People who know my academic side well, know two things about me; the first is that I absolutely love philosophy, and the second is that I get incredibly impatient when I feel as though philosophy is out of touch with reality (philosophers will get this irony, because apparently “getting in touch with reality” is all philosophy ever says it does. I want to solve urgent, tangible problems… to deconstruct them and use unconventional ways to create solutions by applying the philosophical skills and theory to them.
One such example is the problem I’ve grappled with is the study of history in South African schools. In our early conversations with friends about the shortcomings of our education system was the Eurocentric nature of our curricula. This idea was fueled by our recognition of the sparse African history we were taught as opposed to our over-saturation of Western histories such as the World Wars, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. This was by no means to say that these are not worthwhile histories to learn, but we realised that many of our friends in other schools were equally well-versed in the abovementioned historical events not so much when it came to the trade routes of Africa, Mansa Musa, African Independence waves of the 1960s, the African kingdoms or wars.
But recently, my critique of our study of history in South Africa has been from a different perspective. I realised during one of our SAWIP community engagement project sessions that a number of students do not know much of the South African history – outside of the dominant narrative of Apartheid. The conversations about pre-colonial South Africa or CODESA South Africa are often rushed if not overlooked in favour of the dramatic peaks and lows of our history (the liberation of Mandela or the violent reign apartheid regime) which capture our attention or fulfill the ends of the curriculm’s outcomes.
This is where my philosophical aha-moment came! One of my favourite philosophers by the name of Michel Foucault (one day I shall further explore the issue of decolonization philosophy), who proposes a genealogical study of history as opposed to a linear, clear-cut one. Foucault argues that when we study history as a linear series of events, focusing on the highs and lows – we miss the golden “silences” of history. The periods that are not pointed out on the timeline because no “major” event that contributes to the topic occurred. In my opinion, this does not mean we have to study each and every single detail in history in order to get this more holistic picture – but it means we need to ask ourselves “in the grander scheme of the history that we are teaching our students, which are the neglected stories or narratives (or “silences”) that we exclude from our linear narratives of Enlightenment, Industrialisation, World Wars, the War on Terror etc.
The more we look at history as a series of related events and not isolated moments on different parallel timelines, we can have a better understanding of our shared history or shared humanity. We no longer perceive the “other” as foreign or dubious but there is a common understanding of the inter-related causes of history and ultimately, a common understanding in our problem-solving. We do not see each other as adversaries but as a common people wanting to heal common wounds. That being said, apartheid was a massive part of our identity, but South Africa’s history wasn’t all-apartheid. We have a story that transcends black vs. white divisions and dehumanization… we have a rich history that perhaps needs to be taught differently and more holisitically, if we are to unravel the intergenerational traumas that come with holding onto that particular dominant historical narrative.