Troubling social realist claims on South African curriculum from a social justice perspective

Year: 2013

Author: Zipin, Lew, Brennan, Marie, Fataar, Aslam

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Since the end of official Apartheid in 1994, South Africa (SA) has struggled to shift from a colonial exclusionary social structure to one that has become formally, if not substantively, inclusive. In chasing substantive - i.e. socially just - inclusion, educational sectors appear, at once, to be sites of necessary possibility and seeming impossibility. While SA's schools and universities are integrating demographically, more inclusive demographics has not meant inclusive curriculum.
In this paper we examine ‘social realism' (see, for example, Young & Muller 2007, Young 2008) as a prominent movement within SA education (with significant origins in England, and important proponents in Australia). Social realism targets school curriculum; however, key proponents and debates locate in the field of universities, intersecting with fields of government. Social realism (a) makes strong claims about what contents and forms of knowledge require centrality in curriculum; and (b) warrants these claims on social-justice grounds. We test these claims and warrants against Nancy Fraser's tripartite model for strong and comprehensive justice: (1) equitable redistribution of powerful ‘capitals' (including knowledge as cultural capital) to those who do not inherit them; (2) inclusive recognition of cultural epistemologies that have been marginalised; and (3) participatory-democratic representation of groups that have had little power in decisions affecting their wellbeing. Joined to Fraser's ‘three Rs', we also evaluate social realist warrants from Freirean and Funds of Knowledge perspectives.
We give close attention to a key argument, drawing on Bernstein's conception of ‘vertical and horizontal knowledge', on which social realist warrants hinge: that there is a substantive difference between ‘knowledge which has power', and ‘powerful knowledge'. The latter, social realists claim, has achieved ‘universal' value that effectively transcends any arbitrary partiality of association with particular times, spaces or social-structural positions. In troubling this claim, we argue that social realist warrants for curriculum knowledge selection only address redistribution, not recognition or representation. In reading social realism as arguing for a too-limited view of educational responsibilities for furthering the capabilities of diverse groups to define and pursue ‘good lives', we argue for a more expanded understanding of the justice roles of education, especially in the ‘developing-nation' context of SA. Finally, invoking Bourdieuian field analysis, we ask what forces of the SA university sector, interacting with what features of SA social-structural and political contexts, might explain the sway of social realism in SA curriculum compared to other Commonwealth countries.