The paradox of elite education in SA is that it breeds an economic elite with very little social literacy, and who display contempt for the idea of social intelligence, says the writer. Picture: THINKSTOCK

I LOVE the discipline of history and I know exactly why. It is because on long trips to my maternal clan home in Mpumalanga, my father would recount the histories of Southern Africa before full colonial conquest.

Every geographic feature we passed on the landscape triggered a story, one after the other. Each story had a back story, an explanatory side note that filled in the bigger picture.

To grapple with this history, my father would have to go through genealogies of numerous clans, their oral poetry, and all kinds of idioms to illuminate the social and political dynamics that were shaping the landscape of these Africans.

And it was on one such trip that I discovered that one of my clan ancestors, Zihlandlo kaGcwabe, was one of Shaka kaSenzangakhona’s best friends.

Well, "best friend" was the way I interpreted it as a child.

I could hardly believe it, that we had a history that directly linked our family to the powerful figure of Shaka.

It turns out that Zihlandlo was assassinated along with Shaka in 1828 in the palace coup orchestrated by Dingane.

Now, I remember the feeling I felt when I was told that story. I think that it’s the feeling we call "pride".

But I was not just proud of finding some link to the great Shaka.

There was an underlying feeling I had that I knew something deeper than what I was getting at the high school I was attending in the late 1990s — an elite girls’ private school with a Victorian heritage in KwaZulu-Natal.

It was not long after my father had told me this story that I did an oral presentation in class about amaKhize and how we had a lineage of "great chiefs" in our family.

I did a bad job, but I remember thinking that even if I did not know where to find this in the books, I would tell this story anyway.

What I enjoyed was not just the story of Zihlandlo, but also that it allowed me to deconstruct the silences in the school curriculum, and to see the shortcomings of what appeared to be an elite education.

Therein lay a kind of paradox, because the school was ostensibly offering the best available education under the sun, but it also seemed that it was teaching me nothing at all of what was going on around me.

It was not that the education was bad — it was stellar in other respects — but it was intellectually thin and devoid of social intelligence.

While post-94 civil warlord violence was raging in the Midlands and the majority of its people including my family, were living in fear of being butchered at night, once I entered the school grounds I had to act as though none of that mattered, that none of it existed. Of course, there were two or three courageous teachers who "got it", and went against the grain. But for the most part I kept wondering: what kind of schooling is this, and what is its purpose?

Moreover, I began wondering: what on earth is going to happen to all my schoolmates, most of them white and oblivious, once we grow up?

Can they really contribute meaningfully to the reconstruction of this country if their education leads them away from local history?

The paradox of elite education in SA is that it breeds an economic elite with very little social literacy, and who display contempt for the idea of social intelligence.

As I start the new year at Rhodes University, I know this: I will not teach insularity.

This makes things tricky when many of my students come from elite schools and expect the same sheltered learning even in lectures.

But we grit our teeth and burst their bubbles, because even if they are an elite, one always hopes that when they get to the corporate boardroom one day, they will display some well-rounded social sensibility.

• Mkhize lectures in history at Rhodes University