The Education Palaver: An Impediment to Socio-cultural, Economic and Political Advancement in Liberia (Speech)

Delivered By Professor Sakui Malakpa

The Perspective

August 7, 2001

Editor's Note: Education should be viewed from a comprehensive and practical perspective to settle the Liberian palaver, Malakpa contends. He argues that the underpinnings of education must be based on morality, ethics and the "African attitude of beholding to the masses." These remarks were made at the July 26 weekend Town Hall meeting held in Atlanta, Georgia, under the theme: "Settling the Liberian Palaver." Below is the full text of Professor Malakpa's presentation:

The Liberian nation started on the basis of diversity. This was not unique because almost never does a nation start on the basis of homogeneity. On its part, the new Liberian nation was diverse in many ways and along many lines. The natives were diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, sometimes culture and of course, geographic location.

The settlers were diverse along many lines. This diversity included the recaptives, people recaptured from slaves ships along the West African coast and returned to Freetown. This was how the name "Freetown" came about for they were free upon arrival. Some of the recaptives were dropped off in Monrovia.

The recaptives were seized from ships that were thought to come from the Congo basin, a vast geographic area. As a result, those dropped off in Monrovia were referred to as the "Congo people," a name that was later applied to all the settlers.

The settlers were diverse in other ways. Some repatriated voluntarily from the Carolinas and other places in the United States while others repatriated from the Caribbean - Barbados, Trinidad, etc. From the United States, some repatriated voluntarily while others were forced.

Among the settlers, there were socio-economic and even racial divisions; the dark-skinned versus the mulatto group. They were sometimes bitter rivals. This included J. J. Roberts and James Spriggs Payne for the mulatto group versus people like E. W. Blyden and E. J. Roye for the dark-skinned group.

Some of us know that when J. J. Roberts died and our esteemed writer Blyden heard the news, he wrote a poem: "Roberts is dead so I am told; his only love was the love of gold; if to Heaven he's gone, angels look sharp for thou might lose a golden harp." This was the nature of the bitter rivalry.

The diversity and bitter rivalry had some negative impacts at home. In general, however, the nation excelled. We can boast of a glorious past. We can boast of having the first female president of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Before that, we can boast of being founding members of the League of Nations, founding members of the United Nations, and founding members and the cornerstone of the OAU. We were among the first people to fight apartheid. Until recently, our constitution was among the four oldest constitutions on earth after those of the United States, Norway and Belgium. Of course we know that our constitution was revised by various administrations to suit their purposes but nonetheless, it was among the four oldest constitutions on earth.

Indeed, the Liberian nation excelled in many ways. Then what happened? We had a military coup. We had wars. We were then plagued with destructive divisiveness, unspeakable bestiality, etc., all of which engulfed the Liberian system and community.

Our nation has also been engulfed by an amazing paradox. Never in our nation has our country been blessed with huge, vast and extremely diverse human resources; name a field and I will name you a Liberian expert. Never in the history of our nation have Liberians traveled so widely and in such huge numbers. On the other hand, never in our nation have we fallen so low, not even during the crisis of the late 1920s. Never in our nation has our reputation been tarnished this badly at home and abroad. Never in our nation has poverty engulfed our nation as is the situation today. Never in our nation have we seen such suffering, such pain, and such divisiveness.

What is our reaction and response to the lamentable situation in which we find ourselves? Our response lies in education; this is a major means of addressing our Liberian palaver. In essence, the education palaver is talking too much about education and doing too little about education. This education palaver then is an impediment to our socio-cultural, economic and political advancement; that is the topic of my presentation.

My compatriots, friends of Liberia, education is not merely literacy. It transcends literacy to embrace much more than ability to read and write. From the humanistic and existentialist perspective, education is merely a process of personal development. From this perspective, if education is to be successful, it must transmit culture, develop lives and enhance socio-economic and political advancement. In essence, this is the education for which we yearn.

My dear friends, the purpose of my presentation is not merely to criticize. It is very easy for us to do so in the comfort of Atlanta, Ohio or wherever we find ourselves. It is especially easy to criticize when we look at what is happening in Liberia. Instead of incessantly criticizing, let us remember, ladies and gentlemen, some of you here were in Liberia during the civil war. Those of us who were not in Liberia experienced the civil war in our own ways. My friends, wherever we were, we were spared from that war for a purpose. We were made to live when thousands died; this was for a purpose. Two hundred fifty thousand deaths or three hundred thousand deaths later, when will we learn? When will we know the purpose for which we were spared? When will we be genuinely concerned about our nation? When will we be concerned not only in lip service but in practical experiences and through meaningful contributions? This is the essence of my presentation.

To help Liberia rise again, it is very important for us to look at education from a different perspective, one that will enhance socio-economic development. We need education that will promote morality, ethics and communalism, the hallmarks of the African personality.

When we abandon communalism, then comes the isolating sense of individualism. When individualism comes, we forget our upbringing, the upbringing that taught us, "one for all and all for one." What exists then is "one for one," my life, me, moi. We no longer think about other people, our communities and our nation; we do not think about this or that. We fight for us. When we get in this mode, we see positions not as positions of service but positions of enrichment, power wielding and self-fulfillment. We do not see our positions as offices in which we are responsible and answerable to the public; rather, we see positions as offices for self-service and self-promotion. Education must therefore be emphasized to promote those elements that will enhance our culture for our culture promotes modesty, honesty, service, loyalty and belief in a Supreme Being.

In emphasizing education, we need to look at the field realistically and from every perspective. To cite one case, we need an education system that will promote human resource development. As someone has said, it takes skilled human resources to exploit nature, to carry out a market system, to run an effective economy, to carry out international services and generally govern a nation effectively. Likewise, we need education to promote peace and unity.

Emphasizing efficacious education means looking at every aspect and sector of our society. We need to consider some areas we even look down upon such as the important role market women play in our society. The role these ladies play in supporting the economy seems inconsequential but in actuality, is incredibly essential. They hold the economic fiber together. They play major political roles although they are sometimes used by administrations. For instance, market women are sometimes forced to demonstrate in support of an administration. Market women who fail to show their false support lose their tables and places in the market. To avoid this, some of these women support policies of administrations by falsely shouting "Hosanna!"

Despite the pressure market women face, their contribution is enormous; they do not give up. I am reminded of a story of the son of a market woman who failed in school every year; the boy failed to be promoted to the next grade year after year. The boy could not do arithmetic. One day the lady said, "Ah my son, me I don no book-oo but I will help you small small. This thing dey call arithmetic me I don no but I know how to do market so let me help you small small. Let start with the ting dey call 'take away." Suppose I give you one kala, I take away, what thing will remain?" The boy said, "The oil." She did not give up. The market woman was probably the key provider for her home as well as the tireless tutor although the son was pathetically bad. Such a relentless attitude should teach us the importance of persistence and force us to exploit every aspect of the system to ensure that our economy flourishes.

We also need an education system that will enhance political stability and efficiency in governance. This is not merely to fraught our language with meaningless platitudes. This is not merely to subject ourselves to humiliating sycophancy. This is not the education that will promote the presidency as the office of the guru, the know-all and be-all, the omnipotent, and the omniscient. This is not the education that promotes one individual as the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. This is not the education that promotes one person as the lawyer, medical doctor and chief security, the zoe, the chief, the everything. There is only one individual who holds such multiplicity of positions and powers, that's the Almighty God.

Instead of promoting a lip service education, when will we learn? Undoubtedly, we need education that fosters unity and forces people to go back to that African mentality of morality and ethics. We need to go back to the African attitude of beholding to the masses.

You know there are two types of African roosters. There is one rooster who thinks he serves the people so it is his duty to crow when the sun rises. He must inform the people that the sun has risen. This is his service and he does it dutifully. There is the other rooster who thinks when he crows, the sun must rise. This rooster thinks the only reason why the sun rises is because he crows.

Clearly, we need the mentality of the first rooster who is there to serve. We need the rooster that serves and embraces the sense of African morality. Unfortunately, instead of following such a path, we engage in crooked activities that hurt our nation and people. We continue to do so as if there is no tomorrow. However, there must be an end because, as it is often said, no lie lives forever. If those of us who stand by wonder how long, we need to pay attention to the words of James Russell Lowell: "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, but somehow, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim mist stands a God keeping watch over His own at night."

In other words my friends, when we consider our miserable situation, our response must lie in an education system that will raise us from the lowly depth. Doubtless, this puts an enormous responsibility on education alone but this is not to imply that education is the only response. It is however, a very important response. For example, can our future leaders be today's child soldiers? Isn't that scary? What examples abound around children who were not child soldiers but could be tomorrow's leaders? These children see examples they should not emulate but sadly, those are the only example they have.

We therefore need an education system that will address these problems effectively. This is not to downplay the selfless role many teachers are playing in Liberia. This is not to overlook the role of dedicated education specialists whose hands are tied by one thing or another. In the final analysis, however, to be effective, our education system must be planned and implemented efficiently; it must be characterized by effective administration and adequate funding. We can achieve this where there is political will.

In addition, our education system must make us believe in ourselves as a people. Similarly, we need an education system that will instill in our leaders not only the importance of service for today but a view of the future. Such leaders will desist from saying, "This is our time; exploit all now for we do not know how long we will be here. Save every penny you extort in Switzerland or elsewhere under false names, creative titles and long figures."

We need an education system that will teach us that it is improper to close down hospitals so only the most wealthy can fly to other countries for medical treatment while the masses die and while we build the economies of other nations. We need an education system that will teach us the importance of investing in our own country. However, this is not likely for both local and foreign investors in the face of chaos, seemingly institutionalized corruption, instability and war.

We also need an education system that will teach us the evils of mind-boggling selfishness. Indeed, one of the paradoxes that engulfs our community is this mind-boggling sense of selfishness. To illustrate, some of the most patriotic people I know are Liberians. Some of the most dedicated people I know are Liberians. Likewise, some of the most selfish people I know are Liberians. Indeed, it is mind-boggling selfishness to take money that could benefit 250,000, 300,000 or 500,000 people and give it to a girl friend or a boy friend. It is mind-boggling selfishness to take money that would benefit millions of people and build a personal home and yet call it enjoyment, living to the fullest, etc.

How can we respond to this intractable social problem? We must go back to the education which includes the words of our parents when they told us to consider other people. Again, this puts a burden on education in a way that is difficult to articulate. Yet, this is no reason not to try.

We Liberians in the United States also need to look at education differently. We must emphasize self development, given the opportunities we have. For other reasons, we need to take a second look at education. For example, we must learn to avoid (and desist from) the destructive gossips that engulf our communities. We must desist from the family destroying activities that are rampant in our communities. We must desist from the senseless competition for materialistic goods. On the other hand, we must learn the harm imbedded in our reluctance or failure to participate in activities that relate to our nation. Such attitudes leave our Liberian community leaders frustrated because often, they are forced to spend their own money and time as if they do not have anything to do. This is because many of us insist on others doing it for our country. The saying usually is, "Let them do it."

As Liberians in the United States, it behooves us to assist our people and serve our nation. We need to do this regardless of who is in office and regardless of the extent to which we disagree with the administration. Our commitment is not to a person but to our people. Our anger, disagreement or dissatisfaction with a leadership in Liberia must never make us forsake our people or perpetrate harm on our own nation; that's our country, not anyone else's.

To succeed in our efforts, we must be united. Incessantly, our failure to speak with one voice on crucial issues has haunted us. On the importance of unity, our national anthem speaks eloquently; it could not be more clear; it could not be more poignant: "In union strong, success is sure." With such unity and a determined spirit, we will not fail because "With God above our rights to prove, we will overall prevail."

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