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