Reshaping Our Educational System To Fit The Challenges Of This 21st Century (Part l)


By James Thomas-Queh, PhD


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 27, 2006



We agree that our educational system is at the top of our national ills, but have yet to fully assess the profound nature of its failures. And this is the attempt of this paper to give an inset – and though not from an expert perspective (because I’m not)– but a look back more from a life experience – in the hope that it will contribute to our reforming efforts.

Education, and to take this definition from Torsten Husén (The School In Question, p. 35 –Oxford University Press, 1979) was set up to be “an institution that first and foremost provides the basic skills and knowledge with the help of which young people can acquire the additional competence needed in order to get along in adult life.” And more, an educational system must be planned having in mind the country’s own highly distinctive tradition, limitations and opportunities. From this very basic definition, we can already see how our educational system failed, or else our youths and ourselves would not have dispensed futilely so much energies into arms and violence. Instead, we would have been the leading creators, innovators and managers of our national wealth.

It is not surprising therefore that, like all other things during this time of national revival, the graduation exercises were also among the most important events in this 2006. Because for our nation to sustain itself in democracy, prosperity and stability - it would be in our national interest to first and foremost reshape our educational system by giving it a clear and defined focus for the achievement of our national goals, development and self-empowerment.

A Starting Point
For a start in reshaping our educational focus and goals, I suggest the following:
1. An Educational Policies Commission – composing of eminent scholars, educators and personalities – be established to serve as a watchdog over our educational system, make suggestions to the government, review our text-books, curriculum, etc. etc.
2. To the name of the Ministry of Education must be added: “Research, Science and Technology”- a section to be headed at the Deputy Minister level. It would give the impulsion and set the agenda for our schools and universities to pursue these areas of studies. The advancement, development and prosperity of our nation would depend on its research, scientific and technological capabilities.
3. Or that the government should establish a separate and independent institution or a body for Research, Science and Technology.
4. In line with the President’s recent educational policy pronouncement of “decentralisation”- I would suggest (since education is a very expensive adventure) that the country be divided into 3 or 4 Academic Zones; and each zone be provided, in time, a University with its own specifics or specialisations (ex. Mining engineering, Agriculture, Rubber manufacturing engineers, Literature, Political Science, Business Management, etc.).
5. The Ministry of Education must undertake a serious study, at the national level, to know the exact statistics of our school drop-outs, causes, at what stage, frequency, etc. And of course, the same holds to know the statistics and categories of those who continue schooling to the terminal level and in what fields, motivations, etc. One way to go about this would be to first examine and strengthen the bureaucracy within our schools. It is not enough to just pay teachers; a school today is a complex entity that requires a proper control, scrutiny and managerial skills.

Unless we are capable to put into place the adequate mechanisms to collect those basic data, we can never pretend to establish an educational system to take us from this present and lead our nation into a prosperous and democratic future.

And Where Our Educational System Failed
True, we have been long time critical and circumspect of our educational policy, but only through the usual narrow political spectrum. That is, of course, the privileged urban dwellers (settler class) and the under-privileged rural dwellers (indigenous Liberians). But the crisis and failures of our educational system go far beyond this artificial divide. In reality, it has benefited no one; it was inert and had lacked the proper focus for national development and self-empowerment.

For an illustration, I will do a brief fictional narration of the beginning years of my own educational experience. But before I get down to that, let me first mention the most recent examples -though shameful as they may sound, and perhaps insignificant also to others – to show just how deep our educational system had missed the boat.

Firstly, not knowing whether Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is our 23rd or 24th President –certainly that has left our children wondering on our learning capacity in 159 years of existence as a nation. For me though, this is just the mere proof that since 1847, the true political history has never been taught adequately in our schools nor dare to be challenged by our scholars. And this true political history not having been taught nor challenged – we never fully knew ourselves or about ourselves and our nation.

Therefore, it is needless to mention that in this new era the true political, social and economic history of our country must have a preponderant place in our educational curriculum.

The second example is the apparent power struggle between our two leading honourables – Nyenabo and Snowe – as to who heads the National Legislature. And here again how many times didn’t we recite as elementary kids our three separate branches of government; but beyond that we were taught nothing else. Except that we saw in them very powerful personalities who were the institutions in themselves. And while that era of great “personality cult” may be something of the past , Speaker Snowe was clowned in a tail-coat and top-hat – that real 19th century pioneer Liberian. It could be a sign for better, if not for worst.

In order to get it right this time, our educational system must include the teaching of our national traditions and cultures, government and democratic institutions or this “good governance” from the high school level and even below.

And the third case - even more disheartening for a country of 159 years old - was what Dr. Abdoulaye Dukulé pointed out in a recent book review. He asserted that in the past few years Liberians have written more books than they did throughout the entire history of the nation. “For a 150-year country that never had a single real library nor reading room or a serious publishing house besides those on academic grounds, this new phenomenon is akin to a cultural revolution” (see -Feb. 27, 2006). Talking about jobs, isn’t it a clear revelation that our educational system did not prepare us to take over our own literary market, and not only writers but also books and stationery stores, printing press, etc.

The adverse effect, unfortunately, we have had a collective brain-damaged; instead of reading, researching, creating, inventing, writing, exploring and developing our enormous national heritage (villages, towns, rivers, creeks, forest, mountains, lakes, islands, etc.) – we dedicate most of our leisure time to boozing, dancing or womanising. And mind you, these are also potential lost business opportunities. And while we dance, booze and womanise – it is our mothers, poor market-women (illiterate and we are educated) that struggle to feed the nation.

Our educational system must redress this enormous, disgusting and very shameful aberration.

That said, let me now give you this fictional illustration of my own educational experience. To my utmost surprise, a fellow Liberian once told me bluntly that he pitied our indigenous peasant parents for sending us to school. And here was his justification.

Coming from this rural peasant background like over 90% of the country, my parents sent me out of the village to seek education and become a “kwi or civilised” (in other words not to live the same poor and subsistence farming life as them). At the end of it, all their nine children went out to achieve the same purpose. As a result, the old folks were left without a helping hand, became poorer, before the civil war took their lives. This was the picture of the entire village and a tragedy throughout the entire country; the villages lost the essential of their traditional life (and with no replacement foreseen). In essence, we all lost our traditional points of reference, including the urban dwellers.

At first we attributed this national catastrophe to a mere unchecked rural migration in search of jobs and better living; but in essence, it was due also to an improper educational focus (and not necessarily because of the lack of schools throughout the length and breadth of the country). Let’s remember what I mentioned at the onset of this paper that an educational system must be planned having in mind the “country’s own distinctive tradition…” On what the rural population of over 90% of the country sustained its tradition and livelihood? It was on farming, fishing, handcraft, artisan, traditional builders, cattle breeding, palm oil making, hunting, etc. That being the case, if our educational system had focused or in consonance with this rural tradition, I (or the majority we) would have been made the second generation of mechanised farmers, professional handcraft-men, artisans, mechanised fishermen, commercialised mass palm-oil producers, cattle rangers, etc. etc. That focus missed, some more thousands of jobs, development opportunities and innovative energies were thrown out of the window.

We still thought this was a deliberate political bias towards this hinterland; but the educational system was not tailored either to benefit the fast evolving urban traditions and opportunities. Because were it so we would not have butchered each other just for a piece of an underpaid government job and in a failed and totally bankrupt nation. On the contrary, we would have been scrambling to take over the stores, rice importation, mining and rubber industries, other manufacturing and commercial opportunities, and the rest. In other words, our educational system failed to adequately adjust to the changing times.
To say the least, we must now do a constant review of our educational system. It has been in a chronic state of inertia and completely out of tune with our national realities.

Of all the youths that left the village as I did (and never went back) – I was the only one that reached the high school level. The rest were drop-outs (the thirst for education was there, but the financial means was absent) – a perfect picture of the country’s over 90% population that constitutes this national tragedy. Our educational system did not foresee this grave problem nor has it provided an adequate solution. And if my assertion should have any merits – then I am afraid that Liberia does not have those many educated and experienced people as we tend to believe; the bulk of our society is still uneducated (or half-educated) and illiterate.

This is one of the most serious challenges to our educational system and national development. It needs a very sober reflection and some long-term concerted planning.

I was a scholarship recipient of the Liberia Mining Company (LMC), and during my entire tenure of four years in high school, I did vacation job with this company. But sadly enough it never occurred to me that I could have made a successful career in the mining industry except to work for the government. And why did I (or we) developed this attitude?

Well, if I (or we) had stayed in the village, our lives were traced out to be farmers like our parents or anything else tied to the village life. But in this hostile and rapidly growing urbanised environment, without the parental role model, our government officials became the substitutes. Or let me put it this way – in the absence of a defined educational agenda and focus, government was what our educational system made us to perceive as our unique and common national tradition for job security, social mobility, comfortable livelihood, power, and the rest. But Liberia was a fast growing modern, industrious, commercial and trading oriented society; thus meaning some radical traditional changes were taken place – and yet our educational system did not prepare us for this transition. In essence, it was not inculcated nor were we trained to be or replace those expatriate mining engineers and foremen, foreign merchants and traders, etc. –who were enriching themselves on our economic boom and natural resources.

It is in my view, therefore, that it is no more time to simply tell the people: “Go to school and learn!” Education as the engine to national development and prosperity must relate to the people, their environment, potentials, what they have and how to improve on it for their future. It should not tell the people to only wait for investors; it should make them to be the investors; it should inculcate into them to be the investors, and how to acquire the means to be the investors. This is what I would call progressive and development oriented education.

While still contemplating on how to pay my way through some university education, it was already dawned on me that most of those who were privileged to a government job or placed high in companies (like LMC, LAMCO, Firestone and others) were individuals who had come from studies abroad; and not necessarily those who had graduated from the local universities and seeking desperately an employment.

This trend, though seen then through a pure political spectrum (because most of those who studied abroad were children or relatives of the Power that be), was in effect a flagrant educational discrimination that cut across tribal or class lines. The paradox – an educational system pretending to serve as an “equaliser” had turned into a perfect instrument of discrimination. And let me add, at a point in time the snobbishness had filtered down even to what high school one came from. A product of C.W.A. or Saint Patrick’s, then you had it right; forget about the majority of the county high schools, afternoon and night schools.

One adverse consequence of this tendency was a loss of confidence in our own educational system. As a result, students begun to buy their way through school (grades, exam papers, etc.). It became a real syndrome: don’t hurt head; it does not worth to study here. And because the phenomenon is still prevalent today (for a different reason-meritocracy), our educational system needs to undertake a vigorous campaign of confidence building.

And true, our educational system was permeated with discrimination from its very onset. Firstly, because of the inability of the state to put adequate educational facilities throughout length and breadth of the country. Or the mere fact that there are sections like the afternoon and night schools - and while this was in recognition of our social inequalities and intended to serve as an “equaliser” - it turned out to be the most discriminatory system. And not only because it caters to those at the bottom of society, but if even the morning schools are overcrowded, poor curriculum, underpaid and unqualified teachers, poor results and management – while should anyone expect anything better from an afternoon or night school.

At first we all thought this was due to only the lack of political will, but now I’m convinced that it was also due to the lack of trained man-power and economic constraints. Because even schools in the urban areas, the University of Liberia – were all established piecemeal. And true, the country later outgrew its leaders who slept in self-glorification and comfort. They did not realize an educational system that was doing more harm by creating mass drop-outs (or half-educated) than a real large, solid intellectual and professional working class. When they finally became aware, it was little too late. Thus gradually the country was plunged into a wide ranging discriminatory measures (family name, party affiliation or freemasonry, etc). But most important, though, was the fact that the very few who succeeded to higher education had to study abroad before being recognised. This policy broke the camel’s back; because imagine while it made most us envious and desirous of going abroad (but only very few succeeded), think of the great majority that was not so fortunate – their frustration, anger and hate – first against the political system, and later against those very few successful ones.

The manner in which successive regimes have masked or resolved this national dilemma came to haunt us by all the current Monrovia controversies. Long before the election the issue of nationality and dual-citizenship cropped up (the first manifestation of the indirect rejection of those educated and successful abroad). The negative echo from here took a step closer to the reality with the election slogan of “educated vs uneducated.” And when that did not hold either, we finally came down to the real grievance: “those that stayed on the ground and suffered” and “those that come from American and Europe” to take their jobs. A mindset on those who studied abroad, and not those who took refuge abroad and supported families back home -a profound scar left over by our discriminatory educational system. And the irony is that the more we over-emphasis meritocracy as the sole bearing for an employment, the greater we anger the mass of our people, jobless and left along the way by our educational system.

That said, let’s examine briefly how unknowingly some of our past regimes had resolved or attempted to remedy the problem of our educational discrimination. Because if we are to succeed this present, we must constantly review our past. Tubman, as the pioneer of modern and mass education in Liberia, was not a fervent adept of meritocracy; and probably too because he himself and most of his generation came up through this piecemeal, self or home educational methods. So with wisdom and realism, his government was a melange of all the social educational categories: educated, half-educated, illiterate – thus there was no apparent educational discrimination, but instead was interpreted as mere political loyalty. Notwithstanding, the educational discrimination as we know it today started long under the same Tubman regime (the fashion of the “been-to’s”, favouritism of employment of those who studied abroad, family name, party affiliation or freemasonry, etc., the $500.00 bank deposit guarantee before self-sponsored students could travel abroad for studies in the late 1960s, what high school one came from, etc. – were all part of his making).

All these factors combined would induce President Tolbert to immediately introduced the policy of meritocracy as an attempt (or the safest and more neutral way) to break with the past. What he had ignored, however, was that “meritocracy” is also the most redoubtable form of educational discrimination in a society where the majority of the people are illiterate or half-educated and jobless. Thus while from the onset this policy was revolutionary to the minority intellects and youths struggling for educational achievement – it soon became a threat to the same masses, and more even to the old-guard who were in positions not necessarily because of any educational competence (the identical scenario today). And surprisingly for the President, as he begun to dismiss so frequently his officials, it was quickly realised that the country did not have that much reservoir of “meritocrats” to effectively and efficiently man the country’s extended and large bureaucratic machine. So he halted dismissals, kept or felt back on some old experienced hands, and while keeping some of the young new commons (across ethnic lines) freshly from school, allowing them to acquire some professional experience.

So all was not as negative as we initially thought. The policy of meritocracy broke the myth or neutralised the “congo-country” dichotomy and gave an impulsion to self-empowerment and national development (the real focus of any good educational system). And except that, and in the face of a severe shortage of jobs – “congo” was now equivalent to the “educated” (privileged to employment and other emoluments) and while “country” became the “uneducated” (mass unemployed populace).

No wonder then that the events of April 14, 1979, that led to the Doe military revolution of April 12, 1980, were not about “congo-country” from the onset. It was about the lack of the equality of chance –job. That in effect, our national problem had been boiled down also to the crisis of any modern urbanised nation: rampant unemployment (and not necessarily rampant corruption). And this was not lost on the mind of the military junta whose first official act was to create a mass proletariat civil service. And of course, this was a quick-fix remedy that really did nothing to tackle the root causes of our unemployment and educational discrimination, but instead worsen it. Because it has now left us the unfortunate impression (even among the most educated as proven by the alliances during the elections) that education was not a requirement for equal opportunity; and or that education was not necessarily the equalising instrument to social mobility and national development.

And here lies another major challenge to our educational system to break this false and deformed perception made chronic due to our prolonged civil conflict.

That said, we now have a bureaucracy filled with non-meritocrats; and while at the same time we do not also have those many meritocrats. On way to solve this problem (instead of mass dismissals only), in my view , should be the establishment of a continuous civil service (or workers) training program at the national level – from county administrators to the chiefs.

For a financial contribution to this national cause and purpose – I would suggest an annual minimum civil service (or workers) training tax (CSTT) be levied on every business entity within the Republic. The same fund can be used to re-train and reconvert workers to other areas different from where they might have lost their previous employments. This educational exercise should be associated with the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Labour.