Education and Social Change in Liberia: New Perspectives for the 21st century
Tarnue Johnson Comments on his new Book
November 15, 2004
After fourteen years of dwelling in the doldrums and a state of what a sociologist would aptly describe as anomie; and others would yet appropriately describe as self-destruction, the country is now attempting to draw lines under the sand-by engaging in a total overhaul-through the assiduous efforts of the international community and well-meaning citizens. It is worth noting that perhaps these changes speak to the dawning of a new era where new regimes of peace and stability would be secured.
However, it is crucial to note that such political retooling, course correction, and social reengagement with our most pertinent challenges must assume specific forms and flavors. One is hard-pressed and reasonably skeptical to believe nowadays given recent disturbances in Liberia that the acceptance of a comprehensible, meaningful and peaceful solution to our problems has now become irreversible. There are many signs on the horizon that indicate that this process could be unraveled. Having said that, it is not difficult to see that there seems to be a blinker of hope and light at the end of the tunnel after a prolonged period of economic and political decline. But, from past historical experiences, one knows that the success of a genuine process of redefinition and reconstitution depends on the patterns of institutional development adopted from hereon. I have had what you might call a unique opportunity to air my views through various news organs, both community based and international, as well as peer-reviewed professional journals in the last couple of years particularly since my residence in the United States.
But in this book I now have an added opportunity to weave together the various themes that have constituted my focus of analysis. In other words, I take delight in the fact that I now have the opportunity to present my views in a more coherent, aggregated, consequential and deliberative fashion. Through my studies and experience of working with alternative paradigms and systems of learning, I am privileged to report that I have, indeed, become more and more convinced through experience and insight that our attempts to fashion viable institutional alternatives for civil dialogue and social change must be situated in the very nature of human rationality and discourse. In a philosophical theory of modernity, there is a case to be made that reason, as a guide to action, cannot be devoid of the centrality of language. This presumption presupposes that the centrality of language in the discourse of modernity signals a shift away from a classical preoccupation with the philosophy of consciousness grounded in subjective reason and speculative self-reflection-- to a place where power free communication becomes the seat of reason and grounding of all normative considerations (see White, 1995).
The pragmatic content of reason reveals itself more powerfully in processes of speech acts and communicative action, which in turn leads to self-determination and social emancipation. This is particularly so because meaning, which lies at the heart of any meaningful project of social change, is constructed in the process of dialogue. Thus the centrality of language in this new discourse of modernity and what I would called “reconstructive science” verifies the axiomatic assumption that most human intellectual functions and productive activity are impossible to realize without the most basic foundations in linguistic expression manifested in the domains of various species of speech acts.
On this very particular count the logics, basic premises and primary theoretical pillars of various schools of philosophy and social science; such as those of Hegel’s, Max Weber’s and Marx’s positivism fall short in terms of the insight they offered into the workings of sociopolitical institutions and other pertinent challenges of our contemporary world. A significant contention embodied in this formulation is that all human institutions including the state and civil society are constructed in specific contexts of learning and inter-subjective communication. This understanding suggests that the lifeblood of an open and progressive society is free communication without the distorting and corrosive influence of what I have called personal and non-institutional power in my analysis. There is a counter-subjective element embedded in the ideal of a community of communicative actors. Thus, in a society of free communicators, reason becomes re-embedded in its proper social and historical context.
This follows that I would be inclined to query protestations against the positing of a structural linkage between critical rationality and practical discourse in so far as the determination of an acceptable rational foundation for our ideas, norms and practices are concerned. I am of the view that through the actualization of reason and its most salient categorical imperatives, we achieve our humanity and our strivings for higher ethical, intellectual and spiritual ideals. In this view, I would profess that I have built upon the historical and epistemological foundations laid down by earlier social theorists particularly in the fields of criticism and modern democratic theory. I would also profess that I have been inspired a great deal by the practical and inspiring heroics of our native Liberian forerunners and antecedents in the fight for social and participatory democracy, which of course includes the late Albert Porte.
Consequently, the basic rationale of this book follows from the assumption that the necessary conditions for free full participation in rational discourse do not exist in Liberia, given the institutional and psychosocial constraints that have existed in the country. I have argued that the lack of full participation in free discourse has distorted the growth of a viable democratic tradition and competent civil governance. It is further suggested, as evidenced throughout the chapters and sections of this book, that these institutional and psychosocial factors are the resultant of the evolution of authority relations in the Liberian society since the 19th century, when the various micro collectivities in the sub-region were usurped under the rubric of a somewhat homogeneous republic and social system.
More specifically, the views expressed in this book broadly fall within the area of adult education research and theory suggested by Taylor and others. Taylor (1998) has suggested the need to foster strategies of transformative learning and social action in varied contexts, taking into consideration socio-cultural and historical forces. Other authors have also variously contributed to this theme, including the earlier generation of critical theorists and their followers such as Jungen Habermas, Paulo Friere, Jack Mezirow, Stephen Brookfield, Donald Schon, Chris Agyris, etc. I have adopted a variety of conceptual tools in this book to gauge the behavior of adults in institutional and bureaucratic systems, because it is adults who principally organized and run these systems. The character of these institutions as they exist in Liberia, ultimately reflects the personalities and attitudes of their authors, who happen to be adult members of society. Thus, the failure of these systems is as much reflective of a moral and political failure of adults in society.
Because adult participants are affected by mores and ethics of these systems in as much as they shape them on the basis of their particular normative orientations and expectations, a prior assumption critical to an organizing disposition is that institutional and bureaucratic systems, including civil society organizations, are essentially learning systems that can utilize the potential embedded in the structure of human rationality and communication such as critical reflection, dialectical thinking, epistemic cognition etc. This book has six chapters and it ends by making several salient recommendations for policy action to curb the current malaise in Liberian education, political and social culture and organizing practices and principles. The tone of the book overall encapsulates an underlying call to streamline a blotted and decrepit national bureaucracy as we have in Liberia, to make it more efficient, modern and prone to permeable and dialectical approaches to solving complex problems of post-conflict and institutional development.
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