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

By James Thomas-Queh, PhD

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 8, 2006



In her recent commencement address, President Johnson-Sirleaf made reference to the National Consultative Conference on Education Policy held on September 14, 1974 (see – July 11, 2006). From this forum, she confirmed, emerged the “program of education for our nation’s children up to, and including 2000.” And an educator, Hamidu M. Getaweh Sr, also made mention of the New Education Law of 2001, which established not only Free and Compulsory Primary Education in Liberia (FACPEL), but also stipulated that a 25% of the national budget be allotted for education (see - 18 July 2006).

Unfortunately, these two important affirmations prove that what often lacks the most in Liberia are not necessarily the laws and grand national plans, but instead what I also see as the three fundamental elements. First, making the people an integral part of the national decision making process and keeping them abreast of both the accomplishments and difficulties of implementation. Second, a leadership having the political will to implement major national decisions. And third, funding and continuity in our actions.

With this mind, and since we may be leading yet again to another National Education Forum – here is a continuation of my import to our educational reforms.
1. To reorganize the infra-structural control of our educational system, I would suggest that we examine the model of the Monrovia Consolidated School System (MCSS) established almost forty years ago. I suppose it was intended as a pilot project (and which I also suppose has proven to be efficient and effective in management and control of a group of schools) then we need to harmonize and implant the model throughout the country to have, for example, Greenville Consolidated School System or Harper Consolidate School System, etc., - with their proper superintendents and competent staffs. This system may be the most viable and efficient; it would help the Ministry of Education to have a better control and management of our national educational system than simply relying on the supervisors of schools – individuals who supervise hardly anything or have the power to effect any change in the system.

2. It is my view that in a nation with mass poverty and illiteracy, self-empowerment and national development would be quickened were we to focus most of our meagre resources and attention to free, organized and solid general education (from kindergarten to high school) thus providing a strong generalized cultural base to every youth at an early stage in life. That would be a better preparedness for their future. At the same time, permit the one or two state universities to seek more of their own funding through private or other means. Whatever state funding (including scholarships, etc.) should focus or encourage areas of our national needs for the next decade or two (and of course beyond): for example - medical doctors, engineers, scientists, agriculturists, economists, and the rest. To attract interest to these areas, the Ministry of Education should also allot an amount to award top students from around the country in subjects such as mathematics, biology, chemistry, etc.

Modes of Education

A World Bank research publication: “Attacking Rural Poverty: How Nonformal Education Can Help” (Philip H. Coombs and Manzoor Ahmed, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), identifies three over-lapping forms of education: (1) Informal education, (2) Formal education, and (3) Nonformal education.

My analysis of our educational failures in Part I of this paper concerns all three of these models. What is more, we ignored all along that the three modes were part of a whole – that is, the general system of education. And to be effective in sustaining self-empowerment and national development, they must be part and parcel of a coherent national educational policy.

I – Informal Education
This form of education is defined as the “lifelong process by which every person acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, attitudes and insights from daily experiences and exposures to the environment – at home, at work, at play; from the example and attitudes of family and friends; from travel, reading newspapers and books; or by listening to the radio or viewing films or television.” And do not forget the internet, video games and the rest.

Though this process may seem generally unorganised and unsystematic – but yet it accounts for the larger part of any person’s total lifetime (including even the most highly “schooled” individual). Thus in effect, it is one of the most important mediums of education.

Now, it is needless to mention that our recent general elections have proven how the media, airwaves, democratic street-corner debates, etc. - are all redoubtable instruments of education. And because our past regimes of autocrats, dictators and tyrants had condoned only sycophancy, mediocrity, corruption and reduced our media to false propaganda, self-praises and suppressed individual freedom- we have been inculcated an improper informal education, which has had a devastating effect on our behaviour as a people. Or else, why will a Liberian who has lived, studied, worked, paid taxes, utility bills, respect the law, etc. while in the United States or Europe – would do the contrary as soon as he or she arrives in Monrovia? Well, because here, unfortunately, the practice of non-respect for order has become a national norm. And for he or she who attempts to go against that norm, you may be warned: “Don’t bring that your American business here or you’n come to change our thing here, my man.” Of course, not only the fact that in the United States or Europe the non respect of the law or one’s financial obligations is met with an immediate punitive action, but also because Americans and Europeans have been taught that their taxes and bills provide and maintain their roads, schools, hospitals and other essential services (and not the “good will” of their national leaders). But let me take my logic further to a more cultural and social aspect– why is it that the leisure time of most Liberians turns around night clubs, boozing and womanising and not reading or writing? And again, because apart from church, politics, football and cinema – these are the most popular and talk about cultural and social events.

It is clear from these examples that informal education could be an important instrument in altering our cultural perception and attitude as a people. True, this process may be seen as unorganised and unsystematic – but it can be guided into a positive direction (and not a vulgar propaganda machine) to stimulate progress, self-empowerment, development and reconciliation. The Western media, for example (and with all its press freedom) does not pass it pages and airwaves with only music or castigating and denigrating the people and country. On the contrary, it projects most positive thinking, images, people, ideas, debates, achievements, and what have you. Every aspect of the Western life has become a means of education. Nothing is taken for granted; if there is a need to retrieve all diplomatic passports, repair roads, pass a law, or any change that will affect or disorient their people – they will inform them (through all the necessary means of communication) many months before the enforcement date of the order. Well, and when they intend to destroy you, precisely, they would also use the same media. The consistent projection of Africa as ravaged by corruption, civil wars, hunger, HIV/AIDS etc. – has made most Americans, Europeans and even ourselves to cultivate a negative image of the continent.

So yes, informal education works when it is focused and pursued persistently and consistent within the framework of a general education. And on this note, I am of the view that the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, could play a vital role in stirring this informal education process. Apart from being the mouthpiece of the government and sponsoring only a Kendeja Cultural Village – it could transform the entire nation into a large and still untapped cultural village. From Cape Mount to Maryland, and from Lofa, Nimba, Grand Gedeh, Bong, etc – there could be a promotion of cultural troupes, food, arts, dialects, traditions, museums, monuments, and you name it. And mind you, I am not saying for them to sit idle, waiting to entertain or be visited by only foreign dignitaries, but that they could also be viable economic entities, first and foremost, by the citizens and for the citizens. And let me take another example - What if the Ministry could have in its budget an allotment of $50 000.00 or $100 000.00 for cultural awards: ex. The Bai T. Moore Literary Award; The Best Performing Cultural Troupe of the Year; The Best Artist/Singer Award; The Vanjah Richards Sculptor /Artisan Award, The Albert Porte Journalism Award etc. etc. And believe me, our news media would be filled with positive images; and we would be fomenting a new and positive generation of Liberians –dynamic cultural revitalization, writers, sculptors, artists, and what have you.

II – Formal Education
It is the highly institutionalised, chronologically graded and hierarchically structured education system from kindergarten through to high school, and then on to the university. In general terms, this is the system that prepares every generation of youths to perpetuate the national future. As such, it requires a maximum of planning, huge financial cost, proper management, large pool of trained manpower, institutional facilities, organizational structure, etc. And true, while sustaining this formal education is a real headache and a monumental task to any nation, it is catastrophic in our situation. For example, while there are less than 30 pupils to a class in an elementary school in most part of the developed nations, there are more that 100 pupils, clustered up before an unqualified teacher in a classroom in Liberia, with no books, hardly a pencil and a copybook nor even a small bench or chair to sit on.

This is the situation that we have inherited and must now try to correct durably. Unfortunately though, there are much other important urgencies; and while at the same time the majority of our people are still too poor and would rely wholly and fully on government schools to educate their children. That is why, in my view, we need to first ask ourselves one fundamental question: Is it possible for the Government of Liberia to support and sustain durably a solid, strong educational standard at all levels -kindergarten to high school and university education - throughout the length and breadth of the country (without not relying first on foreign aid knowing that it our sole national prerogative and interest)?

If the answer should be a “no” (and I suppose it is) – then we must reflect on a second interrogation: What do we need to do in order to sustain and maintain a strong and decent educational standard in our country? Now, while I would leave our experts at the next national education forum to brainstorm for a solution, here is the question I intend to explore: Which of the education level is more beneficial to faster national development and self-empowerment – a strong and solid general education for all or a strong and solid university education for a few? Because frankly, as things stand our entire educational system is a great national disaster.

In comparing both the European and American educational systems – I get the impression that while both have a philosophy of compulsory education, the Europeans (more socialist oriented) have a tradition for very strong general education (giving a better and equal educational base to most of the society) and backed with few renounced universities. On the other hand, the Americans put their money and importance to university education. As a result, higher education is very expensive in America, and while it is still very cheap in most European countries (still social and equal educational opportunities oriented).

I think we would do well to take a keen look at the merit and demerit of the educational focus of these two developed Western blocks to assist us in making a better choice. The European tradition of solid, strong general education permits, in turn, also a strong and solid generalised cultural base to every citizen at the earliest state in life. It is more like giving a child that first damned good home training as the best lifetime preparation to confront the challenges of a real life. And judging today from the survival energies and resilience of our youths – one can imagine the sky being the limit if they had had a solid, strong general education. Certainly, they would not have been child-soldiers turned wheelbarrow boys or yanna boys – they would have long since been engaged in positive creativity and substantive business ventures.
And this is why I am of the view that it would be more beneficial and economical were we to put most of our efforts, support and funding to a solid and strong general education, and let the one or two state universities to seek more of their own funding through private or other means. But to achieve this objective, we would first need to reorganize the infra-structural and administrative control of our entire school system. And this where the Monrovia Consolidated School System (MCSS) could serve a model.

III – Nonformal Education
This form of education is defined as any organized, systematic, educational activity carried out outside the framework of the formal system of education to provide selected types of learning to particular sub-groups in the population, adults as well as children. This mode of education include, for example, agriculture extension and farmer training programs, adult literacy programs, occupational skill training given outside the formal system, various community programs of instruction in health, family planning, cooperatives, etc.

True, these nonformal education initiatives have been around for long in Liberia, but at the onset we associated them with expatriate supervision or bi-lateral cooperation between two sovereign states. Unfortunately, since then things have changed drastically and most of these initiatives have now become the exclusive domains of international NGOs. Thus success is now evaluated in terms of punctuality or deliverable items– that is, the initiative starts and ends; and another begins and ends – with no accountability to anyone – not even the host government or state.

We note that the Ellen-Johnson government has also picked up the term “deliverable” (precisely again because it is a World Bank and IMF nomenclature) to evaluate the success of her Ministers. But to do such a ministerial evaluation (and prove yourself to be a serious government) would mean that the various ministries are provided the necessary funding to accomplish their defined projects. Or else, with a government working with only a bare minimum, you would only embarrass yourself, the government and ministers.

That said, for the nonformal education to be effective and have an impact on national development and self-empowerment, there are two conditions to be met. First, as asserted by Coombs and Ahmed (p. 9), it is necessary to “visualize the various educational activities as potential components of a coherent and flexible overall learning system that must be steadily strengthened, diversified and linked more closely to the needs and processes of national development.”

And here lies the problem. At the upsurge in the support for the nonformal education (or transition from expatriates to NGOs), we ignored, in effect, that it was at the detriment and neglect of our formal educational system (and all of our institutions in which expatriates were serving in lucrative advisory roles since the Second World War). Or let me put it this way, while the West was already preparing for its “globalisation”- where businesses control states and not states that control businesses – we were still profoundly hypnotised in our syndrome of dependency. We did not realise that to survive and justify more funding from their states and financial donors, these international NGOs must detach their deliverable projects from the mainstream host state activities. As a result, most of these macro-projects do not survive beyond the tenure of the NGOs. While at the same time foreign financial donors continue to channel aid through their NGOs (providing jobs to their own people and under the pretext that our governments are corrupt). But it is also a system that frees the donors from a long-term responsibility, accountability and engagement.

And secondly, the success of nonformal education also depends largely on the level of formal education of the individual recipients. Or as Torsten Husén has confirmed, the best vocational education is solid, high quality, general education.

It is clear from this assertion that since Liberia does not have a strong general education foundation, the majority of market women, wheel-borrow or yanna boys will never be able to better their lot from a much publicised one or two weeks training in macro-management unless where such initiatives were incorporated into some long-term follow-up programs like cooperatives (ex. Farmers, market women, wheel-borrow boys, etc.). Such organizations could provide advices, market outlets, do the paper work, continuous training, etc. And the advantage of encouraging and organizing such institutions may be twofold. First, it would foster lasting self-empowerment and national development. And second, such structures could make it easier for the government to collect the much needed tax revenues.

If we do not follow this route, I am afraid, we would then be wasting much needed resources and energies behind all the macro-projects that lead to nowhere. What is even more, our current situation is an ideal condition for our foreign financial donors and partners to support anything nonformal and uninstitutional. Because already in the recent official turning over ceremonies at the Ministry of Education, it was revealed that the USAID country director announced a $20m aid package to support education over a period of two years. It will focus on a wide range of educational activities including, vocational/technical education, teachers training, accelerated learning programs, adult literacy initiatives, rehabilitation and equipping destroyed educational facilities, amongst others (Liberianobserver, Feb. 21, 2006).

In addition, the outgoing Education Minister enumerated her successes after almost a decade at the head of the Ministry: establishment and development of mass literacy program, accelerated learning program, Liberian language and multilingual program, Education For All (EFA), Forum for African Women Educationist (FAWE), etc., etc., etc.

And here is my first observation. While we thank the U.S. government for this important educational aid package – it is regrettable that it was not the elected government of Liberia that decides how and in what particular educational sector this fund should be spent.

And secondly, it is significant to note that the achievements of the outgoing Minister (after almost a decade at the head of the Ministry of Education) alluded only to nonformal education, and nothing whatsoever on the formal education – the pillar of any national educational system. We all know that during that same decade our general educational system broke down–our higher institutions of learning (University of Liberia, Medical College and all the others) were in complete shambles.

So, how did the outgoing Minister evaluate her own success? Well, like the international NGOs usually do; these are deliverable nonformal educational projects - they certainly got started, and probably ended or may continue. But what is their real impact? This would be the one hundred dollar question. A genuine success for me would have been the number of schools built; medical doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, etc. trained; the educational policy or legacy of that decade, etc., etc.

My fear now is that the bulk of this $20m aid package would be used to support the same nonformal educational projects. And at the end of the day when the next Education Minister is leaving, we would have another huge success story. At that rate, we would be right back from where we started: the struggle to support and maintain a decent general educational system for all. And don’t get me wrong – I do know that we need real trained and professional mechanics, electricians, plumbers, masonries, carpenters, heavy duty mechanics, painters, heavy duty drivers, etc., - but it must all be an integral part of our general educational policy, curriculum- and not as some detached and deliverable NGOs projects only. We must set an estimation of the troop of professionals our country would need within the next two or three decades to meet its development objectives; then we must establish a coherent educational policy to accomplish that national agenda.

To serve as an effective engine of national development and self-empowerment, the informal, formal and nonformal education must be considered components of a whole- that is, our national educational system; and that they must be constantly revised and strengthened under a coherent general educational policy. And our educational projects should not end at “deliverables” but instead projected into a continuous national prerogative.

Education nurtures and sustains democracy. Thus if the legacy of our generation is to perpetuate real democracy in this 21st century, then we must now lay a genuine foundation to make free, strong and solid primary, secondary and high school education accessible to all the children of Liberia.

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

© 2006 by The Perspective

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