“[r]educing that deficit – healing the broken bond between our young and nature – is in our

self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental,

physical, and spiritual health depends upon it” (Louv 2005: 3).

What is being done to address this deficit? In South Africa and around the world various

alternative methods for teaching designed to increase and stimulate inquisitiveness are being

employed: the Reggio Emelia and Waldorf structures, Montessori and New Generation

schools, and the Timbernook school in the United States (Dorkin 2017). Several new areas

for study and practice are emerging such as designing outdoor environments for children,

yoga for mindfulness, sensory gardens and vegetable gardens (Dorkin 2017). Is it not astounding that these are ‘designed’ practices to address the impacts of the urbanised environments. That children cannot simply be allowed to play in an unstructured and free manner in natural environments.

This is the ultimate outcome of the modern grand narrative, with its roots in colonisation.

Western humans colonised the environment to put it to use for his own industrial needs,

structured and designed urban living environments, and then redesigned spaces for

reconnection to the environment in a structured manner. Most disturbingly, the recent

recognition for reconnection in this structured manner, to large degree only addresses the

impacts to the narratives and development of children within privileged suburban families – a

new dualism is created (Dorkin 2017). Lindholdt maintains that the damage of religious based

teaching in an increasingly unnatural environment has already damaged us culturally (2012).

5. Conclusion

The history of education, through colonisation and into the postmodern urbanised world, in

the South African context clearly shows a history of imposition of a dualistic mental model

where certain humans are inferior and loss of connection to nature seems inevitable. While

there are certainly areas where this loss of connection to the environment is recognised,

efforts to address this loss are focussed seemingly only on certain groups of people or

children. Thus perpetuating a new dualism.

Colonialism as the root cause of the Western based mental model, focussed on perpetuating

a separation from nature and an enforced dominance of humans over nature, man over

lesser men, and man over woman. The new dualism created in the postmodern world, where

a child’s connection to nature is lost at an earlier age as a result of the ‘unsafe’ connotations

taught, in reality for personal safety reasons, may in the longer term further hinder the

redefinition of a global ethic to address our ecological predicament (Gardiner 2006).

© Submitted as an assignment for Leadership and Environmental Ethics, April 2017. Post Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Development, Stellenbosch University.

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