‘Science and Democratic Education’, a speech by Prof Renfrew Christie FRSSAf


Good evening.

I dedicate this speech to the memory of a great South African, Mr. Govan Mbeki. Govan Mbeki will go down in our history as The Teacher. He epitomises that grand generation of leaders of the African National Congress, who were educated by missionary institutions in the Scottish educational tradition. Like many Scots, they fought for democracy, and they worshipped education. South Africa today is immensely the better for it. In the spirit of Govan Mbeki, we must make it better still.
My thesis tonight is that Govan Mbeki was a Scot. His thoughts and actions were essentially Scottish. We should pronounce his name as Govan MacBeki. We should build, in his honour, in South Africa, a Scottish Democratic Education system. I will put it to you that only from a Scottish Democratic Education system will South Africa get a Science System capable of a Renaissance.
I do not know whether we should call that Renaissance an African Renaissance, or a continuation of the Scottish Enlightenment. But I do know that without a Scottish Democratic Education System, we will have no Enlightenment, Scottish or otherwise, and we will have no Renaissance, African or otherwise. And Govan MacBeki knew it too. He, above all of our leaders, hammered out the theme that we must educate all South Africans before we can be a great country, before we can achieve our real potential in science, or in the arts, or in the economy, or in inventions and discovery.
Govan MacBeki led the teaching and research in that very Scottish University, Robben Island. Govan MacBeki insisted that every cadre of the ANC and the Umkhonto we Sizwe must learn. Govan MacBeki insisted that the woman-child must be given the chance to learn even more than the man-child, because it is by the condition of womankind that any society is measured. Govan MacBeki insisted that learning is life-long. Govan MacBeki insisted that learning is the hardest of work, and that all must do that hard work.
Govan MacBeki insisted that the very essence of government is the democratic education of all our people. Govan MacBeki insisted that South African science will be feeble, faulty and frail, unless and until it is based on the education, on the stretching and expansion of the brains of all our children. Intellectually, if perhaps not genetically, Govan MacBeki descends straight from John Knox. Like John Knox, he was a quintessentially Scottish Teacher. Like John Knox, Govan MacBeki was a quintessentially Scottish soldier.
A case can be made that the Scots are the most belligerent people on earth. The Romans chickened out. The Normans could not conquer the Scots, and had to marry into Scotland, alone of every country they touched. The Scots fought the awful English for three hundred years. Only after a Scot had come to the English throne could thoughts of Union even begin. The Scots were warriors and berserkers, or generals and admirals, for every European King, Queen and Pope, in a thousand years. The very word berserker is Scottish. The Scots conquered the world for the awful English not once but twice, in the first British Empire to 1776 , and in the second British Empire to 1947. No less than forty-one Lieutenant Generals of the British Army in the nineteenth century were born on the Isle of Skye . The Isle of Skye measures ten miles by twenty, and had a population of 8000 all told: forty-one Lieutenant Generals included!
In that tradition of the Scottish soldier, Govan MacBeki, the Scottish teacher, went to war for democracy. He didn’t wait for power in some library. He didn’t work for democracy in a laboratory. He knew evil when he saw it, and he knew what to do about it. He joined the armed struggle for democracy. He went to war for democracy because, without democracy, there could be no democratic education. Without democratic education, there could be no properly based South African Science System, (among other things!).
And painfully did Govan MacBeki pay for his democratic principles: over two decades in the white racist jail. But the warriors for democracy won in the end, and he lived to see the first glimmering of a Scottish democratic education in our country. We do not yet have one.
Let me be plain what a democratic education system is. It does not teach only the children of the rich. It does not teach only the children of the aristocracy, the lucky sperm club. It does not teach only the children of the elite, together with a few co-opted souls who are lucky enough to pass scholarship exams. It teaches all the children of the demos, the people, in order that they know about rule, cratos. Thus, we get democracy, rule by the people.
Democratic education begins with the poorest. It does that because brainpower is likely to be normally distributed through a population, and not concentrated in the children of the rich. (If you want to find brainpower, there is statistically more of it in the children of the poor, because there are so many more poor than rich.) It also does that because all the people must be educated, if they are to govern well. To achieve democracy we must educate the mass, not just the elite. To achieve a proper base for science and invention, we must draw on the brains of all the people, not just the rich. The Scots did this, and hence came the Scottish Enlightenment and its inventions.
I need hardly list Scottish inventions to this audience tonight. They are endless – the Macintosh, Tarmac (invented by MacAdam, a MacGregor), Television, Frequency Modulation, Penicillin, Chloroform, Logarithms, the Telephone, Antisepsis, Tyres, Radar, the Thermos, the Bicycle, the Condenser which made the Age of Steam possible; the Breach Loading Rifle, Vacuum Cleaners, the United States Navy, Dolly the Sheep, and, of course, the Big Mac.
So, to the Scottish Teacher, and the Scottish Soldier, we must add the Scottish Inventor, and the Scottish Engineer. Without the Scottish Engineer we simply do not have the ships, the railways, and the roads of the modern world. Without Andrew Carnegie we have neither modern steel, nor half the libraries of the world.
As the combination of Carnegie’s steel and Carnegie’s libraries foreshadows, the Scottish contribution went beyond the scientific and the technological. Brian Simon wrote in 1974, “Scotland’s chief new contribution to knowledge was made by those who, stimulated by radical industrial and social changes, turned to historical investigations which laid the basis for a new science of society. [Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was] a close analysis of the functioning of industrial civilisation and the role of labour, in the process of which the case was put for the state provision of education” . Without this new science of society, without Adam Smith, we have neither Karl Marx nor John Maynard Keynes nor Milton Friedman. Without Smith, Hume, and Kant we have little modern philosophy. Kant, of course, was another MacGregor.
It is perhaps no accident that the first man on the moon was an Armstrong, from the Scottish Border family, and that the most famous phrase in space travel is “Beam me up, Scotty” . But it goes further. In a new book, Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World, (published in 2002 by Fourth Estate) , a non Scottish American, Arthur Herman, has argued that it is not merely the technological and scientific inventions, nor yet only the soldiers, the teachers and the dominees, that are the Scots’ gift to the world. From the Scottish Enlightenment we get also democracy, freedom of speech, equal opportunity, and a commitment to education – all the things Govan Mbeki went to war for, with the Umkhonto we Sizwe, against the Apartheid State. Moreover, the Scots, according to Arthur Herman, were the “true inventors of the modern social sciences, including anthropology, history, sociology, and economics.” Herman is a serious historian, but if you find him difficult to believe, Voltaire put it plainly: “It is to Scotland, that we must look, for our idea of civilization”.
You will by now have gathered that both of Renfrew Christie’s grandfathers were Scottish. Indeed, there are still Christie family in Braemar, and we are related to the John Brown, who was Queen Victoria’s Braemar ghillie. When Grandpa Christie really wanted to annoy his English wife, my grandmother, he would delicately suggest that Queen Victoria and John Brown were making love in Balmoral Castle! The geographers amongst you will know that the lowest temperature ever recorded in Britain was minus 17° Fahrenheit, measured at Braemar in Scotland in 1896. My grandfather was there in 1896. Small wonder that he emigrated to sunny South Africa! I am glad he did.
But if we are to avoid some racist, tribalist, or genetic determinist theory, to explain how tiny, wet, poverty-stricken, and freezing Scotland made such a disproportionately large contribution to modern warfare, to modern natural science and to modern social science, we must look carefully at history. It is not the so-called “Scottish race”. It is not about Scottish genes. It is not about kilts, bagpipes, Scotch mist, the heather, or the Haggis. The Scottish Enlightenment, Scottish Engineering, Scottish Scientific Discovery, Scottish Warfare, Scottish Social Science, and the “Scottish creation of the modern world”, are based on Scottish democratic education.
The historical explanation of the Scottish “miracle” is to be found in John Knox’s religiously motivated design, in his Book of Discipline (1560), for the Scottish democratic education system. As that indomitable Scottish historian of the 1930s, Agnes Muir Mackenzie, puts it, the Book of Discipline “has an excellent scheme for education, for the nexus of parish and secondary schools, although unluckily it remained on paper until James VI and his bishops took it in hand” . She goes on “In 1616 Archbishop Spottiswoode took up Knox’s excellent scheme for parish schools (which until that time had remained on paper) and set going an educational machine that till modern times was one of [Scotland’s] national glories” . Irvine Welsh takes the story further: “In 1696, the Scottish Parliament passed the Setting for Schools Act, establishing a school and a salaried teacher in every parish” . Victor Shepherd summarises Knox’s dream: “All of Scotland was to be divided into self-supporting parishes, with a parish-supported school in each. Here there was bred the Scots’ reputation for their veneration of education, their repugnance at tyranny, their insistence on democracy, and their love of literature” . And lo, it was done.
Thus it was, not because of Haggis and Scotch mist, but because John Knox wanted a literate Scottish Congregation, to understand his Calvinism, that by 1750 the Scots had a literacy rate of over three quarters of the population. They became the best-read nation on earth. Robbie Burns at 16, an immensely poor Scottish ploughboy, knew Shakespeare, Pope, Locke, the Scottish poets and the French enlightenment philosophers. Because almost the whole of Scotland could read, and do mathematics, they could do social science. Because they could read, add, and multiply, they made scientific discoveries. (Like all the Victorian British they could multiply: my grandmother was the thirteenth child of a thirteenth child!)
Because they were literate and numerate, for religious reasons, the Scots made a contribution to knowledge way out of all proportion to their tiny numbers. In this the Scots were like the Jewish people, also literate and numerate for religious reasons, whose contribution to the history of thought astronomically exceeds their numbers in history. Moreover, in this the Scots were also like the Arabs, of the Golden Age of Islam, whose contribution to science far exceeded that of Christian Europe, in the seven hundred years from the Prophet to the Black Death.
I have with me Ibn Khaldun’s great 1377 book, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. He surveys all of knowledge up to the Great Plague, including, for example, logic, arithmetic, the craft of calculation, algebra (an Arabic word), geometry, spherical figures, conic sections, mechanics, surveying, astronomy, optics, physics, medicine, the science of agriculture, and finally music. A case can be made, that the Italian Renaissance was Islamic, because it rested “on the shoulders of the giants” across the Mediterranean Sea.
The Arabs, according to the awful English Major in the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, were “a small people, a little people”. Like most of the Scots, and like most of the Jews, the Arabs were mostly an extremely poor people. But these three poverty-stricken small peoples, tiny in numbers, made a vast difference to all of knowledge, simply because their religion demanded that all of their people be educated, that all of their people be able to read and do mathematics. And talking of education and the religious, let us remember the slogan of the Little Society of Jesus: “give me a child before she is seven”. If a people draw on the brains of all their children, they can cause a revolution in science and learning, they can innovate for all of humankind, way beyond their numbers.
I put it to the Royal Society of South Africa, that in honour of that Great Scottish Soldier and Teacher, Govan MacBeki, the Royal Society of South Africa must now undertake an intellectual, secular “crusade”. We must create a new, secular religion. We must demand that every last South African must get an Islamic, a Jewish, a Calvinist, a Jesuitical, democratic education!
Our teachers must be upgraded. Our schools must be upgraded. Every matriculant must be enabled to take higher grade science and mathematics. Every South African must be able to read, to calculate, and to use the Internet. Every South African child’s mind must be stretched, opened, expanded and enlightened, by a demanding, challenging education.
This country cannot have a Renaissance, cannot innovate properly, cannot do modern science as we ought, and cannot blossom, until we fix our education system. Where is John Knox now that we need him? Scottish Dominees, and Scottish Professors designed our schools and our universities. Our very degree structures are exact mirrors of the Scottish degrees, in 1890. But we have lost the soul of Scottish education, and as Scottish soldiers we must now fight to regain it.
With proper education we will survive the Great Plague of Aids better; with proper education we may even have an African Renaissance. I offer you nothing but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”, in the struggle to fix South African education, for we have a very long way to go, and the enemy is everywhere. But in honour of the memory of the Great Soldier and Teacher, Govan MacBeki, I ask the Royal Society of South Africa to fight, totally to transform South African education, so that all South Africans learn, teach, and discover enough, to be able to use our greatest birthright: our brains! Our land is finite. With democratic education, the scope for our knowledge is somewhat closer to infinity.

Thank you.

Renfrew Christie

These views and opinions are not necessarily those of my employer, UWC, nor necessarily those of the Royal Society of South Africa, to whom I express my gratitude for the opportunity to deliver the address.

Footnotes and select bibliography
1.A Calder, Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English -Speaking Empires from the Fifteenth Century to the 1780s, (Cape, London, 1981), page 378, and passim
2.Ludovic Kennedy, In Bed with an Elephant: A Concise History of Scotland from the Picts to the SNP, (London, Bantam, 1995)
4.Brian Simon, The Two Nations and the Educational Structure, 1780 – 1870, (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1974), page 31
5.Arnold Kemp, “From the school of hard Knox to the masters of the world”, book review of Arthur Herman, Scottish Enlightenment, (London, Fourth Estate, 2002), The Observer, Sunday 20 January 2002
8.Irvine Welsh, “Review” of Arthur Herman, Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World, (London, Fourth Estate, 2002), The Guardian, Saturday 19 January 2002
9.Agnes Muir MacKenzie, The Kingdom of Scotland, A Short History, (Edinburgh, Chambers, 1940, 1948), page 169
10.Ibid, page 193
11.Irvine Welsh, “Review”
12.Victor Shepherd, John Knox, http://www.victorshepherd.on.ca/Heritage/johnknox.htm
13.Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History, 1377, Translated, F Rosenthal, edited and abridged, N J Dawood, (London, Routledge, 1967), page 371 forward.