Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Homage to Robert Oakeshott

On June 21 Robert Oakeshott died in London at the age of 78 after a long illness. Oakeshott was a by all accounts a socialist and also an authority on cooperatives ÔÇô having published books on that subject. While pursing my MPhil. degree at the University of Cambridge in 1998 I had the rare and singular privilege of meeting Robert Oakeshott in flesh for the first time at his London office.

True to his socialist principles he was involved in housing projects for the poor in the UK. I told him that I regarded him and Patrick van Rensburg as Botswana’s unsung heroes and educational stalwarts of great repute because they pioneered a school system of the future based on the philosophy of education with production (EwP) but were never recognized and rewarded for their remarkable achievements by the BDP government. Oakeshott along with van Rensburg and other educational beacons and icons founded the world famous Brigades movement and spearheaded the establishment of non-conventional schools in Botswana founded on the socialist principle of combining education with socially necessary productive labour or theory and practice.

The founding members of the BNF such as Dr Kenneth Koma, Mareledi Giddie and Henderson Tlhoiwe were at some stage associated in some ways with these non-conventional schools and the Brigades. Indeed education with production (EwP) is now the official educational policy of the BNF. For that reason the untimely demise of this great individual is a matter of great concern to the BNF and all progressive educationalists. The best way of paying tribute to Robert Oakeshott is to rededicate ourselves to the historic and futuristic project that he and van Rensburg originated.

A century of classical colonialism in Botswana grafted a capitalist mode of production onto pre-capitalist forms of production in a distorted manner ÔÇô a form of peripheral capitalism which lacked the capacity for dynamic growth and development. This resulted in enclave development with entrenched distortions and disarticulations which perpetuate underdevelopment and a ‘dual economy’ ÔÇô the co-existence of the formal sector and the urban informal sector with its highly differentiated rural sub-sector. The formal sector is driven by linkages to the external sectors such as exports, imports, the elusive pursuit of foreign investment, so-called aid and outflows of capital. The BDP regime’s forlorn dream of the formal sector as the engine of growth and development will remain just that – a mirage and pipe dream until these structural distortions are confronted head-on. The non-virtuous relationship between these three sectors (the formal sector, the urban informal sector and the rural sub-sector) and the global capitalist world reinforce the marginalization of the majority of the people trapped in low productivity urban informal sector and the communal sector. It constrains and hampers the country’s development prospects. An export-led strategy is harmful to the development needs of the country in that it distorts development priorities, diverts resources away from the needs of the local populace and renders the economy vulnerable to the unequal and undemocratic terms of global capitalist trade.

Conventional schools in that socio-politico-economic context were designed to select a few elites and channel them into the limited white-collar jobs in the enclaves or distorted formal sector characterized by a narrow industrial base and allow the vast majority to fall by the wayside.

Conventional schools are part and parcel of the colonial legacy of enclaves grafted onto essentially rural societies which serve to siphon human and material resources away from rural areas to the urban areas. Those who are thrown out of the school system simply add to the growing reserve army of labour of the capitalist system. Conventional schools are in fact an expensive way of training a tiny elite by creating the false impression that opportunities are available to all, when in reality, many are called, but few are chosen. Hence the structure of the education system is a pyramid ÔÇô very broad at the bottom but tapers off at the top.

Academic white-collar oriented education for the elite is accompanied by a great deal of system wastage in the form of throw-pouts who now include degree holders ÔÇô throw-outs on whom the taxpayers’ money has been expended in terms of salaries for teachers and resources used to educate them and yet the society cannot benefit anything from that investment since they are roaming the streets. Following the RNPE of 1994 government opted for a superficial pre-vocationalization strategy borrowed from Western countries in a bid to bridge the gap between education and training in readiness for the challenges of neo-liberal globalization. The ignored the rich innovation born in the country which effectively combined theory and practice. That government initiative failed to overcome the artificial dichotomy between theory and practice. Combining theory and practice not only has enormous pedagogical and social advantages, but also enables students to produce real goods and services as they learn skills and competencies and thus cut down on the costs of their own education hence there would be no need for the payment of school fees under this system.

Schools assist with the overall development of the communities where they are located. The real reason for the rigid division between mental and manual labour is ideological. In hierarchically structured societies the valorization of ‘academic’ education is used to select and reproduce a few ‘thinkers’, planners and bureaucrats who will then control the majority of the workers rejected by the system and condemned to work with their hands. As van Rensburg, puts it, ‘one man’s brain directs another’s hand’.

Education with production (EwP) started as a practical response to the challenges of an underdeveloped country called Botswana but sprouted into an international ideological movement which was adopted by several countries. On the initiative of Patrick van Rensburg schools like Swaneng Hill, Shashe River School, Madiba and Sebina/Tutume Community Project and Secondary School, later rechristened Tutume McConnell, were founded on the principle of education with production (EwP). They were non-conventional schools geared towards facilitating integrated rural development by serving as powerhouses or focal points of skill and talent in communities within which they were located. Their diversified curriculums were directly responsive to the needs and aspirations of the local community. And they created jobs, not just for teachers but also for students and the community, imparted a broad range of skills and provided goods and services to the local community. School/community relations were strong and symbiotic and the curriculum was relevant.

Tragically when these school fell into the hands of the government because they could not sustain themselves economically, even though they reduced the costs of education, the curriculum was divorced from productive activities and they became ordinary conventional schools based on a bookish, elitist and white-collar oriented curriculum in which only a few students are selected while the vast majority are thrown by the wayside as ‘drop-outs’.

The challenges of development facing a ‘third world’ country like Botswana dictate that we should go back to schools that are more or less autonomous productive economic units where both students and the local community learn a number of industrial skills so they can be employed and be self-employed. The BNF is committed to EwP for all at all levels while the BDP government is strongly wedded to bookish white-collar oriented education which is like a huge sieve perpetuates and legitimizes class inequalities by selecting a few and rejecting the majority as ‘drop-outs’.

The first non-conventional school was Swaneng Hill in Serowe. In addition to core subjects like English, Mathematics, Science and Setswana the school offered Metalwork, Woodwork, Building Science, Technical Drawing, Commercial Subjects, Art and Agricultural Science. These subjects were seen as necessary for the provision of skills need for a developing economy. Van Rensburg notes that ‘we made some attempt to formalize these into a syllabus, but it was only after Robert Oakeshott joined us that we succeeded in doing this to my satisfaction’. Van Resburg further points out that ‘one of Robert Oakeshott’s first jobs when he joined us was to draw up a development plan for Serowe in which the school might participate’. That plan amounted to an ‘extension of the Brigade system of training into farming, textiles and engineering which we began to implement in 1967′. Indeed Swaneng Complex subsequently gave birth to a range of institutions such as Serowe Engineering and Serowe Electrical Engineering, Serowe Consumers Cooperative (the first cooperative in the country), Tshwaragano Hotel, Serowe Printing and Publishing Cooperative, Boiteko Project and Mmegi wa Dikgang.

Because of the high prices of the retail stores in 1964 they started building a consumers cooperative with 4, 000 people paying their shares without outside assistance. The cooperative was able to finance its own expansion such as Tshwaragano Hotel. The Boiteko project was meant to be a model rural development programme designed to provide education, training and self-employment to the poor community members with limited education. It helped the poor to meet their own needs through their efforts. Boiteko was loosely linked to Swaneng Complex. The school helped to build some of the first buildings and prepare gardens of the new project. It was an example of ‘walking on two legs’ i.e. harmonizing capital and labour intensive technologies. Boiteko produced hand-woven carpets, woolen goods, pottery, vegetables and beer by men and women on the basis of cooperation and inter-dependence.

After van Rensburg’s proposal to build another school in Maun was rejected Shashe River School and the Brigades were established in Tonota in 1969 partly through the voluntary efforts of Swaneng Hill students during work camps applying their mathematical and scientific skills. The school was based on the same principles that guided Swaneng Hill which were described by van Rensburg thus ; ‘the school will discourage any notion that education is just a ladder on which privilege climbs to privilege’ . The first major part of the philosophy which grew out of the practical experiment was to counter the growth of elitism. Students built their own schools (classrooms, laboratories, dormitories, workshops), cleaned and maintained the school, produced some of their food and cooked it themselves and took part in development work in the community. Education with production is education for the working class.

Robert Oakeshott was the first Principal of Shashe River School. He was also credited with the development of the EwP course, Development Studies. And he was an ardent supporter of the Brigades. I started my teaching in Shashe River School 1981 when some of the surviving examples of this initiative were still there . I recall that at that time staff houses and students’ hostels were thatched huts built by students using locally available resources. I lived in a hut built by students. Mules pulling carts were used to collect litter ÔÇô another surviving feature of an innovation that provided appropriate education for a third world country unable to employ all its graduates. Today all the huts have been destroyed and replaced with modern structures built by foreign companies with no role whatsoever for the students and parents thanks to the neo-colonial mentality of the BDP regime. The mules and the carts have been replaced by imported tractors using expansive diesel to collect litter. And of course when I arrived the brigades had been completed divorced and severed from the now conventional Shashe River School. A depoliticized and watered down Development Studies survives in senior secondary schools while at JC it has been replaced with the anodyne Social Studies which is essentially government propaganda . As if that not enough decolonization of the these schools, in 2000 government phased out of the syllabus EwP subjects like Cultural Studies, Environmental and Social Studies and Fundamentals of Production by first ‘unbundling the EwP subjects… taking material out of them and locating it within other subjects before dropping the EwP subjects altogether’ . They were replaced with new subjects like Business Studies and Social Studies.

In the hands of government non-conventional schools ceased to be ‘ models of practical, productive, progressive innovative community-oriented relevant education’. Government’s attitude to the brigades and EwP was at best ambivalent, and at worst, hostile. van Rensburg says ‘The ruling party politicians…largely conservative, were not enthusiastic about our projects’. Indeed the founders of these non-conventional schools and the Brigades were vilified by the BDP regime as ‘communists’, ‘perverters of the youth’ and for allegedly colluding with the BNF against the government. Our hearts go out to the family of Robert Oakeshott in these difficult times of grief and pain.

May Robert Oakeshott’s soul rest in eternal peace.


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Sunday Standard August 2 – 8

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of August 2 - 8, 2020.