Paige Abuses the Apartheid Metaphor

By Bill Bigelow

Illustrator: Bill Bigelow


South Africa’s apartheid system crumbled more than a decade ago, but the apartheid metaphor lives on. When he’s not making headlines by calling teachers terrorists, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige traverses the country claiming that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) will usher in a “revolution” against “educational apartheid.” His speeches are filled with allusions to both the struggle against apartheid as well as to our own Civil Rights Movement. He wants “emancipation,” “inclusion,” and “educational equality.” In one speech, Paige quoted Nelson Mandela, urging us to join “that long road to freedom.”

Paige’s apartheid references are powerful, as they recall the vicious system of racial division and exploitation in South Africa. They underscore the savage educational inequalities we need to address in our own society.

But remembering the real system of apartheid and the struggle to overthrow it can reveal important insights about how the Bush administration abuses a language of social justice for its own reactionary purposes.

The rot in South Africa was never simply educational. Apartheid was a system of deep social and economic inequality—of which education was only one component. The movement against apartheid never misunderstood this. No one—least of all Nelson Mandela—ever thought that reforming the schools could end apartheid. When Paige asks us to focus exclusively on what he dubs “educational apartheid,” he directs our attention away from other forms of social inequality that “leave children behind.”

Gutter Education

I traveled throughout South Africa during the 1986 State of Emergency, meeting with students and anti-apartheid activists, especially those working in schools and literacy campaigns. Activists there had a less high-sounding term for educational apartheid. They called it “gutter education.” And while everyone wanted to transform the schools, they recognized that the injustice they lived with was systemic, not just educational. As one journal editorialized, “To get rid of gutter education entirely, one would have to get rid of the gutter.”

What left South African children behind was not merely their schooling—wretched as it was—but the entire system. For instance, in the early 1980s, infant mortality for black South Africans in rural areas was officially 282 for every 1,000 births. For white children it was 13. There was one doctor for every 19,000 blacks, and one for every 330 whites. The leading cause of death for black children was disease brought on by poverty. For white children, it was drowning in swimming pools. Hunger among black South Africans was rampant, even though South Africa was the world’s seventh largest exporter of food.

South African activists always waged the struggle for better schools within this larger context. But Paige appropriates the language of the anti-apartheid movement while ignoring this history. He consistently fails to denounce the myriad injustices that leave U.S. children behind.

U.S. Inequality

No doubt, disparities in today’s United States differ from those of apartheid-era South Africa. But profound racial and class inequalities exist here, too. White households have a net worth more than six times that of black households. In 1968, a typical black family made 60 percent of the income of a typical white family; today it’s 58 percent. One out of every four U.S. children—about 15 million—lives in poverty. Almost 10 million children have no health insurance, although nine out of 10 of these kids live in families with working parents.

But as Stan Karp points out in the Winter 2003 issue of Rethinking Schools [“Some Gaps Count More than Others,” pages 16-17], the “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) demanded by NCLB neglects everything about children’s lives except their test scores, “and contrasts sharply with the widespread inequality that is tolerated, even encouraged, by federal policy in many other areas.” Were the Bush administration to take seriously the insights of the anti-apartheid movement, it would demand, as Karp points out, full equality with measurable yearly gains and propose rigorous standards for the entire gamut of social indicators: employment, income, quality health care, clean air, and home ownership.

In South Africa, anti-apartheid education activists rejected the top-down, test-heavy curriculum that the South African government imposed on its citizens. The government’s unfair curriculum and testing triggered the 1976 Soweto uprising. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, activists demanded more educational resources and smaller class sizes. They also called for a more lively, participatory, critical curriculum—a “culture of discussion” to engage students in “imagining how society could be restructured,” as one anti-apartheid teacher told me in 1986. The National Education Crisis Committee, an umbrella education activist organization, joined with other anti-apartheid groups in the United Democratic Front to advocate a sweeping social reorganization in favor of the poor and dispossessed.

These are decidedly not the animating themes of Bush and Company’s agenda—educational or otherwise. Sadly, the administration twists the aims of one of the most significant social justice movements of our time to serve its own conservative ends. Paige uses the apartheid metaphor only as a rhetorical device to legitimate the Bush scheme of vastly expanded testing leading toward greater privatization of schooling.

If Paige and others want to borrow from the linguistic heritage of freedom struggles, they ought to get it right. The only meaningful way to address “educational apartheid” is to embark on a broader social justice strategy to end all inequality.

Bill Bigelow ( teaches at Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., and is an editor of Rethinking Schools. He is author of Strangers in Their Own Country: A Curriculum Guide on South Africa (Africa World Press, 1985) and was a founder of Portlanders Organized for Southern African Freedom.