The Role of Education in Shaping the “New Liberia”

By: Adetokunbo K. Borishade, Ph.D

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 16, 2007


In 1989, the late Dr. Mary A.B. Sherman reminded us of the dialectical relationship that exists between education and the society it serves. This message was the focus of her keynote address at the 21st Annual Conference of the Liberian Studies Association in 1989. Dr. Sherman eloquently pointed out the evolutionary and synergistic processes involved with educating a society: “Education originates from that society, contributes to changing it and is, in turn, changed by the society.” Liberia’s beloved educator went on to reflect on the three forces that shaped education in Liberia: “the emigrant ethnicity, the influence of Christian missions, and the intersection of values.” Dr. Sherman’s reference to education as a social change agent strongly implies that one role of education is that of keeping in step with a constantly changing world by preparing students to meet new challenges and to develop new visions and expectations.

Dr. Elwood Dunn (2006) recently spoke of Liberia as being “heavy with history” that “cannot be wished away.” Dr. Dunn suggests that we study the historical dynamics of the founding of Liberia in the nineteenth century. “Africa and Africans were abased and debased. Those touched with a bit of European culture were considered charged with elevating the culture-less Africans.” Dr. Dunn set forth three critical questions focused on: (a) national identity; (b) national purpose; and (c) national mind-set or culture.

Inspired by the ideas and words of the two scholars cited above, this article sets forth three suggestions. First, Liberia’s educational system needs to get in step with the ever-changing world academically, socially, culturally, and philosophically. Second, Liberia’s educational system desperately needs to cease and desist perpetuating notions of African inferiority. Third, Liberia needs to include Africana and Liberian Studies into its curriculum. Fourth, combined, these three building blocks form the cornerstone of Liberia’s substantive renewal, out of which can develop a national identity, national purpose, and national cultural pride.

Momie may have, Daddie may have,
But God loves the child that has his own.

--African American proverb

Now is the time for Liberia to begin catching up and getting in step with international changes that are 21st century realities. We need to pay attention to the educational systems in other so-called developing countries that are making great strides at national independence. Some Asian countries, for example, direct their students’ education to serve the interests and needs of the nation. As a result, those countries are increasingly able to control their natural resources because they have mathematicians, chemists, engineers, and technical experts skilled in applied science, mining, manufacturing, and building industries. Those countries are harnessing the power that still resides within the core of their people’s ancient cultural ideals and philosophical doctrines to strides forward. We need to take a sharp look into the statement made by Kim Il Sung, President of North Korea when he claimed that they were able to quickly jump ahead in their nuclear missile technology program by using “indigenous knowledge.” My question is: Why is Liberia not developing and harnessing the tremendous sources of power and indigenous knowledge that reside within the Liberian people, instead of paying out scarce resources for foreign knowledge that does not fit African culture and environment?

If you are not bought at home,
You will not be sold in the market.

--Liberian proverb

Up until now, Liberian educational and social realities consist of alien cultural values and notions of African inferiority that are taught to students, who in turn teach it to their children and grandchildren. It all began in 1822 when repatriated Africans from America arrived in Liberia. According to Dr. Sherman (1989), the repatriated Africans were imbued with the idea that they were on a “Christianizing-civilizing mission.” They were led to believe that they were returning to Africa “to spread the light of the gospel and of civilization” to the “heathenish” Africans in Liberia. She relates how, during the early nineteenth century, the Christian missions isolated the indigenous Liberian children from their parents for the purpose of instruction lest they become “corrupted.” Indigenous Liberians fought to preserve their culture and societies by placing their young ones into Poro and Sande Societies. Despite these efforts, the ruling class in Liberia perpetuated discriminatory practices against Liberian masses based upon a misguided, false notion of superiority since they were mixed with non-African blood and/or had contact with Western culture. My question is: If Liberians believe they are inferior, by virtue of their Africanity, how can they possibly gain respect from other nations?

Lion rules the forest
Because Lion babies are taught it is their birthright.

--African proverb

It is unimaginable that in the 21st century Liberia’s educational system does not teach even one class of Africana or Liberian Studies. Liberian students are not taught anything about their own civilizations, culture, and history, but they know about everyone else’s. Liberians are not taught that Africans walked this earth for tens of thousands of years when there was no one else but them. They are not taught that Africans are the parents of all humanity and that Africa is the cradle of all world civilizations. Nor are they taught that African people have made more contributions to world civilizations than any other group of people on this earth. The Liberian curriculum does not include the historical activities and cultural contributions of its people prior to European and American contact. These are facts that are validated and documented even by many of the greatest European scientists. Learning this information is a birthright, not just some useless priviledge. The people of other cultures know more about Africans than Africans themselves. However, African history books like those in Liberia begin with the coming of Europeans. My question is: If Liberians teach their students that their Africanity makes them so inferior that there is nothing about themselves worthy of study, then how can they be expected to rule an independent nation once they grow into adulthood?

The house of the King,
Once burnt, is more glorious.
--Nigerian proverb

When something precious is destroyed and rebuilt, the beauty of the new version always surpasses the first. Dr. Sherman’s words are more significant now than they were in 1989: A clear understanding of Liberia’s place in the international economy, definition of national purpose, and reformulation of the goals of education would be a good starting point as we look to the 1990s. Unless we confront the realities growing out of our past, we can not have clear directions for the future.

The sharp questions posed by Liberia’s beloved educator are more applicable today than when she spoke them eighteen years ago.
What is the new international order that we would like to see? How will Liberia fit into it? How can she reduce the external dominance – economic, cultural, and psychological – which impinge on her? How can her hidden potential be released? Can we create a new society, new individuals? Are there indigenous values we would need to preserve and foster to promote
these ends?

I conclude by pointing out that Dr. Sherman’s words continue to echo through the annals of time, calling for us to create psychological, cultural, social, and economic change in the midst of world events that are speeding ahead while we choose to lag behind. Just as we choose to fall behind, we can also choose to surge forward. Just as we are knowledgeable of the problems, we are also knowledgeable of the solutions. All it takes is the courage to make the right decisions from the highest levels of education. We need African minds creating African solutions to African problems within the parameters of African culture. If we are serious we will make the necessary changes now that will ensure a glorious future for the NEW LIBERIA.

Dunn, D. Elwood (Sept. 5, 2006). “Liberia and New Beginnings,” The Perspective, Atlanta,

Sherman, M. Antoinette Brown (1989). “Perspectives on Education in Liberia.” Unpublished manuscript, Cornell University, Ithaca-New York.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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