Tag Archives: South Africa

A South Africa Story

I usually write articles to make a clear and specific point or argument. This time I’m going to do something different and simply relate a very short story. Although anecdotal, this story illustrates a wide range of individual and societal dynamics that are universal. But I’ll say little more and hope that it stimulates broader thought and discussion.

This story takes place in rural South Africa. It happened while I was serving in the Peace Corps there. Every day I walked past a heavy construction site. This was interesting as it was the only active job site in the village. They were putting up some sort of commercial multistory building. But what jumped out at me one day was that I never saw any men on the job. All the construction workers were women. This seemed curious.

In fact, it felt so odd that I became increasingly irritated about this. Where were all the men? Why were women forced to do all this heavy labor-intensive construction work?

I got curious enough to ask a local about this. “Where are all the men?” The local pointed down to the next streetcorner and said, “They are all in the bar.”

I was incensed. Every subsequent day as I walked past the site I became even more incensed. What kind of miserable, lazy, good-for-nothing men were these that they drank in a tavern while the women were outside doing heavy labor?

My disgust for the men of the village persisted until one day I could not contain my contempt any longer. I expressed my outrage to another local. That person patiently explained that the government gave very attractive incentives to construction companies to hire women. In fact, these incentives were so attractive and successful, that they let all the men go. Those men in the tavern were displaced and simply could no longer hold jobs in construction. And there were no other jobs.

Needless to say, my sense of outrage toward the men of the village immediately disappeared. My judgmental attitude was replaced with embarrassment over my uninformed indignation.

Amazing how just one new fact can flip the entire narrative of judgments that we passionately believe to be so very obvious.

Religion in Public Schools

The teaching of religion in public schools is a topic that stimulates a great deal of honest debate on all sides of the issue. Should religion be taught at all? And if so, what religions? Even well-meaning atheists might feel that religion should be taught, as long as all religions – and atheistic perspectives as well – are taught equally and fairly without bias.

That sounds laudable and enlightened in theory. However, many plans that sound great in theory inevitably turn out to be disastrous when put into practice. Teaching religion in public schools is one such example.

I have personal experience with this. While serving in the Peace Corps in South Africa, I worked for their Department of Education. The South African Constitution requires that all religions be treated equally. In order to comply with the spirit of their Constitution, the Department of Education has adopted a policy that all religions should be taught fairly and equally in the public schools.

Sounds great right? The trouble is that teachers, particularly rural teachers, do not know all religions and do not care to know all religions – let alone teach them fairly. At the point where lofty policies touch the students. all that this accomplishes is to give teachers cover to preach and proselytize their own religious views in the classroom and to misrepresent and disparage all other religions – and atheism is demonized most of all.

The problem of state sanctioned religious instruction is not merely a matter of the recruiting and training and monitoring of teachers. False even-handedness spills over into teaching materials as well. Science texts typically enumerate a long list of native creation myths as legitimate. In at least one science text, after describing the monkey myth, and the milk myth, and many others, it concluded with what was almost an obligatory footnote that said “and some scientists believe that the world was created by natural means and human beings evolved.”

This sort of false balance, not unlike giving equal deference to climate change deniers, is an almost inevitable consequence of a misguided and ill-fated attempt to be fair and inclusive with regard to the teaching of religion.

I came away from my experience in South Africa more convinced than ever that our American system of simply keeping religion out of our public schools is on balance the best, most practical system of fairness. There is no shortage of alternate venues where people can preach and teach religion as much as they wish. Therefore, there is no compelling need being met by including religion in public schools, that warrants the certain risk of abuse and unintended consequences.

Assiduously keeping religion out of our public schools is in fact the more fair, the more enlightened, and the more realistic policy position.