Technical Education: One of the Vehicles To Settling Our Liberian Palaver

Presented By Marcus S. G. Dahn

The Perspective

August 2, 2001

Editor's Note: Education, but more importantly, technical education should be embraced as a cornerstone of a new educational philosophy in a reformed Liberia, argues Marcus Dahn. Dahn further argues that the paucity or neglect of technical and vocational education which emphasizes science and technology has contributed to much of Liberia's backwardness. He calls for the adoption of the 2-year technical educational approach based on the American model. Implicit in this criticism is the overemphasis on liberal arts education which has not addressed the country's needs, but also not mentioned is the absence or lack of an industrial sector that would absorb Liberia's future technocrats. These remarks were made at the LAMA's Town Hall meeting held this past weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, under the theme: "Settling the Liberian Palaver." Below is the full text of Dahn's presentation:

The conveners of this important conference have generously defined the Liberian "palaver;" so
I'm not going to waste your time by redefining it here.

Often times, critics have blamed previous administrators of the Liberian nation for not providing adequate educational avenues for all the citizens; this assertion has some merit to it, but only to a certain point. It is also an accusation that may not be true. Regrettably, this unfounded misconception has been carried over from one generation of Liberians to another. In many research work done on Liberia's higher education, I have found that early leaders were, believe it or not, very much interested in educating the citizens of what was then an emerging democracy on the then "Dark Continent" of Africa. In this edited version, prepared purposely for this, our154th independence discussion, let me attempt, after dissecting the educational policies under Presidents W.V.S. Tubman, W.R. Tolbert, and Samuel Kanyon Doe, assign the following grades for each leader's efforts in this area of national development. I'll give all previous presidents before Tubman a B grade; Tubman himself gets a C+; President Tolbert receives a D while President Doe gets an F grade-all three for their lack of educational policies. Another commonality shared by Tubman, Tolbert, and Doe was their lack of the political will to perceive education as a developmental too] and implement programs to achieve it. Each one of them failed miserably to enhance the educational foundation laid by President Joseph Jenkins Roberts and others. (Many of you are already asking, "While hasn't he mentioned any educational policy under the Taylor Government?" Quite frankly, friends, Taylor has NO policies to diagnose educational or socio-economic, which are worth mentioning here. So why waste my breath on something that doesn't exist or hasn't even been contemplated? Please permit me to move on!

Given the importance of technical education to national development, particularly in a technologically underdeveloped country such as Liberia, many Liberians had thought that each succeeding leader would make education a top priority. But we all know too well the dismal educational policies or a lack of any educational initiatives by succeeding Liberian leaders. The fact is, budget reductions, coupled with a lack of sound educational policy, and the already depressed social and economic conditions, have often led to the dramatic decline in school enrollments and most recently, the "de-education" of Liberia's future leaders.

Reasons For Technical-Higher Education
There are three purposes of higher/technical education in any given society: (a) To assist individual members of a society to acquire substantive knowledge and inquiry skills; (b) To serve as a catalytic vehicle to educate future citizens for appropriate participation in their nation's development and to ensure conformity to rules; and (c) To prepare individuals economically to contribute in their later work roles because, as the Nobel laureate Theodore Shultz said, " in human capital support investments in physical infrastructure ... but unlike physical infrastructure which depreciates, the economic value of educational investments increases exponentially from one generation to the next." Consequently, technical higher education must therefore, be seen as the persistent "...pursuit of knowledge," which is necessary not only for our own individual survival, but also for the development and advancement of our society, and the realization of our dream of "Liberianization." Folks, when we are broadly and technically educated, we have nothing to be afraid of, in fact, we joyously rejoice in the education of others. We become civil, caring, and we serve our fellow countrymen and women unquestionably, because educated people believe that there's room for everyone at the "table." When we are technically inclined, we treat everyone with respect and civility, and most of all, we "settle our palaver" amicably and intelligently.

Technical-Hizher Education
In a speech delivered in 1948 at Morehouse College here in Atlanta, on "The Purpose of Education," Dr. Martin Luther King frowned on his fellow Americans who thought that education should "equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they [could] forever trample over the masses." In King's mind, education should "enable [us] to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of life. Education must train [us] for quick, resolute, effective [and critical] thinking ... [to] sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false [or propaganda], the real from the unreal, and the facts from fiction." When we're completely educated, we think intensively and critically. Complete education friends, " [us] not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. Both broad and technical education transmit to [us] not only the accumulated knowledge, but also the accumulated experience of social living." The great American educator, Horace Mann, once defined technical-higher education as a "great equalizer of the conditions of men-the balance wheel of the social machinery." Another student from Mann's school of thought (Cliff Alexander) said, "There is only one way to end poverty, reduce crime, cure illness, ensure peace, and create opportunity. That one single way is [technical] education." In essence fellow Liberians, the aim of both technical and broad education is to convert our minds into a living fountain, not a reservoir because when a reservoir is filled, it can be emptied by pumping out that which it was filled with. But when your mind is converted to a new way of thinking; to a new idea, it can never go back to its original form. Education should not only prepare us just for adult life, but should be a continuing process of growth and development from birth to death. And we need leaders, not rulers, to incite and excite us in this endeavor because we all benefit from a leader who is as good as the people he leads.

Why is a leadership necessary in helping to settle our "palaver?" You see friends, improving the educational system of our country ultimately rests upon both the willingness and ability of the government in power to change and revise existing patterns of action in administration, standards of operation, curriculum and other supporting infrastructure. In a developed democratic society, the government usually attempts to change those patterns of action by formulating and enacting legislation, and then implementing the new policies. Unfortunately, this process is not applicable to Liberia. But, fortunately, Liberians in the Diaspora are in a unique position to make history again, just as Liberian leaders in the I 9th Century did on July 26, 1847. Let's do it right, this time around and stop the "blame games."

As a developing nation, our country still suffers from a shortage of farsighted leaders who have not supported a sound, developmental education system. This is demonstrated by our inadequate facilities, and under-qualified teachers, as well as an obsolete approach to curricular development, few and inappropriate books, and limited technical and vocational training. Despite years of generous financial and technical assistance, and an abundance of natural resources which have been vigorously but uncoordinatedly exploited since the 1950s, Liberia has never developed an adequate "appropriate technology" education system to provide a technically trained workforce essential to its development. This dismal educational picture has remained unchanged for decades, while we struggle with one of the highest illiteracy rates on the Continent-by some estimate about 80% of our citizens are unable to read or write! Add the impact of the 7-year civil strife and you have an excellent recipe for ongoing catastrophe.

Since national development is virtually inseparable from education, Liberia's ability to educate its people and provide the technical expertise necessary for development results in our persistent lagging behind other developing countries. Studies and evaluations of educational projects financed by the World Bank, USAID, African Development Bank, International Development Association and other donors show that despite the large sums of money given to the Tubman, Tolbert, and Doe administrations, inefficiency, duplication of duties, gross mismanagement, corruption and administrative ineptitude consistently flourished uncorrected. What we call our educational system is in fact, poorly designed, inconsistent from county to county, and much neglected, despite increases in enrollments, teachers, and buildings during the Tubman and Tolbert years. My questions for you are (a) "Why, after so many years of assistance (financial and technical) and Liberia's r~lationships with the United States and other industrialized nations, is there still no successful design for technical education and delivery? and (b) What can we do to rejuvenate the bleakness of our higher-technical educational system and restore hope for Liberia so that we can "settle our palaver" respectfully, peacefully, and responsibly?"

My answer to these questions is simple. We need to explore one of many options open to Liberia- the American two-year system, commonly referred as the community college system. I studied this system in depth during the time the senseless civil war in Liberia was going on. The 2-year technical system of educating students after high school, as well as retraining individuals for multitude of technical and advanced positions, provides an important corrective measure Liberia's educational system currently lacks but desperately needs. I strongly believe Liberia could benefit from this approach to development now and drastically improve its technical-higher educational landscape to rebuild its labor force for the enormous post-war tasks. The two-year college is an innovation that has, for 100 years, withstood the test of time. This system created the American middle class! It is characterized by its unique ability to adapt. After a century, its original goal of exploring new educational avenues and developing quality programs to meet the demands of emerging American industries remains unchanged. With its open-door policy to serve society's differing needs (entry exams not required), the junior college system is an equalizing force for narrowing social and educational disparities among the various populations in America. Technical programs were created to respond to changing needs of America and exploring new educational frontiers by developing quality and practical education for both the public and private sectors. Today, by training and retraining students for immediate employment and in technical seminars to upgrade skills of personnel, technical education continues to offer opportunity in occupational programs.

Business-Government-Technical Education Cooperation
In an era marked by rapid technological changes, many regard cooperation between business industry and the community college system as an important and necessary end. In international development, a synoptic analysis of the two-year college system's role reveals a relentless effort to bring appropriate technology to all those nations who not only want it, but need it. Seeing the two-year system as a means to develop and facilitate skills and for translating and converting new discoveries and technologies into practical use, foreign governments and business owners are increasingly sending their executives and employees for both long-term (12-18 months) and "crash courses" at these institutions. For example, of the 407,500 foreign students attending U.S. colleges and universities in 1990/91, over 60,000 were enrolled in the two-year system in various disciplines. In Europe, Asia, Latin and South America and the Caribbean, both the two-year system and the business-industry sectors share a common goal to bring about the rapid social, economic, and technological transformation of their society. South Africa recently joined the trend when its leaders chose the technical system to develop "appropriate technology" educational programs linking business, industrial, labor and governmental sectors to the system.

Benefits of 2-Year Technical Education
Considering Liberia's high illiteracy rate--variously estimated from 80-85%, inadequate and obsolete educational system inherited by succeeding Governments, it is incumbent upon all of us to explore the means by which a systemic educational structure used successfully elsewhere can be transferred and incorporated into our country's higher educational system. Based upon this notion, I have developed a conceptual and operational model of the U.S. two-year technical college system for Liberia because I am convinced this concept is one vehicle that will allow Liberia to meet its developmental and reconstruction needs, thereby amicably "settling [its] palaver." With Liberia's socio-economic, educational, and political systems continue to be greatly impaired by the war-infrastructure completely destroyed, civil servants demoralized or displaced, and a majority of Liberian technocrats out of the country, it is imperative that an appropriate educational system be designed and customized by Liberians, transferred by Liberians, and incorporated by Liberians, to help rebuild Africa's first and oldest democracy. We must urge, and in essence, demand the present leadership to not only emphasize, but vigorously pursue a vocationally-oriented and technical education system so that the process of nation-building and national development can quickly move forward.

As I said in preceding paragraphs, after four years of studying major developmental higher education systems of the world, I am convinced that the American technical college system is the best one for Liberia's future. It is a system designed to meet the functional demands of any developing nation because the applied learning of most programs contributes to both individual knowledge and to employability. Providing programs in adult education, occupational/technical curricula, training and retraining of workers, as well as a terminal education for those who do not wish to obtain a bachelor's degree, the two-year system can produce the largest number of competent individuals in the shortest possible period of time and at the lowest possible cost.

Let me conclude by reiterating what I have been saying in the last few minutes. Preparation is the key to both national and personal success. We also know that the future is for those who prepare for it. Certainly, we cannot, and must not, expect to settle our individual and national differences in the absence of educated minds. Not only do the results of my studies emphasize, but substantiate what many observers of Liberia's education system have warned past leaders about for a very long time. Educational changes in Liberia have taken place very slowly, if at
all, because those who had the power generally did not have the knowledge and the political will, and those with the knowledge had no power to effect educational changes. Thus, the corridors to Liberia's development are cluttered with wasted human potential. However, despite this, I am convinced that, collectively, we can "decongest" the roads to educational reforms and put Liberia on a sound educational path of practical "appropriate technology," by transfer-ring and adapting certain fundamental characteristics of the American technical college system. But such an undertaking however, requires vigorous commitment and dedication on the part of the political and educational leadership. Certainly, it is "impossible to win the race [to settle our palaver] unless you venture to run, impossible to win the victory unless you dare to battle [against the lack of educational initiative -war]." In this struggle to overcome our differences, we must get rid of the mutual ethnic distrusts and establish trust-the key ingredients are persistency and determination-we must be persistent and determined. I'm a strong believer that these two traits can in fact, overcome most every obstacle. As the South American poet Claudio Japas once said, "[We can never change yesterday, [but we can] only learn from it." We can do this by being educated! The importance of technical education cannot be overemphasized. As the famous American educator, John Dewey, once remarked, an "...educational task cannot be accomplished merely by working on men's minds without action that effects actual changes in institutions." Therefore, "[Liberians] must [learn to] participate in [their] own re-education if [they are] to be re-educated at all."

I couldn't close this discussion without making a mention of the creators of our Liberian Palaver-Liberian leaders. You see, friends, I don't believe there's anything wrong with men possessing riches. [But] the wrong comes when men allow themselves to be possessed by their riches. The Greek writer, Marcus Tullius Cicero, says it better when he wrote before his death in 43 B.C., "Morals today are corrupted by our worship of riches." Liberians have got to be better educated to discern true leadership from pretended leadership. We've got to do better than what we've been doing. If we're to respectfully settle our palaver like intelligent people and rebuild democracy in Liberia, it will be by bringing education to the people. In my opinion, this philosophy speaks eloquently to the plea of the Liberian people. The American technical college model could be the instrument to promote democracy through an educated workforce.

Improvement of the Liberian educational system ultimately rests upon the ability of the government to revise or change existing standards in administration, classroom, curriculum, and other supporting structures. However, it is my belief that if there is to be any educational change at all in Liberia, it will come only when we demand that the leadership in Monrovia imposes clearly defined and broadly measurable institutional goals based upon a careful assessment and analysis of the best available data that are specifically appropriate to Liberia. I submit that the data I have collected regarding the applicability of the two-year system is among the most practical.

Properly implemented, the 2-year technical college would meet the other goal of this discussion: To give Liberia's youth, who now constitute a huge majority of the population, a chance for a decent future, requires a basic education. It is the only way to instill in them a strong sense of values, including a sound work ethic, and equip them with a wide range of appropriate skills to cope with the intense challenges of the future-reconstruction and reconciliation of Liberia. Many Liberians currently lack these skills but they are essential now and for the future. Benjamin Franklin said in 1750, "Wise and good men are ... the strength of the state. Much more so than riches or arms which, under the monument of ignorance and wickedness often draw destruction instead of providing [education] and safety for the people." As we seek to maintain our newly found "peace," it is incumbent upon all Liberians not only to strive for a political solution to our enormous and somehow insurmountable problems, but to reaffirm Benjamin Franklin's belief that, in the final analysis, nothing is more significant to Liberia than the preparation and education of its young people to settle their palaver responsibly.

The prevailing conditions in the country make it more necessary than ever for a new educational innovation to be embraced. The two-year technical college system will make such an endeavor possible; it is adaptable and cost-effective. For over a century, it has proven its value and continues to provide concentrated instruction in technology applications in education, while establishing effective management and evaluation systems worldwide. In essence, the two-year technical system is really the "people's institution," serving the young and the old, educating the educated or the illiterate, and providing services to, and for, the people worldwide. Drawing its resources from the community and providing greater access to every individual seeking higher education, as well as preparing students for immediate employment in technical and vocational fields, the technical college system is truly an institution "of the people, by the people, and for the people." With proper adaptation, it will fill a desperate need for education and training in Liberia, now and in the future.

Fellow Liberians and Friends of Liberia, As George Washington Carver said, "There's no shortcut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation." Working in concert, we can accomplish our objectives by tackling them through whatever educational means necessary. I know this is doable; but are we prepared to undertake it? I am!

It Still Continues!!!

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