The African American Institute came to town recently. As part of the package of their annual conference, I was requested to give a keynote on the future of education in Africa. I was not quite sure of the effect of what I said to those in the audience, but I found myself both frightened and excited by what came out of me regarding the subject of education. Why does education matter so much?
History teaches us that much of what we know as human progress is the product of education. History also teaches us that culture shapes human progress, and that education, in its essence, is about the transmission of culture that prepares the next generation for how to survive in its environment. But it also inspires a disposition to adapt to a changing reality. Then, there is the fact that education facilitates the institution building efforts that erect the boundaries, which reduce uncertainty and make growth feasible.
Education has always been with us. As acculturation, it enabled generations construct and transmit the means of survival. For peasants who were literally so deep in water that even a ripple could drown them, as Tawney’s metaphor suggests, it allowed for a moral economy in which no one was left behind.
But education, as the learning of ways from other cultures, usually to raise man’s material condition, has created more challenges. It came majorly through colonial education.
The promise of colonial education was to improve the lot of once-peasant peoples and help them raise their living conditions. But, as Peter Drucker pointed out, the quality of life of the average African in 1900 was only marginally different from the average person in Europe in 1900, but as the twentieth century came to an end, the difference in their quality of life was as night and day. So what happened in the course of the twentieth century?
Part of the explanation may be found in the thesis of a Brazilian educator from 40 years ago: Paulo Friere, in his seminal work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He was a Marxist and great admirer of Franz Fanon. I too admired Fanon, but Catholic education saved me from being a Marxist long before I learnt that, if at 18, you were not a Marxist, something was wrong with your heart, but if at 40 you were still a Marxist, something was wrong with your head. So, I took the essentials of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, stripped it of its ideological overhang, drawing from the inherent entrepreneurial foundation of human nature, captured in Judeo-Christian tradition in Genesis 2:15, where man is made co-creator with God, moving creation forward, I offered the ‘Pedagogy of the Determined’ as escape from the pedagogy in which oppressed peoples from colonial situations received only enough to keep the status quo of oppression. That pedagogy also allowed limited controlled ascent of the colonized and post-colonial Africa. The pedagogy of the Determined entailed and compelled of every learner a vision of leapfrogging the productivity surge Peter Drucker identified in his comment about how Europe and Africa grew apart.
For modern America, education brought it a prosperity surge through the institution of Land Grant Universities that supported the Agricultural Extension Services and made America’s agricultural revolution possible, with some help from such remarkable institution building efforts as the Peruvian Economist, Hernando De Soto, identifies in his Mystery of Capital and both Nial Fergusson, the British Historian at Harvard, and Alan Beattie, the Financial Times Economist, show clearly in their books, Civilization and False Economy, which strives to explain how North America prospered and Latin America faltered.
To liberate Nigeria from its location on the misery index is to retool its educational system in which an elite lacking in vision allowed the conditions of the pedagogy of the oppressed. We can see the evidence in how we took character building out of the educational system. Where once schools like Government Secondary School, Owerri, prided themselves with the motto: When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost something is lost but when character is lost, all is lost; to one that does not teach civics. How will they know values shape human progress? When history is not taught, how will they be inspired by heroes past to dream the impossible and make it happen?
The future of education is in taking the factor endowments of regions of the country and deciding to become globally competitive on their value chains with educational systems aimed at vocational training, engineering, and scientific experimental skills that support dominant play on those value chains.
The future of education must be to enculturate the next generation to be creative, entrepreneurial and rigorous, with integrity as cornerstone. If lessons from Finland and elsewhere are to serve us well, we have to learn that innovation does not grow on a tree. It is grafted unto real life from clearly thought-through strategy. Indeed Eva Krutmeijers’ volume, Innovation the Swedish Way, is a worthwhile gift to all who must consider the future of education.
Education matters but enculturation has created social dysfunctions like many getting left behind in the trend of the Gini index of income distribution. Yet, learning from other cultures can accelerate the great escape. Japan’s ascendency as the Tokugawa Shogunates collapsed and the Meiji Restoration saw Diaspora returning from Europe stirred new ways. India rising and China rising have equally profited from Diaspora influence, whether it be the Jagdish Bagwatis writing in Defense of Globalization or the Ed Lim’s leaving the World Bank to go and assist China, an active Diaspora role in stimulating new learning is important for the goals of a Nigerian pedagogy of the determined.
In considering all this, we must strive to overcome errors of yesterday. Among the most grievous include the obsession with tertiary education and neglect of primary education. If what gets to the university is garbage, what will exit cannot improve much. GIGO – Garbage in, garbage out!
My pet theory here is that attention went disproportionately to tertiary education because under the military, the real opposition were the intellectuals, the military focused on the university with one unsavory outcome that the academics began to pack and leave, leaving us with a phenomenon documented in an OPED piece I wrote some years ago titled, “The generation that left town”. Brain drain needs now to become brain gain.
We have to understand the way we are to make sense of where we are going, as Mark Morgan and collaborators, Levitt and Malek point out in Executing Your Strategy.
The truth about the way we are is that, years of taking the eye off the ball because of easy revenues from an enclave sector called Oil, has made us lose what the Oxford educator, Eric Ashby, found in chairing the Ashby Commission on Higher Education in Nigeria that made him remark that it was as good as the best in the world, with it being easier to get into Harvard than the University of Ibadan in 1962. To move forward, we have, like Thomas L Friedman counseled in his examination of the influences shaping business, and our times in general, in The World is Flat, to learn in order to survive. Learning has to have a global dimension and a push for action in response to the changes happening at the speed or thought as Bill Gates alerts.