Reading the word, reading the world

The sudden death of my dear friend Noel Daniels, who was CEO of Cornerstone Institute, where I now work in the field of education, made me reflect on his life and work more closely than when he was alive.  

This is one of the painful ironies of life – death makes us acutely more aware of and reflective of how unfathomably complex life lived to the full can be. As Nadine Gordimer has put it, “When someone of marked individuality dies, and those who knew him give their impressions of him, a composite personality appears that did not exist simultaneously in life”. 

While much has been said about Noel’s accomplishments as a leader, educator in adult and higher education, agitator, and supporter of emerging artists, dedicated father, and extraordinary capacity for friendship (see my obituary, much less has been said or written about his role as a teacher and teacher-educator.  

We taught together in the Mathematics Department at Hewat College for a while in the late 1980s, and stories of his early years as a senior Mathematics teacher at Groenvlei High in Lansdowne, Cape Town, are legion. At Groenvlei, he became part of a group of committed and politically aware teachers – Godfrey Hendrickse, Patrick Hendrickse, Gail Prodehl, Helen Smith, Celeste Perez, Bryan Slingers, Rahmat Omar, and Glen van Harte – who were not only excellent at teaching their various disciplines but also engaged their students in sports and culture as part of their broader challenge to apartheid oppression. 

In these earlier years, key elements of Noel’s way of being a teacher and leader were shaped. Like many of us teaching in primary and high schools in townships in the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we believed we had to be damn good at teaching our subject – we had to be the best in the world – and not what the apartheid state wanted us to be – second rate teachers for second class citizenship. 

But that was not enough. We also had to teach our children about what was happening in the country and the world and how to read the country, which countered how the white master wanted us to see ourselves and the world.  

Noel, and many in the generation we teachers of this period embodied, were living the dictum of Paulo Freire: “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world”. 

In a vastly different (yet in some ways uncannily similar) national and rapidly changing global context of the twenty-first century, how can we be teachers who embody such a two-fold way of being a teacher – able to teach our charges about the world and about the word? How do we deal with the increasing presence of online learning and AI in our lives in ways that do not widen but, in fact, challenge the already vast and increasing chasm between rich and poor? How do we stay humane and compassionate teachers in a world increasingly dehumanizing and hostile to human relations in which mutual care and mutual aid prevail? 

At Cornerstone, we are alert to these pressing questions. In our Education Faculty, or Teachers’ College, as we call it, we try to create, just as Noel did as a teacher and teacher-educator. This ethos is mindful of our role as nurturing a new generation of knowledgeable, creative, and skilled teachers, teachers who, at the same time, are aware and critical of the worlds around us and who care about and help others get on in life. 

Shaun Viljoen 

Deputy Dean, Cornerstone Teachers College

Cornerstone Institute
Scroll to Top