Education, science and mental difference in South Africa

15 Jul 2020

This article historicises and problematises policy developments that dealt with difference between learners and across different layers of the learner population in South Africa from the 1920s. In so doing it shows how notions of ?difference?, ?sub- normality?, ?feeble-mindedness?, ?mental defect? and ?behaviour deviates? became part of the education policy lexicon and highlights the implications for current policy thinking. The article provides a historical context for the current predomi- nant view that it is necessary and appropriate in the public education system to separate learners with learning difficulties from other learners, as well as the normative view that the difficulties such learners experience are ?naturally? linked to their own deficiencies and are not the result (or burden) of the public schooling system. The main assertion in the contribution is that developments from the 1920s provided the policy infrastructure for key principles of classification and differen- tiation of children in South Africa to become firmly embedded within policy think- ing, and to remain into the present. It did so by providing the emerging modern South African state with a ?scientific? mechanism to distinguish the ?normal? from the ?abnormal? and the ?normal? from the ?difficult? child within different communities and spaces. As such, race-making in South Africa and notions of inferiority and maladjustment did not take its main form as much within apartheid policy as within the scientific knowledge and language of the experts attached to different kinds of social institutions.