The history of African education is one of constant struggle

África / 15 de marzo de 2017 / Por: MACHARIA MUNENE / Fuente:

There is no society on earth that does not have an education system. The difference is that some systems are more elaborate than others, depending on the complexity of the societies.

For a society to exist, or to be, the people in it must have decided to have an organised living arrangement and then to have developed an identity based on common values that distinguish them from other societies.

They hold that identity and values so dear that they are willing to defend and propagate them to people in other organised living settings. One way of defending those values is by way of an education system.

The primary purpose of education in a society is to reproduce itself, maintain its identity and to perpetuate its best through time. An education system that is a copycat that ends up reproducing identities of other societies is an enslaving system because it serves other people rather than itself.

Every African society, from the most ancient onwards, had an education system that strove to reproduce itself, perpetuate its “culture” or way of life, and safeguard its values and identity.

Each system taught children what should or should not be, the values, the taboos, and the differences with other societies. Often, the system was generational, with great-grandparents or grandparents at the apex as the custodians of societal heritage.

Generally, the grandparents become the teachers for their grandchildren and this is done for two good and interrelated reasons. First, as the custodians of the society heritage, they would have lived through imbibing and internalising the society values.

They would, therefore, know all that is best to be perpetuated, and what is negative to be downplayed. Their teaching method, therefore, would be experiential, example-setting, and role-modelling.

The second reason is that while their general body strength is less than what it used to be, their mental alertness, emphasised by collective society wisdom, is at a very high level and they can see or smell danger from afar.

A saying among the Agikuyu of Kenya, Muthuuri aikareire njung’wa oonaga haraya gukiira kihii ki muti-iguru, meaning that an elder sitting on a stool sees farther than a boy sitting on a tree branch, is reflective of this belief in the value of the elderly to a given society.

On its own, education is a useful tool for managing society but it can vary with who it is that is using it and for what purpose.

States tend to have at least two instruments of influence on their publics. These are the education system and the media, whose effect is to control thinking and possible challenges to existing order.


Of the two, the critical one is the education system, for it influences the behavior of the media operators. Through the education systems as public controlling instruments, governments indoctrinate the young to accept certain beliefs as gospel.

When such youth become adults in the media, they instinctively propagate the same beliefs as news and opinions or purported education.

Those who use the education system to guide thinking included assorted tyrants, conquerors, and imperialists. It happens almost everywhere as the conquerors try to establish “new world orders” in which they glorify themselves and suppress diverse views that might question that self-glorification.

They engage in creating new “realities” by deliberately forcing themselves as well as the conquered to “un-remember”, or have selective amnesia of the past.

Schools and assorted education systems then become tools for creating new realities that are then forced into the heads of children to internalise as they grow to maturity.

The establishment of colonial rule falls into this pattern, whereby the European colonialists in Africa went out of their way to create new realities by destroying as much of the African ways of life as possible.

This entailed forcing Africans to imbibe and internalise every European value while despising their own beliefs, thereby becoming good “natives” who accepted positions of inferiority as natural.

The new colonial educational system was a good tool for stressing the subordinate role of the Africans as types of technicians but not as thinkers, philosophers, and decision makers.

Colonialists in Africa learned a lot from their cultural extension in the United States that had figured out an educational way to force African-Americans to accept inferiority as natural.


In the same way that education can be a tool of oppression, it can also be an instrument of liberation. Often, the reaction of the conquered, once they accept the fact of being conquered, tends to be of two types.

First, are those who completely surrender their conscience as they internalise new realities of the mental, social, and political type, believing they have no alternative but to comply with everything that the conqueror demands, they elevate the conqueror to semi-divine status.

Second are those, after accepting the fact of being conquered, that engage in serious soul-searching to find out why they lost and strategise on how to regain freedom.

This soul search leads them to develop two responses. They devise ways of challenging the order by studying the conqueror’s logic, strengthens and weaknesses, contradictions and inconsistencies. One such way is to embrace the new education system and learn everything that it has to offer without being sucked into it or losing one’s identity.

Such are the people who become “freedom fighters” and liberators of their respective communities.

Using education as a tool of political liberation produced fruits in the name of independence such that many European colonies in Africa ceased being colonies in the early 1960s. They entered the post-colonial period with a lot of high expectation in the education field.

Symbolically, such mzungu schools as Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Highlands, Kenya High, St. Mary’s, and Limuru were opened up for the children of the new African elite, and even the names were Africanised.

People in colonised Africa exhibited the two types of responses. There were, and are, those who virtually surrendered everything to the coloniser, irrespective of which one, and received an education that conditioned them to accept that they were in every way inferior to the mzungu and abandoned thinking.


Another group of natives decided to accept the new education system as a tool of liberation by identifying mzungu weaknesses and questioning the new order. Kenyan “natives” had the two types of reaction but it was the second type that forced changes.

In the process of decolonisation, a few Africans set the pace, questioning of the Euro distortions of the African past. George James and Cheikh Anta Diop accused the Euros of intellectual thievery and disfigurement of history.

At independence, the few lecturers at universities embarked on Africanising all levels of education and thinking disciplines such as history, literature, theology and philosophy, and political discourses.

They wrote to decolonise academic disciplines in Africa, to prove the colonialists wrong, and to assert the African presence. In the 1960s and 1970s, therefore, there emerged new African intellectual stars that included Ali Mazrui, Bethwell Ogot, John Mbiti, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Walter Rodney, Jacob Ajayi, Godfrey Muriuki, Gideon Were, Simeon Ominde, and Okot p’Bitek.

They had a lot of logistical and financial support from national governments as well as extra-continental mind controllers who funded knowledge production. The countries developed excessive dependence on extra-continental financial and policy support.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, something went wrong in the African countries and their budding universities, with the mind controllers seemingly pulling the plug from African intellectual sockets at the universities, resulting in a nosedive in knowledge production.

This was with active encouragement from International Financial Institutions that imposed structural adjustment programs, and virtually cut funding for university ability to generate and disseminate knowledge.


Many universities deteriorated into glorified high schools where student spoon feeding became the norm, and some of the spoon feeders needed spoon feeding. Since whatever knowledge African students needed, African universities were seemingly advised, could be given or imported at low costs, there was little need for funding research.

This was high level international politics using “education” to stifle independent thinking which then explains the decline of universities in the latter decades of post-colonial history.

The history of education in Africa, therefore, is one of constant struggle that is still going on with regard to who should determine and interpret African interests. One group of Africans appears to be beholden to external forces and end up imbibing and reproducing Euro thinking.

Through educational systems, they tend to be properly seasoned to internalise Euro thinking and ways, and to defend vigorously the right of the Euros to interpret African interests and to impose policies.

They become busy fault finding, just as the Euros do, and often have problems seeing anything positive about fellow Africans. In the opposite camp are those who tend to be selective in what they accept from extra-continental forces, assert that they have a right to make their own interpretation of what is best for Africans, and want to promote knowledge production in African universities rather than simply import it.

They stress independence and question external mind control that stifles knowledge generation in Africa while masquerading as intellectual aid. This struggle at the intellectual level percolates downward to policy and then to implementation, and it is not new. It is a constant in the history of African education

Prof Macharia Munene teaches history and international relations at United States International University – Africa.

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