In this HE Watch we turn to the context of social media for a point of discussion.

Many HELTASA members may have picked up on the controversy surrounding an article published by academics at the University of Stellenbosch entitled ‘Age – and education related effects on cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women’.

The article, published in Aging, Neuroscience and Cognition, has been widely criticized not only for its use of colonial constructs and stereotypes in a piece of research but also for its flawed methodology. The Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySAA) has published a critique of the work here, and others can be found elsewhere on the internet.

The purpose of this HE Watch is not to reiterate what has already been said elsewhere but to consider how, even in the AD, a field that has always actively opposed the use of racial categories in education, it is still easy to slide into spaces that are hugely problematic because of a lack of conceptual rigour.

The idea of an individual being ‘intelligent’, for example, is widely accepted in society and those with high ‘IQs’ are often revered and set up to be emulated. The construct of intelligence is open to critique, however, not least because of the association of particular socially embedded ways of reasoning and performance on IQ tests.

Even closer to home given our location in the field of AD are constructs such as language and literacy.  For many years, the ‘Great Divide’ theory dominated thinking about literacy with writers such as Goody and Havelock claiming that literacy bestowed cognitive benefits not only on individuals but also on entire communities.  Work by Scribner and Cole (1981) amongst the Vai people of Liberia eventually debunked the ‘Great Divide’ by showing how the benefits allegedly bestowed by literacy were related to schooling and not literacy itself. The Vai people had developed their own writing system long before Scribner and Cole studied them and many of those using the traditional system had never experienced formal schooling. Scribner and Cole were therefore able to test individuals using the traditional writing system and those who used the writing system associated with formal education and compare results.  It was only those who had engaged with formal schooling who came out better on tests.

Social Anthropologist Brian Street was able to follow up on this work by studying the way numerous communities engaged with printed text in order to develop an understanding of literacy as a multiple phenomenon involving socially derived dispositions to engage with certain kinds of texts in particular ways.  While the ability to encode and decode sound/symbol correlations is part of a literacy drawing on alphabetic writing systems, it is by no means all. For example, modeling reading as a pleasurable activity is part of encouraging young children to engage with written text in the first place and, thus, to becoming fluent in the decoding process.

While no one would dispute that the work conducted by Stellenbosch academics identified at the beginning of this HE Watch is hugely problematic, it’s nonetheless necessary to consider how we ourselves might slip into doing, saying and writing things which are open to criticism and which might even cause harm.

Statements such as ‘students can’t read’ need to be interrogated for underlying meanings before we send students off to reading or writing ‘labs’ especially since the word ‘lab’ itself draws on particular connotations.  

Every single day, we use words such as ‘bright’, ‘smart’, ‘talented’ or even ‘intelligent’ itself about our students.  What are we saying when we do this? Are we saying that these individuals were born ‘bright’? If so, what does this mean for performance data (for example, the CHE’s Vital Stats series) which shows that certain social groups consistently outperform others at our universities?  Are we saying that those who consistently do not do so well (typically those from black working class homes) did not receive the same share of ‘brightness’ as their white, middle class peers at birth?

Poor research is poor research and putting work ‘out there’ without truly thinking through the consequences is deserving of all the criticism that comes its way.  The article by Stellenbosch academics was nonetheless published by an academic journal and presumably went through peer review processes. As it did this, problems with the article clearly were not identified presumably because of dominant ways of thinking amongst the people who read and work with the journal and who thus saw nothing wrong with the use of classifications based on race or indeed with the idea that cognitive functioning could be related to such classifications.

The fact that this happened must have implications for the AD community and for the need to be ever vigilant about the way we might think about things. If we do not exercise this vigilance we may well end up doing things which cause harm not least because of the way they position students and result in them wasting their time in unproductive activities.

– Prof. Chrissie Boughey