Education For Life: Some reflections on the task of educators in Africa
Presented as a background to the All Africa Conference of Churches Conference on Christian Education in a Changing Africa held in Salisbury, December 1962-January 1963. Fr. Verghese is presently Associate General Secretary, World Council of Churches, and is of the Syrian Orthodox Church of India
The Headmaster of a Prep-school in the U.S.A. recently said: “the important thing is not training a boy’s brain, it’s having a decent guy when you are done” (Time Oct. 26). I beg your leave to consider the question what is the purpose of education in Africa today? The UNESCO Conference on Education (Addis Ababa, 1961) could not think in the same terms as a Prep. school headmaster. The problems were of a different dimension than that of turning out forty or fifty “decent guys” every year.
170 million people: 25 million of school-going age, of which 15 million have no opportunity of going to school, and of the other l2 million, less than half complete their primary education. Secondary schools are not available for even a million of these.
The question posed at Addis Ababa was, in spite of the magnitude of its scope, a simple one: The Development of educational facilities for meeting the needs of cultural, economic and social development in Africa. Where to find the finances, the buildings, the equipment, the personnel? Men who have the responsibility for carrying out things have to speak in such practical terms, not in the abstruse and idealistic terms of the preacher.
But there was a final note in the Addis Ababa report which is of great interest to us. Both in Section I and Section V of the “Inventory of Educational Needs for African Economic and Social Development” (Chapter I of the Addis Ababa Final Report), we find mentioned the aspect of relating education to African culture and to “African Personality”.
Being a preacher myself, I am tempted to look at the question first in some general and idealistic terms. One can look at this question in several ways. One way is this: The shape of Africa in the year 2000 A.D. is going to depend very much on the kind of education we have in our schools in our decade. What kind of Africa do we envisage in the light of our best knowledge and wisdom, and what sort of education would be most suited for the emergence of this kind of Africa?
The simple thesis which I submit to your consideration is this: “The African society of the year 2000 as the human society elsewhere should be a community of free people serving their fellowmen in love who continue to earn from life, and education today should be so developed as to aid in the emergence of this kind of society in the near future.” I have underlined the key words, community, free and learn from life, and we need to discuss briefly what we mean by these words.
I. Freedom in the community of loving service
Freedom is a word which has great emotional overtones, especially for us Asians and Africans. It is a very Christian word, with an unsuspected depth of meaning.
In Eastern theology, freedom is at the very heart of God’s Being. In fact God alone is absolutely free. Not merely in the sense that He is not in bondage to someone else and that He is free to do anything He chooses. God’s freedom, which is absolute, lies in the fact of His ruling power. He is not only free from necessity, He is of course the uncaused cause. But He is an effective cause. His will is law and is accomplished. There is no limitation on His power except what He imposes upon Himself in His love.
Man is created in the image of God. And the essential element in this image is his freedom. As Gregory of Nyssa put it: “The language of Scripture expresses it concisely by a comprehensive phrase, in saying that man was made ‘in the image of God” for this is the same as to say that He made human nature participant in all good, for if the Deity is the fullness of good and this (man) his image, then the image finds its resemblance to the Archetype in being filled with all good. Thus there is in us the principle of all excellence, all virtue and wisdom, and every higher thing that we conceive: but preeminent among all is the fact that we are free from necessity, and not in bondage to any natural power, but have decision in our own power as we please; for virtue is a voluntary thing, subject to no dominion: that which is the result of compulsion and force cannot be virtue” (On the Making of Man XVI: 10, ll, Ir in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series wo, Vol. V. p. 405 b.).
Human education, as seen from the Christian perspective, has to provide the facilities for man attaining to the fullness of the image that God has bestowed on him. And this fullness of human dignity is what I mean by the word freedom. The nature of.man is not such as can be studied exhaustively by the anthropologists or the sociologist, for it is a dynamic, not a static nature. To say that the nature of man is to be sinful is a travesty of the dignity of man given to him by God in His grace. The nature of man has no definable limits except that of creative dependence on the Creator. Its archetype is nothing less than the nature of God Himself, as manifested in Him who is man par excellence, Jesus Christ. This is why St. Gregory can speak so boldly of the “royal and exalted character” of the human soul: “Our nature was created to be royal from the first” (Ibid. P, 391a). Freedom, understood in a Christian sense, is nothing less that the whole of this human dignity, which St. Gregory calls the basilike axia or “royal dignity” (PGXLIV: l360). St. Gregory does not by any means deny the sinfulness of man, but he is unwilling to attribute that to his created nature. The words which he uses to describe human nature in his treatise “Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection” are significant: “eleutheria, adespotes, parresia, and autokrates.” (PG XLVI:lOIC) Freedom, non-servitude, assurance and sovereignty. To take these words in a purely “secular” sense is to pervert the meaning of St. Gregory. These are categories which can be understood only in the terms of “sonship” and therefore exercised only in the filial relationship to God.
Here is our problem for education. How can we develop a manhood in Africa which comes into the fullness of human dignity, without its being consciously related to the Father in a relationship of filial obedience in union with Jesus Christ? To say that the filial relationship to God in Jesus Christ will automatically lead to the fullness of human dignity is to over-simplify the issue. The preaching of the Gospel may have, in fact, in my opinion has actually, contributed substantially to the emergence of African man from the colonial yoke. But it is also a fact that in some areas of Africa at least the denial of human dignity still goes side by side with the conscious acknowledgment of the filial relationship. Am I not speaking in an area of Africa, where, if my information is correct, it is those who claim to be the sons of the Heavenly Father,.who in the name of that Father, deny the human dignity of other fellow beings.
It is not enough then to utter pious affirmations of faith in Jesus Christ to assure that the full freedom and dignity of man is preserved. There are some basic elements of that dignity and freedom which all men, Christian or non-Christian, have to struggle for; and I attempt only a hasty listing of a few of these basic elements.
An African educational system must create in every child the consciousness that he belongs to the human race and not to so-called white, black or coloured races. This means practically that any system of apartheid is contrary to the basic reality of the dignity of man; the Church cannot run segregated schools; it must struggle against any attempt on the part of governments anywhere in the world to impose such a system over any children, whether white, black, brown or blue-green.
But desegregation of schools is not enough. Basic attitudes have to be fostered and cultivated in children and adults which will eventually lead to the extermination of these pernicious prejudices which are transmitted not so much through verbal statements and formal teachings as by small, spontaneous acts and purely occasional remarks of adults. It is a total task of society; it will take at least two generations but we must begin now and the place to begin is in the Teacher Training institutions. From there it must spread to the whole of society via the teachers through the children who are in school today. If the Church runs any institution of its own, good teacher training schools should have a high priority on their list.
b) The teaching of history, civics and the social sciences in general should be so geared as to engender in all children a threefold loyalty which does not come in conflict amongst its three elements.
(1) to one’s own national unit as the primary structure of loyalty outside the family
(2) to the African continent and African peoples who have been united by a common experience of exploitation and enslavement by outsiders, and
(3) to the whole human race, since ultimately humanity is and has to be one.
c) The dignity of man is realised only when man labours with his hands, not that he may eat, but that he may have wherewithal to feed his neighbour, “doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need.” (St. Paul in Eph. 4:28). It is important to keep these two aspects together. It is possible in many cases to give each child a little plot of land or a bench in a workshop in school where he toils with his hands and then is rewarded by the fruit of his labours. This is a basic human satisfaction which should not be denied to the child; but if we make the profit motive the incentive to labour, we shall soon end up in the spiritual fiasco in which the bourgeois West finds itself in the midst of its affluence. Inseparably united with labour is the idea of serving those in need. And if labour is early associated with profit in the mind of the young child it will be difficult to root out the selfishness of the profit motive in later life. There is no reason for us to resign ourselves to original sin, and say that the profit motive is ineradicable from human nature. One is aware that even Russian communism is today slowly beginning to approve the profit motive. Both laissez faire capitalism and apartheid can appeal to original sin. This may be inevitable since that is about all they can appeal to. But Christians get the guidelines of their conduct not from a doctrine of original sin, but rather from the high calling of God in Jesus Christ “to grow into the mature manhood of Christ”.
In plain word, technology and socialism are inseparable in the educational system if the free dignity of man is to be preserved. It is not a doctrinaire or dogmatist socialism that I have in mind, but rather the fundamental socialism of the people of Israel; not the communism of consumption of the early Church, but a socialism of production, distribution and consumption from which the profit motive is eliminated and in which fundamental attitudes towards life as a force to be poured out in the service of others are fostered.
d) Many nations in Africa find their major problems to be not the scarcity of trained men, but rather the lack of men of character who can wield power without being corrupted. It is comparatively easy to train technicians, The State can do that job better and more adequately than the Church. We definitely have a contribution to make as Christians, to the efforts of the State, to train competent men and women who can function in a productive economy. But our specific contribution lies in the training of men who combine integrity with competence, I do not want to insist that this can be done only in institutions run by the Church; but if the Church runs its own institutions, one of their major contributions should be in securing this difficult combination. The dignity of man lies neither in technical competence nor in a sheltered innocence; but in the acquisition of genuine freedom which combines power, wisdom and love.
I have already stated that freedom, which is the basic constituent of the dignity of man created in the image of God, can be limited by nothing but the character of God, as revealed in Jesus Christ. This character consists of love, wisdom and power and the educational system must develop all three.
Freedom involves not merely political freedom. The colonial nations have no longer to use political authority over Africa to keep Africa enslaved, They can continue to keep her in bondage by the economic development of Africa being controlled in such a way that it continues to be directly dependent on their own economies. This enslavement can be maintained by private economic forces in the colonial countries as well as by direct political economic aid given under State auspices.
If, therefore, African man is to attain to the full dignity of freedom very hard work lies ahead. Neither the Addis Ababa plan for Education nor the Development Decade sponsored by the United Nations can assure this. The initiative has to be seized by Africans themselves in order that the economic and personnel aid so generously-offered by the powerful nations of the world do not enslave us.
The “Scramble for Africa” of the nineteenth century is being repeated in our decade by a double scramble: first on the part of Western Europe and America on one side and Eastern Europe and China on the other to pour large sums of money into Africa. Not all of this munificence is to be attributed to benevolence toward Africa.We have to be wise in understanding the implications of this aid, and learn to use it wisely in order to avoid enslavement. On the other hand, there is another “scramble” on our part. We have somehow received the impression that money can be obtained for the asking and not only nations but also Churches are vying with each other to put up ambitious “projects for which aid is to be requested from the outside. This is genuine weakness of character on our part in the developing nations, and we have to discipline ourselves a little more on this point.
The development of integrity is not thus a problem of the elite. There has to be national integrity, the development of honesty and self-respect among all people in every nation in Africa. This does not mean the running of educational institutions of the “public school” type in Africa. That can be good only for the aristocratic elite and leads to class distinctions that we want to avoid in Africa.
What is needed is something more difficult. We need smaller schools of humble and modest facilities, where children are taught right attitudes of labour and service as well as honesty and wisdom and self-discipline. But the important thing is certainly not a pretentious building, nor can we say that the curriculum is the most important element. The central essential is always people. And we should get the idea washed clean out of our head that only foreign people can do this kind of work. There are many competent and dedicated young Africans who have both ability and the vocation. What is needed is someone to organize such institutions and pioneer in their development.
Again the pioneering cannot be done by missionaries in the first instance. Nor can it be done by the established leadership of the African Church, which if you will forgive my impertinence and with due apologies to all exceptions, has been largely formed not in the image of God but after the image of the missionary and not always of the best missionaries. This work has to be done by younger African Christians who are in touch with present-day African realities. After the pioneering has been done by young African Christians, we can use the services of Christians from other countries, but carefully chosen by us and not by any mission board. This type of thing is not a professional job. It needs a vocation to self-sacrificing service on the part of men who run such institutions. We will not get the right men by offering them better salaries than the Government offers. We will get them only when our sense of dedication and self-sacrifice inspires them to follow the same path, and when our political and economic views become substantially more progressive than that of a vast majority of present-day professional Church leaders in Africa.
II. Learning from Life and the African Personality
I have elaborated elsewhere (in an address to the Paris meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches the text of which was among the preparatory papers for this conference the distinction, by no means Original with me, between the tragic and comic modes of learning. The detached, academic, scientific mode of learning which characterises present-day Western education has to be supplemented by the tragic mode of learning, where the student enters fully into the life of the world and learns from participating in the suffering of humanity. This does not mean that the student neglects his academic responsibilities for the sake of participating in political or relief activities. But the attitude has to be created in one’s early childhood whereby one is made aware of the total life of humanity in which one is involved.
No one wants to deny the value of an “objective study” of truth, in the laboratory, in the social sciences and so on. Science and technology have great dehumanizing potentialities in them, which are by no means an inescapable concomitant of scientific and technological education. But academic detachment often leads to detachment from the issues of life. Passion is poison, they used to say, to the scientific temperament. But without noble passions, man becomes a virtual mechanical robot who performs certain assigned tasks with high efficiency but is unable to see the meaning of the whole of life. We have too many Ph.D’s running around in the world whose understanding of the issues of life appears never to have grown beyond the adolescent stage. That applies to
Doctors in Philosophy and Theology as well.
However “uncivilized” (by the standards of technological civilization) Africa may have been in the past, one thing she had — fundamental wisdom. Before the advent of slavery, in the times of the Islamic conquests and of later European raids, and the corruption it engendered in the social order in African tribal life, there must have been a rich heritage of wisdom in African society which survives to this day in your many parables and proverbs as well as in current customs and patterns of common life. A blind imitation of the educational systems of the technologically civilized nations of the West will destroy even the last traces of this ancient wisdom of Africa.
A great deal of African cultural experience is also stored up in the patterns of tribal organization. Without romanticizing the past, or using the past as normative for the present, we must learn to utilize this ancient wisdom in the emerging patterns of Government, of economic and social organization in our African states.
All this is not a matter of scientific study and objective analysis alone. The native wisdom of Africa may take years before it finds satisfactory scientific articulation. But there are intuitive insights in the African mind which have to grope for expression, not first in books, but in concrete experiments of common life. Here is a pioneering job in education. We may learn from the experiences of countries in Europe, Asia or America. John Dewey’s Pragmatism and the Russian Makaranko’s philosophy of Education expressed in his exciting work “The Road to Life” 3 vols, may give us pointers, but the wise men of Africa will have to devise the basic patterns suitable for each country and experiment concretely with it. A variety of African socialism, or perhaps different varieties of it will have to emerge. A beginning has been made in Ghana, but both the theoretical articulation and the practical experimentation have to be carried much further before its actual suitability can be finally ascertained. Movements like the “young Pioneers” in spite of all the idolatry it engenders, are serious attempts to weld the nation together and to inculcate loyalties that go beyond the tribe, to help the child acquire social attitudes that transcend personal advancement. All systems and movements are open to the inroads of corruption, but the fight must be against corruption and not against the whole system.
Idolatry of the head of the nation is as detrimental to social health in Africa as in Germany, Italy, China or Russia. But the alternative is not necessarily a two-party system of democracy. How can we practice the western form of democracy by adult franchise and the rule of the majority, in a situation where the larger proportion of voters are likely to choose their representative not with reference to the personal qualities of the candidates but rather after the directions of the tribal Chief whom they are used to obey in all matters. Would not democracy then lead to the rule of a minority virtually chosen by the tribal Chiefs and serving their interests rather than the interests of the people? For a generation or two, until the majority of the citizens of a nation become sufficiently educated to exercise a critical judgement on the complex problems of modern economic and political systems, it may be necessary to be-satisfied with a system in which power is concentrated in the hands of a team though the maximum amount of Woks and balances have to be built into the system from the beginning. Here again education has a significant role to fill, in preparing young people for the interim and for the future. But we must not foreclose the question whether African socialism has to adapt itself to the tribal pattern where the Chief elected by the people and assisted by a council of elders exercises authority on behalf of the people or to a more anarchistic system on the lines of European social thought.
Much has been said and written in recent times about the need for the development of an African Personality, but not enough that clearly sketches its main lineaments. Certainly we are not speaking of individuals in Africa who impress their own countries or the outside world with the force of their personality. We have rather in mind a fundamental set of characteristic traits which not only distinguish Africans from non-Africans, but gives Africa itself a guide line along which to develop future society.
Such a personality, in order to be authentically African, has first to be rooted in the history and traditions of the African people. And therein is a huge task for the African educator. Due to the fact that not more than half-a-dozen of the seven hundred and odd African languages has been reduced to script until about two hundred years ago, much of African history has gone undocumented. Archaeology, anthropology and analysis of oral traditions are the only tools with which to recapture that past. But even the interpretation of the materials unearthed by these disciplines can be properly undertaken only by the African people. The categories of Western anthropologists have either romanticized or misunderstood the material in many cases, and one of the great tasks of African universities lies not merely in unearthing new material but also in re-interpreting the material handled by Western anthropologists. This study of the past, undertaken by competent Africans, is a first step towards the development of an African consciousness.
But a study of the past is only a preliminary step. The problems of the present have to be tackled with courage and discipline. Literacy and health, economic development, the development of a cadre of leaders for all social, political and economic institutions the fostering of a common consciousness in Africa, the minimum of three languages (English, French and the local vernacular) in all African schools and a creative relationship to the non-African world are all immense and stupendous tasks in each of which Education has a key role to play.
The determinative ingredient of the African personality, however, would be of a different order. In brief, the essential and decisive factor in the development of an African personality, would be its understanding of the meaning of life. Albert Schweitzer, that great African jungle doctor who so miraculously managed to remain out of touch with the African reality, has classified the fundamental outlooks of people as either life-and-world affirming or life-and-world denying. With all due respect to the great-heartedness and intellectual prowess of that triple doctor, one may say that very few of the peoples of the world can be neatly classified into one of these classes. It is true that most of the nations of Western European origin and the Chinese are fundamentally life and world affirming, but nearly all other peoples and their religions manage to combine the affirmation and the denial. The issue for the African outlook on life is not between these two. Nor is it simply a matter of the secular state versus the religious state.
It is a more fundamental question raised by the paradox of the Christian faith that this world is transient and yet is not without eternal meaning. Modern civilisations tend to work on the basis that this world open to our five senses is the only world that exists. The Christian faith certainly cannot accept this. Its fundamental orientation is towards an eternal Kingdom. What then is the ultimate nature of the world? Is it only a preparing ground for the next world? If so, then let us leave all this nation-building and technology and politics to itself, and simply seek to save souls.
A good starting point for the Christian understanding of this world in the plan of God is the world-view of Pere Teilhard de Chardin, especially his Le Phenomene Humain (1955) and L’avenir de L’homme. It will be foolish to attempt a one-paragraph summary of his grand and exhilarating vision of the total meaning of life. But we need to take seriously his understanding of the appearance of man on earth as the culmination of a continuing process of creative evolution. As we human beings of today stand at the apex of that process which has resulted in our being and reflect on it, we see the tremendous responsibility placed on man by the process itself. Geo-genesis is followed by a biogenesis. The earth is formed out of chaos, and then on the surface of the earth appears the tree of life. Man appears on the top branch of the tree, and biological evolution which began at a certain period in the history of the universe, gives place to a new kind of evolution, what Teilhard calls the Noosphere — the world of thought.
It is not the body that evolves in this new stage of evolution, but the mind of man. And therein lies the staggering responsibility of man. Biological evolution proceeded by the inter-play of “chance” and “anti-chance” factors. But in the noospheric evolution human choice plays a very important part. We humans are not simply the playthings of historical forces; but in a limited but significant sense, the makers of history, the architects of the new creation. Matter, Life, Thought, the three rungs of the ladder, but on the top rung the one who evolves consciously directs the evolution.
The forces of evolution are being replaced in the economy of God by the Education of Man — staggering thought indeed! To “think the world” in order to act upon it, to rule over it, to transmute it, and thereby transmute the very being of man, this is the high calling of God in our time. Not only staggering; it makes us dizzy, perhaps it makes us drunk with a sense of our own importance. No longer is it necessary for man to fight each other and conquer and dominate each other. We can join together to fight against the forces of evil and work together to release the hidden powers of nature and bend them to our will, and finally, ah,what an intoxicating thought! we will create here on earth all that the world and life denying traditions have hoped for in heaven
.That sort of talk would have been fine at the beginning of our century, but the two world wars have made us wiser. We know that things are not that simple. Painfully we are reminded that the cross stands at the centre of history; that life comes through death; that the world passeth away and the lust thereof, but the word of the Lord abideth forever.
If that be the case, then why bother about education at all? Simply because God created us anew in Jesus Christ for one purpose — to show forth the glory of God in concrete historical situations. “For we are His artistic creation, made in Christ Jesus for good works, the setting for the practice of which God has prepared beforehand” (Eph. 2:10). It is by showing forth the goodness of God in each new situation that the Church fulfills its vocation– not merely by preaching the Gospel and making disciples of all. The goodness of God must be manifested, not merely proclaimed. The world may still reject it. Christian obedience promises neither popularity with the world nor success on earth. But We have no other option but to lay down our lives for the life of the world. And laying down our lives is not a simple matter of martyrdom for the cause of Christ. It is the utilization of every ounce of our thought and energy to one purpose, namely to bring mankind to the fullest of its God-given dignity and freedom. That is why the Church is concerned in education – not merely of its own members, nor as a surreptitious means of evangelism, but because we are chosen by God to suffer in joy for the sake of our fellowmen by serving their true needs.
It will be a betrayal of our Christian motivation if we engage in this educational responsibility merely in order that the Church may be popular with our governments. There will be plenty of occasions when, if we are faithful to our vocation, we will be unpopular with our governments. Let us keep that clear in our consciousness. It is God’s will that the whole of humanity should live together in peace and joy, in the community of suffering and self-sacrificing love. And education is one of the means by which, in God’s economy for men, this goal is progressively approximated. The goal may be unattainable in our generation. The whole globe may be blown to bits before we get anywhere near these goals. We are certain to find new vistas to cross before we get to our goal. But we have no other direction in which we can move. We act, not in the hope of bringing heaven to earth, but in the confident assurance that the final outcome is in the hands of Him who died that we may have life, and life abundant.
The view of life of the African society of 2000 A.D. Will depend on the views that are fostered in our schools and communities today. If African Personality is not to be as shallow and superficial as Western Society in its understanding of the meaning of life, it will have to do some serious reflecting at this stage. Even our Christian friends from the advanced nations of the West are deeply influenced by the technological civilization’s blindness to the unseen life. Herein lies one of the greatest contributions that the African Personality can make to the life of humanity as a whole.
Technological competence without the profit motive, social and economic organization without the selfishness of bourgeois individualism, a political pattern that combines the best elements of traditional African wisdom and of Western democracy, a sure sense of the transience of this world and its significant relation to the unseen world, the natural joy, warmth of affection and the enthusiasm for life of the African soul — when these ingredients are cultivated in our schools and presented in Christ to God the Father, He would, by His Holy Spirit, create that African Personality which would make the hitherto despised and rejected people of Africa the beacon-light of humanity.