Kids learn better with knowledge of ancestral heroes. That means they learn better when they see people who resemble them as key historical actors. For example, “when kids enjoy reading titles with characters who look like them, it helps form a connection to the book on another level” . It helps them in “identifying with the characters in a story,” allowing, “for a deeper comprehension of the text,” Scholastics.com writes.
Being able to place oneself as the inheritor of heroes imbues learning with both import and excitement. That energy brings learning to life. Implied in the notion of something valuable being “tried and true” is the reality of that something being tried by, at least, someone. What treasure it is to have a century or more of “someones” from which to draw?
"Kids learn better with knowledge of ancestral heroes."
An unconventional example of the curricular benefits found in channeling ancestral legacies is seen in the rugby team at Gisborne Boys’ High School in New Zealand. Gisborne is majority Maori. It considers rugby as a credited course. Its rugby team, the All Blacks, “emphasizes a connection to Maori culture” at all levels of team interaction, even utilizing the hongi, a traditional Maori salutation, to greet each other .
“Since the introduction of world rugby rankings in 2003, New Zealand has held the No. 1 ranking longer than all other countries combined,” David Maurice Smith writes in this article “Reading. Writing. Rugby.” New Zealand’s success on the international stage of rugby is credited, in large part, to the Gisborne’s team. The All Blacks credit their success to the ancestral Maori legacy, kawa, that they harness.
The school's leadership sees “nurturing a connection to cultural identity as key to developing” strong athletes . Dean Ryan Tapsell aptly remarks, “Most sporting teams strive to create a team culture, whereas our team is modeled after an actual living and breathing culture.” For Gisborne, they are not reinventing the wheel. They are redeveloping the axles.
Gisborne’s All Blacks are reapplying the techniques and tools of kawa in a present-day context to solve a contemporary problem: How to honorably draw upon ancient cultures in modern society's development?
Reaching back to move forward, a West African principle called Sankofa, is a beautifully fraught process. Done successfully, it has immense rewards. For example, in Gisborne’s case, it elevated a small North Island town into international stardom. In the case of the South African town, Mpumalanga, its Sankofa dream was intercepted.
"How to honorably draw upon ancient cultures in modern society's development?"
For Nelson Mandela, education was a liberatory force of which the school building was its symbolic embodiment. During the anti-apartheid movement, in Soweto 1976, bettering the condition of the schooling system was a rallying cry, particularly the instituting of native language(s) instruction over instruction in Afrikaans, the language of the minority-white population in control.
But what happens to a dream deferred? Langston Hughes asked this very question in his famous poem “Harlem.”
Mpumalanga’s former premier and education minister, David Mabuza, who is now the second-in-command under the newly installed president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was one of the main student organizers building ties across the anti-apartheid groups . “Yet under Mr. Mabuza’s leadership, millions of dollars for schools in his province have been misspent…His province routinely spent less on poor students than required and school construction projects have been riddled with inflated costs,” Onishi and Gebrekidan report in their article, “Amassing Power in South Africa as Corruption Rots Its School.”
Mabuza did not just oversee the siphoning off of public funding for schools but pillaged the hopes and dreams of many South Africans. He misused both the legacies of the country's freedom fighters, like the Mandelas, and the cultural legacies of small villagers by playing on duplicitous liberatory rhetoric. This is when the resurfacing of ancestral intelligences goes wrong.
How to distinguish between leaders using cultural awareness to bolster educational activities and those using it as a smoke screen for something more nefarious?
"Mabuza did not just oversee the siphoning off of public funding for schools but pillaged the hopes and dreams of many South Africans."
This is the question parents and community members, earlier this summer, were asking regarding an Eastern Cape, South African choirmaster who produced a seminude traditional performance featuring teen-aged schoolgirls . According to The Daily Dispatch, the choirmaster was on the record saying, “We are proud of our Xhosa tradition,” and, “We are proud of Xhosa women and girls,” . Education minister Angie Motshekga repudiated the performance by saying, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage” but that educators “should know better than to expose teenage girls to this form of exploitation” . One reader on The Daily Dispatch’s website, writes “How is this not pedophilia masquerading as culture?” .
How to reintroduce historical cultural practices in a moment where those practices have morphed and comingled with the norms and mores of modern society? How to do so with an awareness that roots out exploitative motives on both sides?
The kawa is a set of Maori traditional protocols centered around public gatherings in the marae, a village court. Maori culture also a has set of protocols for war, and the Gisborne All Blacks rugby team has additionally gained fame for performing a Maori war cry and dance (haka) during, for example, the World Cup games. [See video]. One does want to be cautious of replicating the mistaken “passive, tame native” myth in highlighting the merits of various cultural practices. [See The Ancient History of the Maori, his Mythology and Traditions].
As the popularity of history is waning in provinces across South Africa, Pule Rakgoathe an education specialist states that “eventually, young people will know little of their country and the society in which they live” . That has wide-ranging implications for underrepresented students’ ability to learn in ways that helps them excel.
Students learn better when they see both people and practices that resemble them and environments with which they are familiar. They need access to diverse historical narratives. In seeing their ancestors as historical actors, they are more likely to become participatory members of society in a way that continues to move history forward.