Urgent need for an African philosophy of education

Urgent need for an African philosophy of education
Phillip Higgs

Phillip Higgs

Lovemore  Ranga Mataire Senior Writer
ON Tuesday January 9, President Mnangagwa raised pertinent questions regarding the quality of higher education in the country and its relevance to the immediate development needs of the country.

At a meeting called to interface with university vice chancellors, lecturers, academics, captains of industry, heads of higher and tertiary institutions, President Mnangagwa said institutions of higher learning should not be satisfied with just high literacy rates and the number of graduates passing through their gates. Said President Mnangagwa: “Education should be productive, it should be responsive and relevant to the society’s needs for present and future generations.”

Yusuf Waghid

Yusuf Waghid

At the core of President Mnangagwa’s address was the desire for institutions of higher learning to formulate, articulate and assimilate locally-based solutions for the betterment of society. The challenge, according to President Mnangagwa, is to infuse native knowledge of the villager and that of the intellectual from the university.

While the President’s focus could have been just on Zimbabwe, the quest for a relevant and productive educational matrix is a much broader dilemma of the post-colonial era. It is an issue that for years has entertained the minds of continental scholars since the end of colonialism. One such scholar is the late Professor Ali Mazrui.

I rate myself as being among Prof Mazrui’s cheerleaders. Although I did not agree with him on a number of things, there is no denying the fact that his gargantuan intellectual output, if taken seriously, may assist in dealing with the malaise affecting higher education on the continent. A typical prophet denied honour in his own country (Kenya), Prof Mazrui made as much noise as other African scholars for the need to reorient African universities to meet the dynamics of post-colonial Africa.

Prof Mazrui called for a more Africa-centred curriculum that recognise African models of knowledge that have the same rigour and depth, outside Western models of science. In his seminal work titled “The African Renaissance: A Triple Legacy of Skills, Values and Gender”, Prof Mazrui defined development as modernisation minus dependency and insisted that one strategy of overcoming dependency was through utilisation of indigenous techniques, personnel and approaches to purposeful change.

Indeed, upon attainment of independence, many African countries’ expectations were that universities would be the primary institutions to produce leaders who would propel their countries to prosperity. The idea of African universities churning out development merchants was echoed by Ghanaian scholar Professor Akilagpa Sawyer, who said higher institutions need to build capacity to “develop and manage their resources, alleviate the poverty of the majority of their people, and close the gap between them and the developed world.”

This view is shared by many academics who advance the view that the major malaise affecting African universities is failure to evolve from a Western pedagogical framework of acquiring knowledge to an African philosophy based education, not only responsive to people’s needs, but also in tune with their cultural, social, political and economic sensibilities.

Prominent South African academic, Phillip Higgs lucidly places the dilemma of African universities in the failure to disentangle from educational frameworks that continue to desecrate indigenous systems of acquiring and appropriating knowledge.

In a research paper titled “African philosophy and the transformation of educational discourse in South Africa,” published in the Journal of Education, No 30, 2003, Higgs asserts that: “The liberation of Africa and its people from centuries of racially discriminatory colonial rule and domination has far reaching implications for education thought and practice.

“(As such) the transformation of educational discourse in South (Africa) requires a philosophical framework that respects diversity, acknowledges lived experiences and challenges the hegemony of Western forms of universal knowledge.”

The South African academic further contends that African philosophy as a system of knowledge(s) can provide a useful philosophical framework for the construction of empowering knowledge that will enable communities in South (Africa) to participate in their own educational system. The ultimate role of this philosophical body, as alluded to by Higgs, is viewed as being able to generate a new foundation and social fabric with the capacity to harness ethos and intellectual production among African people as agents of their own humanity and collective progress.

In unpacking the dilemma confronting African universities, the analysis must be conscious of the fact that all over the world, universities are places where knowledge is internalised, questioned and considered.

What then is the crux that lies beneath the failure of African universities to respond to the social, political and economic challenges of the day? Particularly worrisome in Africa is the apparent dis-juncture between what universities purport to do and what happens in society. That is why the likes of Higgs and others like Yusuf Waghid — a distinguished Professor of Philosophy of Education at Stellenbosch University in South Africa — are convinced that the only way out of the current quagmire is the wholesale adoption of an African philosophy of education.

What is this African philosophy of education?
According to Higgs and Prof Waghid, an African philosophy of education is one based on the notion of Ubuntu, which is education guided by communitarian, reasonable and culture-dependent action.

Derived from the Nguni proverb “Umuntu ngumntu ngabantu” — meaning a person depends on others just as much as others depend on him or her or “I am because we are.” An African philosophy of education is not only concerned with the validity of a story, but with the procedure in which the story is narrated — the clarity and argumentation that will present reasons for one’s views.

While these may not always appeal to the understanding of those who listen, or listeners might contest the logic of the narrations, the existence and proliferation of these beliefs must be understood within the context of a particular life world. The African philosophy of education emphasises interpersonal engagement and contestation and distillation of ideas.

It is not an individualistic impassive pursuit of knowledge for its sake. It is symbolically represented by a circle in which each member is an equal contributor to the discourse. Far from being abstract, an African philosophy of education derives its relevance in dealing with everyday life challenges ranging from hunger, famine, poverty, violence and the exclusion of the other. In reality, the African philosophy of education empowers a learner with the relevant tools for dealing with life vagaries and not just being instruments for the job market.

Students are not just imbibers of knowledge, but are equipped with the ability to initiate new modes of existence through various inventions that assist in improving the quality of life. As illustrated by Prof Waghid, African philosophy of education’s goal is to bridge the pseudo-dichotomy between theory and practice.

Indeed, it is difficult to delink thinking from acting.
Any acceptable theory on education must out of necessity infuse positive education practices that take shape through autonomous thinking, engagement and freedom made visible through deliberation.

An African philosophy of education permits inquirers to look at how education practices; teaching learning, managing and governing universities on the continent can be made more pragmatic. It is regrettable that most African universities have remained stuck in colonially imposed frameworks that are proving irrelevant and mentally distort scholars’ perception of themselves and their relation to the environment.

Any university striving to become a credible knowledge producer ought to be responsive to the needs of a society within which it is located. Being responsive to the needs of the society does not entail producing “mechanical” engineers, doctors, scientists. It entails moulding scholars who are holistic and are imbued with a clear understanding and appreciation of who they are in relation to their immediate and external environment.

In “The False Promise of the Digital Revolution — How computers transform education, work, and international development in ways that are ecologically unsustainable” published in 2014, Prof Abdi writes about “Deconstructing the colonial and reconstructing the indigenous” saying: “. . . in the history of the extensively colonised Africa, the imposition of European philosophies and theories of knowledge, complemented by the denial that the ancient continent had any philosophy, philosophy of education, other coherent thought systems, has perhaps done as much damage as any other project of imperial enterprise.”

Prof Abdi maintains that one of the main plunderers of the post-colonial elite has been continuation of colonial philosophies and epistmologies as the main definers of education and development in the continent.

It is the same post-colonial elites who have become inverted mirrors of Western Eurocentric identity who unfortunately continue to shepherd the new generation of undergraduates who also hate everything about themselves. But maybe instead of blaming those managing African institutions particularly their failure to appreciate the essence of the African philosophy on education, one might need to also look at whether the post-colonial environment itself is building capacity for its universities to produce relevant graduates.

It is not in doubt that institutions of higher learning need to be centres of policy making and development. Universities need to sell their ideas to policy makers, but what is there to sell if the ideas are largely irrelevant to post-colonial challenges.

There is serious need for adjustments informed and sharpened by the African philosophy on education in how universities produce knowledge, so that they don’t become small islands in Africa where knowledge production is tangential to the needs of the continent. Those managing African universities need to emancipate themselves from rustic colonial hangovers and start situating the production of knowledge within Africa philosophy.

African philosophy of education is critical in that it contributes to the construction of empowering knowledge that will enable communities in Africa to participate in their own educational development.

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