A call for a culture of critical thinking

Abstract: South Africa’s neglect of its children is damaging its global competitiveness…

As highly developed as we humans think we are, we still retain elements of mammalian instinct, the strongest of which is to protect our young, even if it’s at the expense of our own lives. Ironically, it is this mammalian instinct that defines one of the cornerstones of our humanity – it is considered abhorrent, even inhumane, to willfully subject a child to abuse, or to neglect its cries for help. It’s helpful to bear this in mind when examining South Africa’s ranking in global competitiveness.

Every year the WEF (World Economic Forum) publishes the Global Competitiveness Report, which assesses the competitiveness landscape of a list of countries around the world according to twelve key indices. This year that list of countries totals 148. The report draws on an extensive spread of theoretical and empirical research into the drivers of prosperity and productivity, to provide the most comprehensive assessment of national competitiveness worldwide.

Understandably, there are a number of, especially, developed countries that rank relatively highly across all twelve key indices. Similarly, there are a number of underdeveloped countries that struggle at the bottom of all the indices. As a developing country, South Africa is spread up and down the various rankings, scoring higher than some countries in some indices and lower than some countries in others.

So where in all of this is there any measure of neglect towards children? The answer lies in the quality of education – a critical measure of any country’s competitiveness. Out of 148 countries, South Africa is ranked 133rd in terms of the quality of its primary education. It gets worse. In terms of the high school education of maths and science – the only two subjects specified by the WEF as measures of global competitiveness – South Africa is ranked 148th. That’s last.

It gets even worse. It’s easy to shrug and say, “we’re a developing country”; but as the saying goes in journalism: content is king, context is King Kong. When it comes to the world of business, and especially finance, South Africa likes to take care of its own. Should you wish to study business management, you’d be well equipped attending any one of the South African management schools (collectively ranked 23rd in the world); and as you worked your way into the business market place you could be content in the knowledge that in many respects you’re on top of the game.

In terms of the efficacy of corporate boards, the regulation of securities exchange, the protection of minority shareholders, the legal rights index, and the strength of auditing and reporting, South Africa is ranked 1st in the world. Things slip a bit when it comes to finance through equity market and the availability of financial services, where in both instances we’re 2nd in the world below Hong Kong and Switzerland respectively. As for the soundness of our banks? Shameful! We’re only 3rd, below Canada and New Zealand. Fancy that.

Sarcasm aside, the picture that does emerge is one where priorities seem skewed – we can somehow command pride of place in terms of the development of our financial market, but when it comes to the educational welfare of our children, we hang our heads in shame. It could be argued that a stable financial market in which global business places confidence is important to grow our economy; and there is merit in that. But the education of children is the pipeline to supply that economy; and maths and science education is especially important in empowering children to become competitive in a global labour environment that’s increasingly technical.

Maths and science education are considered measures of competitiveness not only because they are drivers of technical innovation, but because they demand of the brain the capacity for critical analysis. This is something that seems missing in South African culture, and which can be traced to the root of so many problems that drag the country down in a number of the other key indices of the Global Competitiveness Report.

For example, corruption and maladministration infest any culture that doesn’t critically evaluate its leaders and demand accountability; HIV/AIDS will cripple a populace that rejects scientific evidence for pseudoscience, myths and rumour; and without critical evaluation, people are more easily incited towards rebellion by individuals with personal power agendas.

In the latter part of 2013, South African news was dominated by a series of stories of the rape, murder and neglect of children. It’s easy to express shock and horror towards those guilty of such brutality and negligence; but if we reject preparing our children for the skills to compete globally and the critical thinking required to hold our decision-makers to account, to avoid serious illness, and to reject those who prey on the gullible, are we not doing the same?

Originally published in Leadership magazine.