Africa’s Postcolonial Education Conundrum

1960 is considered the year of independence for Africa. More than a dozen states gained sovereign status in that year alone. The winds of change had gained irreversible force. Henceforth, it was a matter of when, not if, for the total independence of the entire continent.

So 1960 is the definitive baseline for where the continent stood and from where it was to forge forward. It is there where we have to start any analysis of Africa’s contemporary education trends and trajectories.

Of the student-age population in 1960, a paltry 3 percent attended secondary school. No more than one-third had access to elementary education. Across the continent, on average, only one-sixth of the population was literate. Out of a population of more than 200 million Africans in 1960, less than 10,000 had completed secondary schooling.

Arguably, Congo-Zaire, a country that has taken on such presumptuous names as “The Congo Free State” or the “Democratic Republic of the Congo”, best illustrated the dire state of Africa’s educational deficiencies after almost a century of the “civilising” rule of colonialism. Africa’s third-largest state, geographically, The Congo had no more than 30 university graduates. None of these was a medical doctor.

In Francophone Africa, the majority of colonial states had no university or degree-awarding college. In Anglophone, colleges were at best constituent units of a metropole university, in effect lacking independent existence. In 1960, the total number of university graduates for the entire continent was only a couple of hundreds, most of them in a few Anglophone countries like Ghana and Nigeria.

As shocking as these figures are, the overarching and fundamental problem was not so much the minuscule numbers of Africans with access to education as the nature and mission of the training they received. At its core, the mission of colonial education was not to serve the learning needs of the colonised; it was to service the interests of the colonialists. It was to make the colonised a better subject, to appreciate the “civilising” mission of the colonial project, and facilitate the propagation of colonial rule.

From a practical standpoint, as a brutal and violent system of rule forcefully foisted on the colonised, colonial rule required a slavish subject, one who worked for the colonial administration as a clerical staff or supplied raw materials as a dedicated extension worker or a hardworking peasant.

Thus, colonial education as one of the tools for perpetuating colonial occupation was not oriented towards producing thoughtful professionals and independent-minded persons; rather it was to supply a small army of support staff and to educate a tiny coterie of elites who were agents of colonial rule. The education they received was not about liberating their intellectual faculties to ask questions, but to equip them with basic technical skills to take instructions from colonial masters and imbibe a deep-seated admiration for the white saviour.

Graduates of vocational schools and high schools, even those coming out of colleges and universities, were oriented more as loyal servants than questioning citizens, to take orders than think for themselves and advance the “civilising” mission than assert self-determination. The learner had to be passive. The teacher wore an intimidating aura and authoritarian tenor as not to be challenged. This was part of the broader design of colonial authority and its institutional fabric: to be bluntly despotic and patently unaccountable.

What is more, the curriculum had to sync with the “civilising” mission. It was F.W. Hegel, arguably the most important European thinker of the early modern period before Africa was formally conquered and colonised, reasoned that Africa had no history and therefore was not a historical part of the world.

Therefore, the colonial education curriculum had to reflect this “wisdom”, of an Africa without a history, whose wellbeing and progress were only possible by fiat of colonial conquest. Through the colonial curriculum, the projection of European military invincibility and racial superiority would be sustained by teaching the battle-exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte not Shaka Zulu or Emperor Menelik, the philosophies of Aristotle and not Ahmed Baba. At independence, and the decades following, the urgent task for Africa’s education was to not only aggressively increase access but to equally radically decolonise the curriculum. Just like the state they inherited, independent African governments took over education systems that were alien and in many ways incompatible with the needs and aspirations of the masses.

Was it possible to enhance literacy and promote increased access to learning within the very education system that had been set up as part of the mission of “civilising” the backward African? How was it possible to turn a system of education intended for the privileged few into a resource for the benefit of the many? This was as daunting as the challenge of turning the colonial state, created as an instrument of violence against the colonised, into an institution for the good of citizens.

For a crop of independence leaders like Kwame Nkrumah in the Gold Coast, Kenneth Kaunda in Northern Rhodesia, Milton Obote in Uganda, to mention but these few, expanding access to elementary and secondary education was to advance the cause of human resources development but also for purposes of nation-building using a network of public schools. In Uganda in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, it was common practice for a student from the southwest to attend secondary school in the northeast of the country. Yet, while access increased tremendously and a sense of collective nation-belonging grew through a network of countryside high-quality public schools, the crux of the curriculum remained colonial – students were more likely to be taught which European explorer “discovered” the source of the Nile than which local African communities inhabited the area and their economic activities.

This colonial thrust of the education curriculum has remained largely unchanged. In fact, it has deepened under the neoliberal secondary and tertiary education era since the 1980s. At the higher levels of academia, our methodological and epistemological debates are dictated and determined by Western scholars and schools of thought even in otherwise progressive and emancipatory areas as Marxism.

At both the lower and higher levels of education and training, there is a palpable persistence of the colonial legacy of passive learning and conceiving education as merely consuming ideas and attaining skills usable in the job market. In elementary school, the goal is not to nurture young learners to think carefully and creatively; it is to mechanically pump into their minds huge amounts of material even if making little sense. At the higher levels, at the university, training is not geared to liberating the mind and equipping the student with life-long skills; rather, it is to orient the student about what the market wants of him/her and to seek to acquire ostensibly market-relevant skills.

Predictably, this misguided thinking has not worked. For the most part, African University graduates do not necessarily display the competencies needed in the market, thus many are both unemployed and unemployable. The simplistic blame is often reserved for university training being irrelevant and “theoretical”. The problem, though, is bigger than that.

At a fundamental and philosophical level, the whole curriculum, right from elementary school, is scandalous and a travesty of learning. Part of the problem is that it is actually not theoretical! Why have matters remained this way and what is it that needs to be done? Questions to which we shall return…

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