"What Was My Education For?"
That was the first time in my life I took note of the cocoa trees, and they are on the route I have walked countless times on my way to and from work. Every so often, I ask myself, “What was my education for?”
My maternal grandmother underwent two years of formal education and, as a result, was able to read and write in her own language for the rest of her life. Beyond that, she was knowledgeable of our tribe’s traditions and rituals, and she fully participated in them. My mother made it to college and, along the way, was still able to imbibe plenty of knowledge on how to take care of cows, and the herbs to administer for many illnesses. She also knew the history of the Ankole people for generations into the past. I have gone on to obtain a doctorate, I speak my mother tongue enough to be understood, but I cannot tell the difference between a potato and a groundnut plant. I was never any good at agricultural studies in school, but now, 20-odd years after I left, I have been informed that it has even been struck off the curriculum at my old high school. In Uganda, a country with an agriculture-based economy (more than two-thirds of the population rely on agriculture for their livelihood) (DfID, 2002), this state of affairs raises the questions: what is the purpose of the current education system and who is it aimed at?
Education for what purpose?
In the foreword to Paulo Freire’s (2000, p. 34) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaull says: There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes “the practice of freedom,” the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality, and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.
Many people may say that the purpose of education is to enable the younger generation to find their place in the world or to meet the labour
demands of the workforce. Few expect the education system to prepare their children to change that system. Rather, they children are only expected to survive within it. Inadvertently, then, our current education systems function as an instrument to facilitate conformity to the present system. At the same time, we lament the state of our economies, our environment, and our societies. How can these same systems bring us the transformation we hope for by 2030?
Despite our expectations for our children, many of us have a vague sense that our education systems do not serve their needs exactly. Rwomire (1998, cited in Woolman, 2001, p. 30) has described the graduates of some African universities as “docile, dependent, low on initiative and immoral.” Certainly, rural dwellers have known for a long time that “the educated African [becomes] a misfit… in his own village,” and is expected to leave his village when he graduates; “his parents [do not] expect him to continue living with them, tending the cattle or cultivating the land” (Mazrui, 1978, cited in Woolman, 2001 p. 29). Some, such as Okoro (2011), attribute this to the fact that many education systems are still modelled on the colonial system, at which time the purpose of education was mainly to feed the colonial administration machinery.
After national independence had been achieved by African countries, African scholars set out to contribute to an Africanisation of the education system. Some of their suggestions were quite radical, such as those of Unwuachi (1972, cited in Woolman, 2001, p. 32) who favoured a complete departure from the colonial systems since “black cultural objectives can never be obtained using… white European standardised educational processes.” Others, like Mazrui (1978, cited in Woolman, 2001), thought that sacrificing the benefits of the scientific and technological revolution by completely returning to traditional values would be unwise. Some individuals held that traditional education offered useful learning methods, such as learning through discovery and observation of nature, but that it also had its shortcomings, such as harmful superstitions and the subordinate place of women in society (Woolman, 2001). The idea that the panacea for Africa’s educational woes involves a rediscovery of our cultural roots is still echoed today. At the Second Conference of Ministers of Education of the African Union (COMEDAF II) in 2005, delegates agreed that future education policies had to be “infused with an awareness that a culturally sensitive view of education, and a thriving, dynamic cultural identity that is rooted in its own values and open to the world, are pre-conditions for societies to develop sustainably” (African Union, 2005, p. 5). It is not immediately clear why, after the years since independence, these aspirations have not yet become a reality.
Our inability to bring this about could partly be due to what Mazrui (1978, cited in Woolman, 2001, pp 30-31) calls “cultural bondage”, a psychological by-product of a Eurocentric education, and this, he says, has bred among the educated a kind of “African self-contempt”. Beyond the individual level, Le Grange (2015) contends that African countries may have achieved the independence signified by the colonial powers physically leaving, but this was followed by further generations of colonial influence after the first. These generations are characterised as follows: the second generation is a “colonialism of the mind through disciplines like education, science, economics and law”; the third generation,also known as neo-colonialism, is the continued dependence of colonised countries upon the world’s superpowers, including international banking institutions and multinational corporations; and the current, fourth generation is known as neoliberalism with a commitment to the regulation of public affairs by market forces, among other features (Le Grange, 2015, p. 4).
It would appear that our cultural bondage and the continued covert colonisation have made it difficult for us to conceive of and implement an education system that can free us from this bondage, and instead bring about the transformation of our societies. Freire (2000, p. 48) poses the central problem as follows: How can the oppressed, as divided inauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? ... As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible [emphasis not in original].
Freire (2000) contends that our primary vocation as humans is to become more fully human; when this is thwarted by injustice, exploitation or violence, humans are oppressed. From the start, the replacement of our traditional education systems with formal colonial education systems interfered with this vocation. Education policy in British Africa was aimed at “Training to meet the everyday needs of native life, to correct the present glaring deficiencies and to strengthen and develop the good points” (Jones, 1925, cited in Mukoboto, 1978, p. 2). Existing traditional education structures were believed to be “immoral and dangerous and to be avoided at all costs” (Dougall, 1930, cited in Mukoboto, 1978, p. 16). In the words of one of the policy advisors of the time, “Since the African child cannot learn habits of cleanliness and order and notions of morals and religion in his own home, he should learn them at school” (Dubois, 1929, cited in Mukoboto, 1978, p. 26). We are thus not left in doubt as to the intentions and objectives of the colonial education system. Furthermore, as late as 1969, Andrew Skeen (cited in Mungazi & Walker, 1997, p. 37), spokesman of the Rhodesia Front party that ruled Zimbabwe from 1962 to 1979, said:
We in the Rhodesia Front Government are determined to control the rate of African political advancement till time and education make it a safe possibility. Besides, we wish to retain the power to retard the advancement of the Africans through education to make sure that the government remains in responsible [white] hands [emphasis not in original].
By unquestioningly holding on to an education system that is rooted in the alienation of Africans from their social and cultural reality, we inadvertently perpetuate a system that exploits the masses in service of the selfish interests of the elite (Moumouni, 1968, cited in Woolman, 2001). Such an education cannot lead to transformation because it aims at “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them” (de Beauvoir, 1963, cited in Freire, 2000, p. 74). In turn, the elite, culturally colonised as they are, serve the interests of the superpowers Africa continues to depend on. Realities like the rural-urban divide, an artefact of the colonial system, echo the economic exploitation under colonialism; the continued marginalisation of African languages reinforces the superiority of foreign languages; and the paucity of content about African history and geography in the African education curricula deepen the alienation from our own culture and traditions. These practices keep us in cultural bondage.
Education for conformity
Education in colonial times had to proceed according to what Freire (2000 p. 76) refers to as the “banking system of education”. In this system, the teacher knows everything, and the student knows nothing (or what they knew was wrong or unimportant). To aid in their education efforts, the colonial powers trained teachers from among the locals, and these teachers carried what they had been told and filled their students’ heads with it. These teachers occupied a very high status in their communities and, combined with the African tradition of respecting one’s elders, this created an even greater veneration for the white man’s education in the minds of African students. This banking system of education remains widely evident in African education systems. The teacher’s role is still to manage “the way in
To aid in their education efforts, the colonial powers trained teachers from among the locals, and these teachers carried what they had been told and filled their students’ heads with it.
which the world ‘enters into’ the students” (Freire, 2000, p. 76). Unfortunately, this one-way exchange in the banking system of education results in the students perceiving themselves as objects upon which action is carried out, rather than as subjects capable of engagement, participation and contribution. In this way, the banking system of their communities and, combined with the African tradition of respecting one’s elders, this created an even greater veneration for the white man’s education in the minds of African students. This banking system of education remains widely evident in African education systems. The teacher’s role is still to manage “the way in which the world ‘enters into’ the students” (Freire, 2000, p. 76). Unfortunately, this one-way exchange in the banking system of education results in the students perceiving themselves as objects upon which action is carried out, rather than as subjects capable of engagement, and participation and contribution. In this way, the banking system of education produces people with a limited capacity to act upon their own world in order to change it. They are raised to think of the world as motionless, compartmentalised, and predetermined. In place of thinking, reflecting and engaging, the banking education system only asks that the student memorise their lessons and reproduce the information as-is in the examinations.
An education that liberates
An education that liberates, on the other hand, is aimed at developing the critical consciousness necessary for the educated person to intervene in the world and transform it. “Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information” (Freire, 2000, p. 79); and in acts of cognition on the part of both the teacher and the student. Freire, in that case, advocates for a problem-posing rather than a banking type of education. In this system, teachers and students are in a dialogue that advances both parties’ understanding of how their world functions, and this, in turn, gradually reveals the true nature of the world (Nshemereirwe, 2016). In this interaction, the distinction between teacher and student dissolves, as both inhabit each role interchangeably, each learning from themselves and from the other. The students are no longer passive, but active co-learners and investigators.
A problem-posing education approach allows the student to gradually discover their own place in, and relationship with the world. This enables them to perceive reality, not as static, but as being in a process of transformation. Reality is no longer revealed to them via a teacher filling them like vessels, but through direct experience (Freire, 2000). Education that continuously presents students with questions relating
A problem-posing education approach allows the student to gradually discover their own place in, and relationship with the world. This enables them to perceive reality, not as static, but as being in a process of transformation.
to them and their world encourages awareness of the way the world is, and they cannot help but feel challenged to respond in order to transform it. Liberation, as Freire (2000, p. 79) says, is active: “The action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.”
The practice of freedom
At the societal level, the first step towards the practice of freedom is to recognise that, through our education systems, we (especially the educated elite) have “internalised the image of the oppressor”, and have ourselves become oppressors of those who should be our fellows (Freire, 2000, p. 48). The oppressed thus should consider how they may be unwitting “‘hosts’ of the oppressor”, and how the “pedagogy of the oppressed” can be used to reveal the dehumanisation perpetrated by both the oppressed and the oppressor (ibid). The oppressed have adopted the oppressors’ teachings and values, and become reluctant to give them up. What will it take to have the courage to dispense with the aspirations to be like (the oppressor), and instead start the journey towards becoming wholly who we are? Freire (2000, pp 47-48) explains that:
Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility… The conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world. This is the tragic dilemma of the oppressed which their education must take into account.
Once the elite recognise themselves as the oppressors of their fellow human beings, and also as under oppression themselves, the journey towards transforming our society can begin.
The pedagogy of our combined liberation must, therefore, go further and enter into a dialogue with the oppressed. However, this requires deep humility on the part of the educated elite, because such a dialogue is impossible if one party does not recognise and respect the humanity of the other. According to Freire (2000), we have to develop a deep love and concern for our fellows who are oppressed, and have faith in individuals’ ability to become fully human, even when at first some show a lack of interest in engaging. Through this dialogue, both the “educated” and the “uneducated” can obtain a fuller picture of their reality and have a better chance of building an education system that more closely responds to that reality. This reflects what the African Ministers of Culture noted at a conference in 2005:
The WANANCHI (the ordinary people) have been the custodians of African culture in the true sense of the term. In many parts of Africa, a large majority of the ‘wananchi’ is still considered ‘uneducated’. This is due to one great paradox that has characterised education in the continent, where those who live the culture but who have not been to school, are considered ‘uneducated’, while those who have been through school but who do may not necessarily possess the culture of the people, are considered ‘educated’. In societies in which education has not lost touch with acculturation, to be educated is also to be cultured (Obanya, 2005, p. 5-6).
Towards Agenda 2030
Our quest to transform our education system so as to achieve the goals of Agenda 2030 will require the participation and the inclusion of all parts of society. While we need to employ the opportunities provided by modern science and technology, we also have a lot to learn from our traditional education systems. By entering into the dialogue that Freire (2000) speaks of, the education of our young and old can take on more relevance and acquire a better fit to our context.
If it was up to the African Ministers of Culture, we would locate “the Education that Africa lost” so that it can be “resuscitated for [the] genuine development of the mind and soul of the continent” (Obanya, 2005, p. 2). However, African traditional education is not a static point somewhere in the past. As Dei (2000, cited in Le Grange, 2016, pp 5-6) has put it, “indigenous knowledge does not reside in ‘pristine fashion’ outside the influences of other knowledges.” That said, a form of the African traditional education still exists in our societies, since it is through this that the “uneducated” are socialised. The essence and advantages of African traditional education are summarised by Mungazi and Walker (1997, p. 38) in this excerpt:
The relevance of education in African society made it possible for all students to have access to it… the purpose of African education was well defined, with functionalism as its major guiding principle – functionalism for self-sufficiency rather than functionalism for colonial labour… African society regarded education as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself… education was a lifelong endeavour, fully integrated into the major institutional structures and making it applicable and relevant to the needs of society from one generation to the next Similarly, Obanya (2005, p. 2) notes in the report on the Fifth Conference of African Ministers of Culture that, “With colonialisation, Education became equated with mere schooling. In traditional societies Education for All was taken for granted; in a colonial setting, Schooling for All became a problem.”
In re-imagining our education systems, we also need to re-imagine the concept of school; going to a building called “school” should no longer be the full definition of getting an education. African governments are stretched beyond their capacity; with the current youth bulge, we need to accept the fact that they are not able to meet the ever-growing need for quality education. Educational entrepreneurs around the world have already cottoned on to this fact. Charles Leadbeater (2010) has studied innovation in education around the world and observes that the most innovative systems extend education beyond the formal setting, and have also reinvented the learning environment.
Freire (2000) arrives at a similar conclusion but from a different direction: with the formal education being so firmly in the grip of the ppressors and their agents, education for liberation may have to proceed by way of projects outside the formal system. Opportunities exist for innovative education projects beyond state actors and within informal settings like communities and homes, where the majority of the un-schooled currently operate. This provides an opportunity to plug into the traditional education systems. Furthermore, in a highly connected and digitalised world, the opportunities for access, as well as re-imagining the learning environment are vast. Taking stock and advantage of these opportunities provides the possibility of availing education in radically new ways: this is the essence of truly transforming our education systems.
That was the first time in my life I took note of the cocoa trees, and they are on the route I have walked countless times on my way to and from work. Every so often, I ask myself, “What was my education for?”
Mine is a rural campus, and the other day I was walking through the village when I ran into two colleagues of mine. I observed that they were each eating what appeared to be one-half of a yellow oblong fruit, out
of which they scooped some cream-coloured fleshy seeds. The flesh they proceeded to suck off and then they put the seeds aside. I asked them what they were eating, and they told me they were eating cocoa. I thought, “What? Cocoa is bitter! And where did they get it from anyway?” They told me it grew in the village, and that only the seed was bitter, which is why they did not eat it. I asked them who brought it to the village. I thought the cocoa plant only grew in West Africa and must have been brought to Uganda recently. “No, no,” they told me – there are several trees in the village, and the locals even have a name for them. I asked them to show me the trees. That was the first time in my life I took note of the cocoa trees, and they are on the route I have walked countless times on my way to and from work. Every so often, I ask myself, “What was my education for?”
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About the author(s)
Dr Connie Nshemereirwe is a Ugandan civil engineer turned educator and is passionate about improving the quality of basic education across Africa. She spent 15 years as an academic at the Uganda Martyrs University, and currently runs her own firm developing digital resources
for early childhood literacy and numeracy development. She is also active in civil society through the Kigo Think Tank and is engaged in leadership training for academics. Twitter handle: @Nshemeshe