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Is our education system fit for purpose?

Native Intelligence

Is our education system fit for purpose?

To be effective, proper education systems must be rooted in the places they are derived from, not transposed from alien cultures. Can Africa’s woes be traced back to the persistence of an unsuitable and irrelevant system? By Kalundi Serumaga

Input, process, output. That is what we are told any system is. What is more, we are warned against the GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) effect, at least as far as computer systems work.

The large numbers of Africans – particularly younger ones – trying to leave the continent is evidence of a space that has not managed to make its citizens feel wanted and able to be productive.

Never mind that the five decades or so of increasingly intense Western propaganda have convinced many of us that life is automatically better ‘over there’, the bottom line is that Africa remains a place where normal dreams can easily be thwarted, or kept waiting, even for decades. The ‘Africa Rising’ narrative is real, but only for some, and for a while.

Education is a critical area where policy could help to make things better. Not surprisingly, there are running discussions on the competing policy proposals of our political leaders, education experts, employees of the sector, parents, and in their own often idiosyncratically violent way, students. The contours of these arguments revolve around which, among the existing models out there, is the best for our needs?

Accordingly, we get for example, Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, long an advocate of a highly science-based curriculum, being seemingly supported by a probe into the management of Makerere, Uganda’s oldest, and enduringly restive university, suggesting a curriculum overhaul aimed at just that.

In Kenya, there has been yet another rejigging of the annual education system, and there are proposals for a greater bias towards technical ‘job creator’ courses.

In much of Anglophone Africa, there has been a steady middle-class migration out of the missionary and state-provided schools and towards the ‘international’ model. In some cases, this means training students with the International Baccalaureate system (hence the origins of the name) so as to presumably make them globally mobile, as opposed to being tied down to a national exam syllabus. This was, and has been the argument of that category of humans who were originally largely milk-white, but now have an increasing coffee component in their complexions – whose careers took them from one country to another as ‘expats’ and diplomats.

 

Civilised standards?

The thing about what are being called ‘international schools’ in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa – certainly those countries with a history of white settler colonialism and the cultural dominance that comes with the presence of large numbers of empowered Europeans – is that it has created an entrenched template regarding what are considered civilised standards.

In this context, the idea acquires a certain cachet, and so there is now a growth in schools that, while still offering the national exam curriculum, now stylistically fashion themselves on the ‘international’ model.

However, the entire ‘international’ vs ‘national’ divide is actually a false debate. The older school system is also ‘international’, as it was founded by European religious institutions with a global reach, and remains husbanded by them.

Despite all the years I have been observing this continent, and Uganda in particular, it only recently occurred to me how odd it is that white expatriate families in Uganda will very rarely, if ever, enroll their children in these schools, despite them both coming from the same continent, and often having a number of European missionaries on the teaching staff.

And here is the problem: None of these intellectual exertions even begin to deal with the underlying, unresolved question of what an African education should look like. In design, culture, and execution, most education on the continent seems an uninterrupted delivery of the original colonial mission of erasure.

Many still practice degrading punishment regimes that simultaneously stigmatise native languages and physical labour, and privilege European spiritual, cultural, and thought systems. The academic cycle is at odds with the predominantly agricultural setting of the continent, unlike in the US and UK.

Yet, when Africans tried to create their own modern education system, independent of colonial roots but Christian nonetheless, trouble followed. The 1920s Bamalaki movement, co-founded by my great-grandfather, saw him and his comrades banished from their native Buganda for insisting that Christian teaching should not be the monopoly of the white missionaries.

A broad result of this movement was the founding of Aggrey Memorial College in the early 1930s, in honour of the great Ghanaian educator Dr. James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey, who had earlier visited the colony, by a group of Ugandan teachers, recently resigned from the elite Anglican Buddo School in protest at its institutional racism. Aggrey remained just about the only African-run, designed and owned school in the colony for many years, and produced a number of the better anti-colonial agitators.

When you bear in mind that virtually all formal governance in sub-Saharan Africa in its broadest sense – boards in the private and public sectors; the national and municipal civil service; the officer corps in the security branches; parliamentarians; the judicial system; education managers; and the very top leadership of the state – are all products of these systems, then you must begin to reflect on the link between that input, and the visible outputs we have. 

A classic example must be when, in 1999/2000 the government of Malawi swallowed advice provided by food consultants on an EU-funded project, and sold off 167,000 metric tonnes of maize in their stores. By 2002, the country was appealing for food aid to deal with the results of a 2001 crop failure. The irony is that this sell-off – comprising the country’s strategic grain reserve – had been undertaken so as to raise cash to pay off international debts!

The great African-American ancestor Malcolm X once warned that “only a fool would let his enemy teach his children”. How many ‘educated’ Malawian minds must have been party to this decision? Placing the blame for our predicament on our political leaders alone, is too narrow a focus.

All education ever was, is a system by which the older generation prepared the rising one with the tools necessary for them to eventually take control of the management of their society. It follows that such an education system cannot be one thing, as each society in reality faces specific challenges demanding specific solutions; nor therefore can it be transposed. The critical thing is for the society to have a capacity to think about what the best design should be. An anti-arts bias is therefore also an anti-thinking bias.

It is a matter of addition, subtraction or substitution. What needs to be simply removed, what added, and what replaced?

Until we sort that out, we should accept that there is a certain logic informing the way our youth are streaming northwards to risk drowning and other unspeakable horrors to get to Europe: instead of trying to be Europeans in Africa, they argue, why not try and become actual Europeans in Europe?  NA

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