Whose Education for All: The Recolonization of the African Mind

March 10, 2006, [MD]

I have known about Brigit Brock Utne, a professor in international education at the University of Oslo, for several months, since I came across her homepage, which has a very impressive CV and a list of “Where is Birgit in 2006″. Her CV reads like a list of all the things that I would like to study, and do; and it is also reassuring in that she definitively did not go “the direct route” to where she ended up, but rather went through a number of different courses and jobs. This is reassuring to someone like myself, who has been all over the place. I finally picked up her book “Whose Education for All, the Recolonization of the African Mind”, and I loved it.

The book starts out by criticizing the international consensus on “Education for all”, as shifting significant resources within developing countries from higher education to primary education. Part of the impetus for this is a World Bank study that showed that primary education had a much higher ROI (return on investment) than any other form of education. This study has later been challenged on purely economical terms, but Brock-Utne also asks us to consider whether return on investment is the only measurement of education; it is a very utilitarian view, seeing education as a tool to achieve a goal (development), rather than as a goal in itself (as in, people have the right to education).

Why she considers higher education becomes apparent in the subsequent sectors, where she discusses what is actually taught in elementary schools in Africa. The history of their school systems in most cases began with colonization, and this has left an important legacy, compounded by the current system of inequalities in the world. During colonialism, children were taught about English geography and French history (depending on their colonizers), and not of their own countries or regions. They were also taught in French, English or Portuguese, often from the very first year of schooling. This is something that has to a large part continued, due to many factors. The teachers at the takeover were already trained in teaching through a foreign language, there wasn’t the necessary vocabulary in the indigenous languages, there were to many indigenous languages to be accomodated by a school system, there was no local capacity to provide school books, etc.

All these statements are disproven both in her book, and in several other books I have read on linguistics, language policy etc. The fact that none of the universities in Africa today, except for in the Arabic countries in the North, use an African language in teaching courses is staggering (this does not include courses in indigenous literature and language, which are taught in for example kiSwahili in Tanzania). The lack of research on countries’ histories, culture and language leads to a little girl taking a multiple choice test (how appropriate is that to traditional African forms of learning?) in English (not the native language of more than a few percentages in her country, and a language that not even her teacher speaks well), asking her about the “discoverer” of a certain waterfall. She is given four options, all European males, and she chooses the fifth - “None of the above”. And despite the fact that her family has lived in a village by that waterfall for many generations, her test comes back with a big red mark - wrong.

Brock-Utne makes a compelling case for how African education systems are failing African youth through provision of inadequate and inappropriate knowledge through a language that is poorly mastered. When performing poorly in international standardized tests, the language issue is seldom taken into consideration. While many studies show very significant impacts on learning, international donors often press for the continuing use of colonial languages, and both the British Council and the Alliance Francaise lead an almost neo-colonial policy of donating equipment and textbooks on the condition that courses be taught in their languages, even at the first levels of primary schools.

The book is well written, easily read, with a wealth of ideas and sources, I noted down quite a few. Sometimes during my reading, I would get so upset that I would almost destroy the book, because ideas of linguistic equality or justice are dear to my heart, and the arrogance showed over and over by the “international donor community” was mindboggling, if sadly not surprising. After reading this book, I was even more interested in the issues of African education, especially higher education, and language politics in general.

Before reading this book, I was familiar with the colonizing origins of the Alliance Francais from a book by John DeFrancis on development of a written language in Vietnam (which started out using Chinese characters). Recently, I have also read books about the use in education (or lack thereof) of kiSwahili in Tanzania, about language politics after the fall of the wall in the Central Asian republics, an article on the “re-Arabization of the Maghreb countries”, and lately I have been reading a number of books/articles on the history of Chinese and Russian education. All highly exciting stuff (to me), and something that reaffirms my desire to study international and comparative education.

Stian Håklev March 10, 2006 Buffalo, USA
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