Sage advice for learners – and teachers from one of the country’s eminent educators

Jonathan D. Jansen is a distinguished professor of education at Stellenbosch University and president of the Academy of Science of South Africa. PHOTO: SUPPLIED


GETTING through high school is a challenge in itself. Still, one of the country’s foremost education experts, Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, has several tips to help one navigate the schooling system.

Addressing Western Cape high school youth from Ocean View, Fish Hoek and Masiphumelele, organised by Southside Church, part of the Assemblies of God Group in South Africa, Jansen, who grew up on the Cape Flats, recently offered sage advice to learners.

The professor, currently President of the South African Academy of Science, told pupils that they must learn early on study habits (it will change their future) and urged them to hang out with kids who are more intelligent and motivated than them.

Jansen, who began his career as a Biology teacher in the Cape after receiving his science degree from the University of the Western Cape, warned youth about the dangers of social media.

“What you put on your social media platform can come back to haunt you,” he warned.

Furthermore, Jansen told pupils: “Failure is your friend – but only if you can learn from it.”

Mindful that not all teachers will encourage one to succeed, he advised the youth not to listen to their teacher “if his/her words put you down”. Taking it further, Jansen encouraged learners not to take mathematical literacy; that would be the end of most of their study options when they leave school.

In suggesting how to learn, Jansen urged learners to find a safe, secure and quiet place to study, even if that means doing it away from home. In a country looking for role models, he suggested that youth find a mentor who can advise them about life and learning beyond school.

Jansen’s mentor, who helped shape him as the first Black Dean of Education at the University of Pretoria, was respected psychologist Professor Chabani Manganyi, a writer and former Director- General in the Department of Education from 1994-1999.

“One day, he said: ‘You know JJ, your problem is you get angry before you think’. Since that day, I will turn even the most grievous, upsetting problem into an intellectual puzzle.”

One such example was his award-winning book, Knowledge in the blood, about how young white Afrikaans-speaking youth come to embrace a past they were never part of.

He wrote it while serving as UFS rector.

“The day I stop writing is the day I stop breathing. The day I stop thinking is the day I stop existing,” says this avid sports lover for whom writing for five to six hours a day is the best form of relaxation.

“Coming up with new problems to solve through thinking and writing doesn’t feel like working.”

“I hate Fridays, and I love Mondays. I have long given up working. I enjoy it and will do this to the day I die because I love the life of the mind. No surprise, one of the most essential tips from the professor, a prolific writer and author, is that youth should read at least one good book a quarter.

“It opens of language.” “Set an ambitious goal – and move heaven and earth to get there,” concluded Jansen, who obtained an MS degree from Cornell University and a PhD from Stanford. He holds honorary degrees from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Vermont, Cleveland State University and the University of Cape Town.

In 2013, he was awarded the Education Africa Lifetime Achiever Award in New York, the Spendlove Award from the University of California for his contributions to tolerance, democracy and human rights, and the largest book award from the British Academy for the Social Sciences and Humanities for his book, Knowledge in the Blood (Stanford University Press).

An A1-rated academic, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Free State, Jansen, certainly knows about success through work. And the endorsements of his work are legendary.

Among this former science teacher’s many accolades are honorary degrees from universities in Scotland, the USA and South Africa, the Education Africa Lifetime Award and Stanford University’s inaugural Alumni Excellence Award. He is an Elected Fellow of the International Academy of Education, and in 2021 received the Human Sciences Research Council and Universities South Africa’s Gold Medal.

Jansen prides himself more on the popular and academic books and articles he has produced, on the young academics he has mentored, on connecting with his Twitter and Facebook followers, and for the past decade, engaging readers through his weekly opinion piece in The Times and other South African newspapers.

A motivational speaker, who cuts through fluff, with frank posts on social media, reckons that he has visited more local schools than most politicians. In recent months he addressed actuarial graduates and a church group in Cape Town and spoke at the 200th-year celebrations of Muir College, the Eastern Cape and South Africa’s oldest boys’ school.

Another message to attendees of the International Chemistry Education Conference was quite clear: “Teach with attitude, teach for meaning, and teach for change.” Asked to describe himself, Jansen keeps it simple: “I am absolutely passionate about teaching and making the world I live in better for others. That’s it.”

To support, prod and challenge others to grow is fundamental to his DNA. As with his two children, he enjoys seeing younger academics grow and helping them realise their personal and intellectual worth. To this end, leading and teaching the first two cohorts of South Africa’s Future Professors Programme, based at SU, provides great joy. It’s built on a concept that Jansen launched as rector of UFS.

It strengthens and prepares senior lecturer-equivalent scholars to take up their positions in the professorate.

“All we do is take very smart people towards the upper reaches of the academic ladder. And I get the thrill, the joy, of seeing senior lecturers in 26 public universities become associate professors, professors. Do you know what a feeling, what a rush that brings to one’s life?” Jansen, who recently welcomed his second grandchild, said one way that parents can know that they’ve raised their children well is “if they become better than you”.


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