Liberal arts education - Africa's antidote against exploitation

Monday May 22 2017

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Last week, I travelled to the United States to attend my son Donald’s graduation. 

Hiram College, a small liberal arts college in Hiram, Ohio, opened its doors in 1850 and this was its 167th commencement ceremony.

The keynote speaker was Kenneth Moore, a lawyer and partner of the law firm Squire Patton Boggs and chair of the Hiram College Board of Trustees. He is also an alumnus of the college, from the class of 1969.  

In his speech, he emphasised the importance of liberal arts education for young people before they embark on professional careers. 

He delved into the liberal arts subjects he studied: national history, chemistry, languages, philosophy, mathematics, economics, literature, art and history, among others

These were courses of general knowledge that are not specialised or applied but useful in developing the character of a well-rounded person.

He was quick to explain that a liberal arts education was never intended to train anybody for a specific job. It prepared him for the world of work by equipping him with writing skills that he still finds useful in his work as a judge.

CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS

It equipped him with the ability to think critically for himself and communicate effectively, and gave him a liking and a capacity for lifelong learning, all of which are invaluable skills for employability. This foundational programme made him who he is today.

His speech summed up the American educational system, where every student has to go through several liberal arts courses before embarking on some specialised or professional degree course. 

It is no wonder that so much research output comes out of the United States. Virtually all top innovations, ranging from Facebook to Twitter to Google, emanate from America.

As he spoke, I kept reflecting on the current education system in Kenya. Our system takes an 18-year-old and thrusts him or her into law school, finance, journalism and medicine before they develop oral and written communication and critical thinking skills.

These we assume dunia intamfunza (the world will teach him), which is a very poor assumption indeed.

DECOLONISE SOCIAL SCIENCES

As though it were planned to happen, a good friend from the University of Copenhagen, Prof Niels Arnfred, sent me a link toAfrican Leadership University (ALU) with a note: “You will like this.” Indeed I liked it. It was about a new university that has started in Mauritius to decolonise social sciences. They say their work is decoloniality. 

The university started against the backdrop “of a movement by South African students to decolonise their universities; Black Lives Matter protests in the United States; and in the context of a much deeper history of national re-imagination across Africa and the world.”

This I say is overdue since Ngugi Wa Thion’go wrote Decolonising the Mind, but unlike Ngugi, they have put structure to their new programme, by coming up with seven commitments:

leverage open-source to build a library without flouting copyright and piracy laws; go beyond English by encouraging other languages for instruction; encourage exchange students on an even basis; go beyond textbooks and exploit rich African oral culture; encourage collaborations; develop producers and discourage students from only becoming consumers; and, encourage ethics by emphasising “the principle of ‘do no harm’, and also to be an impetus for good.”

'CHINESE MOTIVES'

More than a half a century after independence, Africa may be on her way to dealing with the effects of colonialism. What post-independence leaders didn’t know is better described by a University of Tennessee scholar, Joshua Settles, and his mentor Ferlin McGaskey, in their publication, The Impact of Colonialism on African Economic Development

The imposition of colonialism on Africa altered its history forever. African modes of thought, patterns of cultural development, and ways of life were forever impacted by the change in political structure brought about by colonialism….Prior to the "Scramble for Africa," or the official partition of Africa by the major European nations, African economies were advancing in every area, particularly in the area of trade. The aim of colonialism is to exploit the physical, human, and economic resources of an area to benefit the colonising nation.

Post-colonial leaders, rather than change the systems in accordance to what the people respected, saw themselves as replacements of the colonial powers, and emerging African states therefore adopted educational systems of their coloniser.

The history that we teach centres on what the colonisers did while they ravaged Africa. The case law is foreign, as is the official court attire. Systems of government remain as confused as the colonisers wanted them to be.

Africa frets and prays that things don’t change over the emerging nationalist movement across the western world, yet history tells us that prior to the Scramble for Africa, we traded with Arabs, Chinese and Europeans as evidenced by the Silk Road that existed around 120 BCE – 1450s CE, that the Chinese are now seeking to revive. 

Of course Africans must also be conversant with the Chinese motives of reviving this ancient trade route. Chances are that they are taking advantage of the changing Western world to start a robust trading bloc in which they are dominant players.

CROSS CONTINENTAL INFRASTRUCTURE

An old proverb says, “Once bitten, twice shy”, but it seems that unpleasant past experiences with Europeans have not induced caution on the part of Africans as other nations gear up with goodies to, once more, exploit the continent’s resources. 

Many may ask what we need to do. We must take initiatives like the ALU seriously, introduce liberal arts education to all universities, revise the curriculum from primary to university level.

We must encourage new development narratives, create an African Centre for Strategic Development that is funded locally and use it to develop capacity in governments across Africa.

We must aggressively develop cross-continental infrastructure to encourage intra-Africa trade.

This will take some sort of revolution to implement, since some individuals benefiting from the status quo will vehemently fight to retain it. In most cases, inheritors of the colonial systems have proven to be worse exploiters than the former masters. 

In Congo, the legacy of King Leopold II continues, with leaders committing atrocities on their citizens several years since gaining independence from Belgium. This resource-rich part of the world has never seen peace. The more the resources an African country has, the more the conflict and plunder of its national resources. 

ONLY A FEW UNDERSTAND

This is the result of vested interests that serve a minority and their surrogates from the colonial powers. The colonists leveraged information asymmetry, where the majority of citizens had no idea of what was theirs, or their history. The current African leadership has never dealt with the effects of information asymmetry. 

The only way to deal with it is to ensure that every student has some general knowledge of a cross section of subjects. That is what a liberal arts education can provide, to avoid a situation where only a few understand what is going on.

Steve Jobs once said, “It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing."

Let’s embrace liberal arts to understand our past and think critically about our future.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito