There are real, at times debilitating consequences, that result from a dozen years of learning in an education system like Zimbabwe’s, which places – or rather, misplaces – a significant premium on discipline. The kind of discipline I’m talking about is not the three strokes from a cane that my forty classmates and I got on our behinds as often as every school term. The crimes our teachers found us guilty for ranged from getting 60% on an exam instead of over 90% to, by far the most common and most egregious of them all – “noisemaking”. Honestly, I’ve never quite philosophized or intellectualized the moral repugnance inherent in these reasons for discipline and the seemingly inhumane ways of meting it out.
The discipline, which I believe has incapacitated my generation, not only in Zimbabwe, but across the continent is how the need for permission from an authority was inculcated in us from an early age. I vividly remember the moments when my teachers would ask a question that everyone in the class knew the answer to. For argument’s sake, the question could have easily been: “What is 1+1?”. By the time I was in the second grade, many of us were not so shy to raise our hands. So, with such a give-away question, every one of us in the class would want to impress, and a sea of hands would go up. They would all be so full of energy, waving back and forth, with half the class violently snapping their fingers and half of that half sitting, quite literally, at the edges of their seats, hissing, “Yes, teacher! Yes, Teacher!”
With a feeling of great self-importance, the teacher, spoilt for choice, often picked his or her favorite student. Disappointed, hands went down and the animated candidates shrunk into their seats. The always-lucky student stood with a feeling of as much self-importance and pride and arrogance and self-assuredness and pompousness, and gave the answer that any one of the other forty students would have given, anyway. But, hey, he was special because he’s the one who actually got to parrot back the correct answer to his teacher.
A caricature as this might be, this speaks to the struggle that we face as young people on the African continent, and in the Global South more broadly. We’ve been given a gift – a double-edged one – the gift of education. On the one hand, I know that my own life and that of many others would be very different were it not for the great education that I received, and that my parents received in Zimbabwe. My mind has been opened, I have traveled the world, I leave a fairly comfortable life, I have visions for the future that are grounded in an intellectual understanding of global politics and our difficult histories as human beings, black people, “poor” countries.
On the other hand, I am growing to realize how the very education that has sharpened my mind and opened my eyes has deadened my passions: I think more than I feel. I rationalize more than I dream. I obey more than I question. I acquiesce more than I revolt.
In large part, this is because many of us are sitting expectedly in our second grade seats, eagerly waiting to receive permission from the authority figures that stand in front of us to give the answers that they want to hear – the answers that will get us a better grade, admission into the university we’ve always wanted to attend, a dream job, a raise, a promotion. Approval.
This need for permission cripples us from bringing our full, whole, true selves into the world. It imprisons us to the extent that we don’t even allow ourselves to think freely. Because we need to be speaking and acting in the right ways out there in the world, we start to think in the “right ways” inside of us and severely limit our real potentials.
You need to give yourself permission. I need to give myself permission. Collectively, we need to give ourselves permission. Permission to stand for the issues we care about whether we are asked to or not. Permission to question. Permission to dissent. Permission to dream. Permission to act boldly.
Permission to be.
While I see these reflections to be important for us, personally, in our respective pursuits for the goals we set for ourselves, they are critical for the collective struggles that we face along the dimensions of gender, race, economic status, political orientation, and all other axes of oppression.
To some degree, it is a problem that I, and I’m sure many others, have to this point seen education as a gift, that we keep delivering it as a gift, and couching in language that makes it out to be a gift. Because then, we become and remain beholden to whichever kind benefactor gifted us liberation from the jaws of poverty, “ignorance” and whatever “dark world” we lived in before salvation came in the form of a scholarship or however we access education.
Tired as this quote might be, I believe Nelson Mandela had such wisdom in saying, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. Mandela didn’t describe education as a benign gift or tool or toothless means to an end. Rather, he chose to describe education as a “weapon”. Because, absolutely, in it we have a potential double-edged sword – not one which is couched in qualifications of “on one hand it opens eyes and on the other it shuts me up” – but one that has such potency as to cut us free from the balls and chains that neuter and silence us. A weapon that gives us the courage to make a stand, not to parrot an answer. A weapon that gives us the courage to take up our responsibilities and begin the process of actually embodying freedom of thought, imagination, speech and action.
Frantz Fanon is famous for saying, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity”. For my generation, I believe one of our responsibilities is very clear – we need to provide economic emancipation to more than half the world that lives in circumstances that are less than ideal. We need to open people’s eyes and imaginations to so much more of what’s possible. We need to create and work hard toward visions of brighter futures, some of which have not been imagined nor materialized even in the “developed” world.
However, we will surely betray our responsibilities if we keep acting like school kids, raising our hands for the teacher – or whichever authority figure – towers in front of us. I speak to myself in saying this: we need to stand up, overturn the tables, rewrite the rules and extend the boundaries that constrain and confine us so that, ultimately, we can create lived experiences grounded in far greater freedoms and far richer fulfillment than we can currently imagine under the fetters of self-censorship, self-preservation and self-imprisonment.