The learning society: A gateway to social progress in Liberia

By: Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective
March 13, 2001

The map of the self is in different in each culture, and each culture could be said to require its own separate psychological science. (Andrew Lock et al as cited in Wlodkowski,1999, p. 67 )

The views expressed in this article arose out of concerns for the current state of malaise in Liberia's educational system and what can be done about them. I have chosen this particular moment to express my concerns because I believe that our nation finds itself at historical crossroads in its attempts to grapple with the nature of social progress. Since the foundation of the republic in the 19th century as a safe haven for ex-slaves from the United States, the benefits of progress and technological change have alluded us as a nation. But this does not suggest that the boundless possibilities that come in the wake of social progress are not tangible enough. In fact, the hard facts of life and the historical imperatives of modern society show exactly the opposite.

The learning society is an off-shoot of modernity. It is a society which ensures that every child, regardless of socio-economic status and ethnicity, must have equal opportunity to educational benefits such as basic and secondary education. This is a society which makes available material resources for every individual to fulfill their educational potential by pursuing learning goals in adolescence and adulthood. In this context the notion of encouraging lifelong learning as a policy commitment and praxis comes to mind.

Over the years, the question of the role of the state in educational development has been the subject of conceptual and policy debates. Before the 1980s, most analysts of development and education agreed on one issue: that the state had major responsibility in financing and providing educational opportunities to society.

The presence of externalities (which means the benefits of education to the larger society) was one of the most powerful arguments used to justify this conventional wisdom. Externalities suggested that the dominance of private provision in the form of cost recovery would lead to the underprovision of schooling, thereby depriving vast segments of society of educational resources ( see Colclough, 1996). Another argument associated with this early consensus was that education is a merit good that should benefit the larger society through the instrumentality of the state.

However, the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and 1980s particularly in Africa, led to a reappraisal of this consensus. This change in conceptual direction had a particularly profound effect at the level of World Bank and IMF policy interventions in Africa. Thus, in 1986, the World Bank issue a policy document on financing education in developing countries. In this document, the Bank called for private provision and cost recovery in the education sector. This document was followed by yet another one published in 1988 in which the Bank emphasized similar policies of cost recovery and selective expansion of education in sub-Saharan Africa. The case for cost recovery and dominance of private provision in the education sector had been widely supported in the research literature on school effects even before the 1980s ( Psacharopoulos, 1977; Bashir, 1997). However, the empirical evidence for the success of market oriented policies in education, when such policies lack a particular vision of society, are few and far between. For example, in places like Ghana and other African countries, the quality of education has not improved much after almost two decades of restructuring educational financing ( Sally, 1998).

In Liberia, with a much more weaker state system and dilapidated infrastructure due to a continuing state of economic and institutional paralyses, any talk of state withdrawal at this critical moment would be a perfect recipe for disaster. This is not to argue that the forces of state control at the moment have demonstrated any shrewd and mature stewardship. In fact, the current regime in Monrovia is culpable for the continuing decay of the Liberian educational system. A regime which came to power on the promise of re-energizing the education sector by increasing its technological competence, has turned a blind eye to the crucial questions of how to embrace the requirements of a learning society.

The learning society as an ideal must be accomplished if Liberia is to meet the economic and social requirements of social progress and globalization. A society is doomed to long-term poverty and political chaos without an explicit policy framework which embraces mass participation in education and learning for the acquisition of relevant skills. The education sector in Liberia has long suffered from lack of proper support or sometimes misguided efforts. This had been the case leading up to the Doe era in the 1980s and of course in current conditions as well. In the 1980s, a World Bank Group assessment team for the Ministry of Education observed that the Liberian educational system was fractionalized and lacked coordination. Teaching was said to be an autonomous activity often divorce from instructional materials, curriculum planning and administration. There was dissociation among the contents of the national curriculum and available textbooks as well as national examinations. Around the 1970s, shifts in World Bank theoretical postures and policy priorities with regards to development assistance for education, compounded the problems of loose coupling that bedeviled the educational system. While the changing emphasis of Bank policy had the positive effect of contributing to the expansion of primary education, they also led to discontinuities in other parts of the education sector ( Ayres, 1977).

What is required in Liberia today is a new look at the institutional structure and constraints of the education system with a view to correcting past failures. The ultimate goal of such process must be to loosen the grip of the forces of inertia and tradition which have held sway over education policy and other aspects of society. In Liberia, resignation to failure has now become a habit. Success stories based on the merits of individual achievements are hard to come by, especially when violence is frequently used as the only means to an end. Hence, one of the enduring and pervasive psychological effects of this process of decline is a self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations.

But history teaches us that such pessimism can be overcome. We have learned from European history that instead of accepting tradition as the ultimate authority, there was a time during the Enlightenment when tradition was subjected to critical review. The French Philosopher Voltaire took great proud in the intellectual achievements of Locke and Bacon. What he especially found to be fascinating in the writings of Locke was his popular criticism of authority, privilege and superstition in society (Capaldi,1967; emphasis added). Commenting on the results of the growth of criticism during the Enlightenment period, Soros has noted ( 1998, p.88):

"Modernity's achievements are beyond compare. Scientific method produced amazing discoveries and technology allowed their conversion to productive use. Humankind came to dominate nature. Economic enterprises took advantage of the opportunities, markets served to match supply and demand, and both production and living standards rose..."

I see the unimpeded spread of reason as a necessary adjunct to the learning society in which there is mass participation in processes of learning. This has been the experience in modernity. Modernity and the pervasiveness of reason has generally anticipated an achievement oriented society. And what we have seen in contemporary times is that a society which rewards achievement, and thereby encouraging intrinsic motivation tends to fulfill the conditions for a learning society. There is no doubt that the learning society is a gateway to social progress, especially in an era where human resource development is paramount to success in the international marketplace ( Ilon, 1994).

In order to succeed in Liberia, a number of policy goals must be formulated and duly implemented. We must ensure the adoption of a core curriculum that speaks to local conditions and cultural patterns. The functional characteristics of a national culture and how they impinge upon the pattern and rate of economic development must be emphasized. Whereas, general theories of modernization emphasized growth in western cultural penetration and capital investments as necessary and sufficient conditions for structural change, one finds little emphasis on the impact of the persistence of cultural forces and the internal dynamics of societal change (Even today, much of Eurocentric policy proposals to break the cycle of underdevelopment in Africa and elsewhere have not escaped this shortfall).

Thus, the function of a core curriculum that reflects national character is to ensure a humane approach to teaching and learning. Apart from transferring basic and higher order thinking and analytical skills, a core curriculum also validates the importance of the collective cultural capital of a nation. This cultural capital must be passed on from generation to generation through the process of socialization which takes place in schools and other places of learning. Unlike a handful of countries, our cultural capital has been unduly shaped by external forces due to our peculiar historical circumstances. Hence, the wholesale transfer of American educational philosophies and practices in Liberia created both possibilities, as well as constraints. An appreciation of these constraints and possibilities must be accomplished to facilitate the learning society.

For example, the use of English as a mode of instruction in the formal education sector has contributed considerably in breaching the gap between the universal and the particular in the realm of our consciousness. On the other hand, the predominant use of particularly American textbooks and other imageries that portrayed foreign values have undermined the formation of a distinctive African consciousness and identity. The reality of foreign domination of cultural spaces in peripheral regions has been a widespread phenomenon in much of post-colonial Africa. Therefore Liberia has not been the only casualty of these effects of cultural and economic domination. Invariably, these are some of the possibilities and constraints which must enter into our policy calculations.

I must end this article on a positive note. Because after almost a decade of civil conflict and in times of severe economic stress, one can see a new realization that embraces change at least in some quarters. Some Liberian educators are now more interested in launching local book projects- producing texts that reflect local realities and priorities. These efforts must be embrace as positive ingredients that reinforce self-image and self-concept in our youth. They may also be instrumental in reinforcing the integrity of our cultural capital. I hope soon these efforts shall bear a thousand fruits. Because one needs not underscore the fact that real learning that possesses the possibility of transfer takes place in a social context. And that to the understand the meaning and mechanics of learning, one must first seek to identify that social context ( Gates, 1995). Indeed, as cited by Lock and his associates (1996) in the epigraph to this article, the map of the self is truly different in each culture.

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