Theses Doctoral

A Ticket to Life: Schooling and the Politics of Aspiration in Cape Town

Herbert, Amelia Simone

Schooling is a social project of making futures. Youth and families navigate aspirations framed by perceptions of what is possible within starkly unequal conditions of possibility. In Cape Town, persistent colonial and apartheid geography that continues to normalize racialized inequality is made visible and reproduced in large part through schooling patterns and outcomes. The convergence of post-apartheid reforms and global neoliberal trends have accelerated processes of education marketization, including a growing sector of “affordable” private schools that claim to level uneven terrain and interrupt poverty by shaping upwardly mobile youth from township communities. Critics argue they fuel an educational crisis, causing further differentiation in an already inequitable system. Proponents point to failing state schools and assert families’ right to quality education. My research foregrounds perspectives and experiences of those confronted with this double bind between “choice” and “crisis.”

Based on 21 months of ethnographic research including participant observation, 35 semi-structured interviews, six unfocused groups, and a 110-respondent educational autobiography survey, A Ticket to Life explores how students, alumni, families, and staff of a low-fee independent high school in Cape Town’s oldest township, navigate the racial and spatial politics of aspiration in an anti-Black city as well as how the school is embedded in the broader racialized politics of transnational education reform. Engaging anthropology, Black studies, and comparative education, I argue that the spatial and affective valences of aspiration are both violent and life-saving in the context of uneven geography, that deep investments in liberal individualist notions of aspiration compromise commitments to liberatory pedagogies, and that, in the context of global racial capitalism, aspiration is deployed as a portable logic to support the transnational spread of market-based education reforms. Nevertheless, youth, families, and educators (in schools and beyond) harness education as both a site and a strategy of struggle, in the process forging a capacity to conspire toward the inextricable goals of racial and spatial justice.

Keywords: global antiBlackness, antiBlack racism


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Anthropology and Education
Thesis Advisors
Abu El-Haj, Thea Renda
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 27, 2022