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Education and Cultural Change in Africa

by John Wilson - 1961

The author explores a series of questions. First, does education really bring about cultural change? Second, is the education desired and given in Africa of sufficient quality and extent to bring about cultural change? Third, does African leadership foresee and accept the conditions of such change so far as they have affected the West?

IN ANY ATTEMPT to deal with education as an agent of cultural change, a writer, of necessity, labors under many handicaps. The term education is itself a subject of controversy. Culture is a nebulous entity, and the processes by which it changes is still a matter for continued investigation. Even more formidable is the task of observing and grasping the two processes of education and cultural change in interaction, given the assumption that there is such interaction; for the general trend of social investigation, following the example so long obtaining in the natural sciences, is to isolate and analyze rather than to integrate and synthesize. Such inorganic and mechanistic investigation is not, on the face of it, the best means of determining what effects education has upon such a complex and carefully balanced entity as a functioning culture, especially when there is every evidence that the culture itself is rapidly changing irrespective of specific educational factors within it. The present approach to the subject owes more to holism than to analysis of parts and, in the absence of the kind of information that could be obtained only by closely integrated team work, relies mainly on personal experience and observation, suggesting only a theory that awaits investigation of the right kind. It is essentially the approach of an educationist sympathetic to and mindful of the findings of the sociologist and of the social anthropologist.

There is throughout Africa a profound faith in formal education, viewed as what takes place between the first stages of schooling and the end of the secondary school (with an extension into higher education), as the main means of enabling underdeveloped societies to catch up with the West. Thus, the proportions of national budgets devoted to education are, by Western standards, staggeringly high, reaching recently in Nigeria the order of 30 per cent. Even this by no means indicates the total of national resources devoted to education. Members of Christian churches and missions and of Islamic groups repeatedly and steadily subscribe to the educational expansion of their particular faiths. Drawing upon the strength of the indigenous extended family system, kith and kin levy heavily upon themselves to invest in those relatives who have successfully worked their way up the educational ladder and have reached the last expensive heights of university and technical college. Expatriate Western teachers in Africa unanimously pay tribute to the industry, application, attention, and perseverance of their pupils. The older pupils, in their turn, have been known to check carefully the content and direction of their teachers' presentation lest time is wasted on what seems irrelevant to acquiring the all-desirable knowledge which is to transform society. The question still remains as to how far all this concentration and effort on education does bring about cultural change. Here arises a series of questions of which the more obvious perhaps are these: First, does education really bring about cultural change? Second, is the education desired and given in Africa of sufficient quality and extent to bring about cultural change? Third, does African leadership foresee and accept the conditions of such change so far as they have affected the West?


As to the question of whether education brings about cultural change, there has been much argument, the general outcome of which would seem to be that education, in the sense of formal instruction in places of learning, is a weak cause of change in comparison, say, with technological and economic forces. Thus, Monsieur Thabaud, in his book, Mon Village, noted in the nineteenth century that the coming of the railway to his French village location caused, almost overnight, a universally greater social change than had several decades of effort by the village school. If the humanitarian-ism that led to the abolition of slavery was in some respects the outcome of Christian teaching, the change so brought about was powerfully and speedily assisted by the advent of machinery capable of accomplishing the labor of many hands, a powerful force still at work, causing contemporary education to consider learning as likely to lead to the profitable use of leisure brought about by the ever-growing potential of power machines. As Whitehead (5) once pointed out,

In the ancient world, Mesopotamia and Egypt were made possible by irrigation. But the Roman Empire existed by virtue of the grandest application of technology that the world had hitherto seen: its roads, its bridges, its aqueducts, its tunnels, its sewers, its vast buildings, its organized merchant navies, its military science, its metallurgy, and its agriculture. This was the secret of the extension and the unity of Roman civilisation. . . The history of mankind has yet to be set in its proper relation to the gathering momentum of technological advance.

If technology is a highly powerful influence for cultural change, it would be well if education, in some of its aspects at least, were in strong alliance with it. It would appear, however, that in Western societies at least, despite appearances, education is not notably allied to technology and technological change. H. G. Wells (2), who would have found himself at one with Whitehead, asks in The Anatomy of Frustration,

Does one teacher in a hundred ever ask himself what he imagines he is doing to the learner and the world? . . . .

In every generation the more vivid young go out to the activities of general life, to business, politics, adventure. But the good timid boys and girls who have clambered obediently from prize to scholarship, learning all that is respectable and nothing that is new, sit enthroned as teachers in the class-rooms and cloisters, trying not to hear the world go by outside.

The history of the slow and reluctant acceptance of the sciences into the school curriculum, particularly in the Europe of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lends color to this Wellsian onslaught. Even as late as the middle of the present century, special efforts were being made to equip some of England's leading schools with adequate laboratories. C. P. Snow's Two Cultures indicates that the sciences have by no means received the fullest recognition, nor have the scientists themselves fully realized that, in education as in all else, divisions are elaborations and unity simpler than partition. Doubt haunts the minds of American educationists, despite America's phenomenal technological advances of the present century, as to whether or not education is sufficiently and efficiently in alliance with technological advance.


In Africa, things have been and to a lesser extent still are no different. Educational thought and practice have been concerned predominantly with those elements of curriculum, discipline, and method likely to contribute to character training, good citizenship, and community service, and for these, inspiration and material were sought in the literary, historical, and traditional rather than in the scientific, technological, and modern. The Latin language and the literature of Roman political history and jurisprudence were more valued in the classes of the secondary school than were the technological and scientific basis of Roman civilization. There was the general assumption that backward societies would have to tread the long slow road of Western development or, at least, recapitulate all the stages of Western social growth. It was the third decade of the present century before the first Phelps-Stokes Commission was able to present sound agriculture as cooperation with God and a means of developing the Christian virtues. Even then, the Jeanes school in Africa was seen as the chosen instrument to render indigenous subsistence farming more efficient rather than to create a technological revolution in agriculture likely to lead to far-reaching economic, social, and other cultural changes.

To criticize the Phelps-Stokes Commission's recommendations in this fashion is not to apportion blame. Such criticism springs from hindsight and from insight, experience, and knowledge gained from the social sciences in the years intervening between then and now. Further, the theory of African colonial development until the Second World War was preoccupied with a by no means blameworthy idea of avoiding violent change in the interests of preserving the best of African culture and grafting on to it only the best of the West. Also, as will appear later, the Phelps-Stokes Commission did state a view of education as a life-long process far exceeding, but including, the formal elements of schooling as the only kind of teaching and learning process likely to effect cultural change. This has proved to contain an enduring truth. What is relevant to the present purpose is that in the more advanced African territories, such as the Gold Coast of the third and fourth decades of the present century, the attempts to implement recommendations about agricultural education as suggested by the Phelps-Stokes Commission were highly unpopular and failed largely because they were at too low a technological level to meet the need for techniques that would permit the expert cultivation of export crops. Further, the turn-over of acreage, capital, and manpower to export crops and to other developments threw a demand upon subsistence farming for better production from a depleted total acreage and from shrunken manpower. The simple, if more efficient, techniques of agricultural education recommended by the Phelps-Stokes Commission presupposed continuing subsistence farming and fell far below the technological change required. They were powerless to facilitate agricultural advance and, far from encouraging cultural change, were resented and resisted as an attempt, by underplaying education, to keep Africans at the level of hewers of wood and drawers of water.


Here then is an example of the weakness of an education that is technologically unrelated to function as an agent of cultural change. It is naive, however, to suppose that a satisfactory relationship between technology, economics, and education goes the whole way or even a major part of the way to make education effective in cultural change. If the Phelps-Stokes report failed to grasp the primary relationships, it was successful in revealing a new dimension in education itself which had to be attained before it could be brought to bear effectively on the cultural change. Thus, though the answer to our first question seems to be that education, to effect cultural change in areas such as Africa, must be in line with necessary technological advance, this is a dangerous over-simplification. Whitehead (3) is again worth pondering:

It is a great mistake to think that in the past the full sweep of a new invention has ever been anticipated at its first introduction. It is not even so at the present day, when we are all trained to meditate on the possibilities of new ideas. But in the past, with its different direction of thought, novelty slowly ate its way into the social system.

Of Africa today it is still true, more particularly of the less well developed societies, that "the full sweep of a new invention" or a new idea or a new application is by no means "anticipated at its first introduction." Indeed, it sometimes meets with suspicion and opposition. Thus, though it is true that on the part of the educated Africans, and even among the uneducated, there is a generalized call for modernization, yet, when some particular case of modernization is mooted and certain resulting economic, social, and political accompaniments are glimpsed, enthusiasm is damped down and suspicion and opposition are engendered. It has been difficult, for example, to gain acceptance for the idea of land registration as a necessary accompaniment to modern techniques in agriculture, for registration conflicts with some of the deepest roots of African tribalism, where religion, economics, and social organization all meet to form the nexus of the culture. Since World War II there has been headway in this regard, but the frontiers of advance tend to include between the thrusting wedges of change many withdrawn bays and indentures of conservatism. Thus, we can hardly attribute prewar rejection of education in the simple rural techniques recommended by the Phelps-Stokes Commission only to their being at too low a level. The truth is that there was a marked tendency to reject all kinds of technical education, at whatever level, in preference for an education that was literary and bookish and that led, at the lower level, to clerical work, minor administration, and elementary school teaching, and later at the higher level, to the professions of law, medicine, and secondary school teaching.

The reasons for this are many and complex. Among the more obvious is that the incoming education from the West was itself literary and bookish. The incoming Europeans were mainly missionaries, government officials, and commercial agents—all men of the book, working in offices, at desks, in school, and in church. They appeared to lead very desirable lives. They did not obviously operate machinery or cause it to be operated. In the Islamic areas, they dovetailed with the tradition that men of the book do not soil their hands.


At a deeper level still, the literary and bookish were preferred to the scientific and technological because they presented slight menace, relative to technological training, to the indigenous culture. In certain respects, a literary education could even be regarded as a conservative buttress. Thus, a member of the family who, by virtue of book-learning, obtained a prosperous living and high prestige could be relied upon, as a point of wealth and status, to sustain dependents in misfortune and in old age and to provide patronage and even to exercise nepotism in favor of the young in the extended family group. Between the two world wars, science and technology offered lesser rewards of this kind, though this has markedly changed in the last 20 years. More potently, however, technology and science brought with them, more obviously and more directly than did the literary skills, threats to the indigenous culture at its very nerve center—witness the case of improved agricultural techniques causing change in indigenous attitudes towards the land, accompanied by the need for reforms in land tenure that struck at the heart of tribal organization and tribal social and religious sanctions. There is here a recognition by African indigenous society that technology is a more powerful—indeed an over-powerful—agent of cultural change than is education, at least an education of the literary and bookish kind, presented to children and youth in a formal school and college system.

Here arises the second of our questions—whether the education as at present desired and given in Africa is of a quality and extent facilitative of cultural change. It has been argued that the impact of modern technology is a more powerful producer of cultural change than is education. The place of education as an instrument of cultural change, then, would appear to be in alliance with technology, not only in the direct teaching of science and its technical application but also, and perhaps even as a matter of greater importance, by preparing the way for technological impact by opening the mind to change, increasing personal willingness and ability to adapt to it and to work out advantageously the economic, social, and other possibilities that flow from it. If this be accepted, it cannot be said that either the quality or the extent of education in Africa is currently equal to the task. In the elementary school, which is the only level of education that can be provided for large numbers of the young in Africa, the teaching is still patterned on rote learning under teachers who are very largely slaves to the teachers' manual that accompanies the pupils' readers and arithmetic books. This state of affairs seems unavoidable in a rapidly expanding educational system which, in the nature of things, must be desperately short of teachers of any kind, let alone of teachers well grounded in subject matter and commanding pedagogic skill of a high order. To meet such a situation, highly unusual measures are needed, including large cadres of expatriate teachers who are carefully selected, exposed to the best possible preparation, and set to work at the strategic nerve centers of the educational system.


As to the extent of education necessary to enable educational processes to work in support of cultural change under the impact of modern technology, the truth here seems to have been clear to the members of the Phelps-Stokes Commission, who, in addition to viewing schools as an element in the community relevant to cultural change, insisted that they were insufficient and that approaches had also to be made to adults through relevant but informal means of education geared to adult attitudes and to the rhythm of adult community life. Clear proof of this emerged in 1949 and 1950 with the group of male students, mainly veterans of the Second World War, attending a newly founded teachers college at Winneba in the Gold Coast. Their instruction included a course in the particulars of improved techniques of agriculture and the accompanying need for reform of land tenure. By actual field study, analysis, relevant reading, and open forum discussion, the students became convinced of the soundness of the case. During each vacation, they returned to their own towns and villages and discussed the issues with parents and elders who were themselves farmers. They made no headway, and some even became convinced in the opposite direction by the arguments they encountered. There is much other evidence that a theory commonly held in African education, viz., that schools alone and the education of the young change the ideas of adults, is naive and unrealistic, particularly in societies where status is significantly apportioned by age group. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that unless community development is stimulated by powerful, sustained, and skillful educational means, deployed on a wide front, comprising press and publication, cinema, radio, and television, then education is comparatively powerless to effect cultural change. Proof of this in a positive direction is suggested by the fact that Ghana's comparatively advanced state in Africa is based on vigorous community development measures, supported by the widespread, bold, and well directed use of modern information media.

Let us turn now to our third question—How does African leadership see the impact of Western culture as shaping the future of Africa? The argument so far has made much of economic necessity and the impact on African society of technological advance. Left at this point, it would suggest an acceptance of economic or historical determinism. It is not at all clear that African leadership accepts either the one or the other.

The idea that African culture has its own goals in mind and need not necessarily agree to the acceptance of Western norms through a process of economic or historical determinism has been recently presented by Janheinz Jahn (1). If the vigor with which African leaders argue the case of the African personality or of Negritude is any indication, then Mr. Jahn's thesis may be the more likely one. The present interim vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, speaking about a year ago in New York to the assembled Ghanaian students in that city, urged them to give their studies unremitting attention and effort because Africa needed the professional and technical knowledge and skill of the West. But he went on to declare that such skills and knowledge would be put to service to further the ideology of the African personality and a politically and culturally independent and united African continent. Referring to Westerners and their attitudes, he reminded his audience that they (Westerners) say that African hair is not hair but wool, that African lips protrude, and that African noses are flat; but such hair, noses, and lips are distinctively African, and Africans should be proud of them. He underlined that political emancipation is not enough. Economic and social emancipation are also necessary with, above all, spiritual and cultural emancipation.

If this is any measure of the determination of African leadership to develop a modern culture typical of Africa, the present time may be specially propitious and the present incentives very high. The times are propitious in two respects: First, heretofore in history, an underdeveloped area has had to accept a colonial relationship with a helpful metropolitan society or, at least, a political alliance between a major and minor partner where the economy and culture of the latter has, in verying degrees, been open to the intrusion of the former. Though Africa needs at the present time great help in money, equipment, and personnel from more powerful nations, she can balance between the Western and Eastern blocs. In so balancing, there is an excellent opportunity to reject too much cultural intrusion from either and to develop a vigorously unique and independent way of life and ideology. Second, the means of education to propagate such a culture, with all its complication and complexity, not only in schools but also by direct approaches to the whole adult population, are at hand in the highly developed modern communication media available to this day and generation. Thus, to take as an example the crucial problem of African land tenure, the solution of the cultural problems related to a high degree of technology applied to African agriculture need not necessarily be an acceptance of either Western individual ownership or the Soviet collective farm, but the extension from specifically African attitudes to new cooperative principles that permit land engineering in a truly modern sense. The conditions are a well formed and clear determination to apply and adapt African idioms, and the over-all and extensive means of communication to bring about general agreement and to afford the necessary instruction in the details of putting the adaptations into effect. The financial and other external aids that are required are assured so long as the Eastern and Western blocs must vie with one another. Agreement between the blocs is possible only upon acceptance by both of plans to extend peace and prosperity throughout the world, and that, too, would be to Africa's advantage.


1. Jahn, J. Muntu. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

2. Wells, H. G. The anatomy of frustration. London: Cresset Press, 1936.

3. Whitehead, A. N. The aims of education. New York: Macmillan, 1929.


Football for whom? With another football season drawing to a close, we find ourselves a little hoarse and a little weary: hoarse from cheering in Saturday's crowds for Saturday's heroes, weary from the usual dull scandals and arguments over the recruitment and subsidizing of fast halfbacks and big tackles. To us, there are two—and only two—crucial objections to be entered strenuously against present intercollegiate (and, to a lesser degree, interscholastic) athletics.

First, it is becoming progressively more difficult to participate in a sport unless one has virtually been bred for it—witness the enormously increased beef of football men and the almost pathological height of basketball players! The sight of 50,000 people watching a mere 22 attempting to out-batter and out-maneuver each other on the gridiron is depressing, but not because of anything intrinsic to this modern adaptation of gladiatorial combat. Rather, the depression is appropriate because of the relative lack of opportunity for the 50,000 to take part themselves in some similar activity. Unless one is good enough, by personal endowment as well as by effort, to play on a varsity squad, the probability of one's playing at all is extremely small. We think some important values are lost through this restriction on athletic participation and competition.

Second, the recruitment and subsidizing of students on the basis of athletic prowess is simply and incontrovertibly irrelevant to the purposes of any educational institution. The games are not; neither is the winning of campus status on the basis of demonstrated skills in sports. But to admit a student and to grant him a "scholarship" (Heaven save our English tongue!) because he can accurately throw forty-yard passes is a corruption of all that makes sense in education.

As we see it, responsibility here rests squarely with faculties and their administrative leadership, the deans and principals of the country. Policies on admission and scholarship grants are ordinarily quite responsive to faculty desires. Unless individual schools clean their own houses, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the various athletic conferences can do little, and housecleaning in the schools is basically faculty business. It is our happy suspicion that two actions would affect much needed corrections in our American athletic situation.

First is the adoption and enforcement by the faculty of a resolution embodying four fundamental principles: (a) There shall be no substandard admissions of students, (b) All scholarships shall be granted on the single basis of demonstrated academic ability, (c) Job opportunities on the campus must entail genuine work paid according to a locally specified scale, not sinecures for any special group of students, including varsity athletes, (d) Participation in all extracurricular affairs, including intercollegiate or interscholastic athletics, is contingent on the maintenance of an acceptable minimum of academic achievement with all students evaluated on the same general basis of performance in class. It seems most unlikely that any faculty that would seriously offer such a proposal would be over-ridden by the athletic director, the administration, or the alumni.

The second step is a bit more complicated but equally important. While maintaining whatever schedules of inter-school athletic competition that seem locally important and feasible, educational institutions should revise their curriculum to require year-'round participation by all students, unless excused medically, in a variety of carefully supervised sports. The primary objective here is not unbridled play, although there is no particular reason to apologize for such an aim. The proper targets are physical conditioning and the development of skills in the context of cultivating lifelong recreational potentialities and personal values. This means that genuine teaching would supplant coaching as an institutional investment and that truly educational emphases would be restored to their rightful and relevant place in the development of the body and the personality.

Under these conditions, it seems almost sure that athletics would again become a respected and contributory enterprise on our nation's campuses. It would no longer be a financial venture, corrupting the educational purpose in the name of profit; nor would it be a matter of dubious public relations or a way of prying contributions from alumni. That such an ideal is attainable is attested to by the experience of many institutions, most of which have found their fiscal structures strengthened rather than jeopardized by putting athletics firmly and cleanly in a sound educational perspective.

* * *

Publicity and Freedom. Press coverage of events involving schools is a frequent source of educational discontent. The doings of delinquents command more column inches than the constructive achievements of youngsters, and one of the great sources of schoolmen's anxieties is the "bad publicity" attendant on the use of allegedly controversial teaching materials. Let's recall two famous cases from the winter of 1960.

In one, parental protests forced Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World off the required reading lists of high school English classes in Bade County, Florida. In the other, similar public pressures resulted in a San Jose, California, teacher's having to remove The Catcher in the Rye, The Sun Also Rises, Look Homeward, Angel, The Human Comedy, and Brave New World from his reading requirements. In both instances, much of the agony resulted from rather lurid treatments in the newspapers. In both, policies were evolved on the basis of two principles: No student should be required to read a book to which a large number of "reasonable" parents may object, and no student should be denied access to a wide variety of materials. The practical upshot has been the banning of books from lists of required readings but their maintenance on open library shelves.

With full sympathy for any administrator caught in such an ugly situation, we respectfully doubt the wisdom of these policies and the appropriateness of the complaints against the press. On the one hand, we just can't see how any "reasonable" parents can properly object to their youngsters' reading the kinds of books in question, nor can we feel entirely comfortable about granting laymen this kind of veto power over significant aspects of the required curriculum. On the other hand, we suspect that at least some of the unfavorable press coverage is a consequence of the schools' having done a poor job of cultivating relationships with reporters and editors.

The process of education is extraordinarily complex, and contemporary educational machinery is simply hard for people to understand without patient explanations. If newspapers are to report educational events with the fairness and sympathy they deserve, then teachers and administrators must invest some time in making their own positions clear and in articulating in rational and forceful ways the bases for them. In educating the Fourth Estate in this fashion, educators will be strengthening their own proper voice in the general education of the community. If such an effort costs something in time, effort, and imagination, it still is well worth it in the forestalling of incidents like the ones in Bade County and San Jose or in the minimizing of their force through a more enlightened handling of them in the press.

* * *

Monthly Miscellany. A statute which would have provided free bus service for children attending non-public schools was recently declared unconstitutional in a 2-1 decision by the Alaska Supreme Court. In its ruling, which bears importantly on the issue of the separation in education of church and state, the court explicitly denied the "child benefit theory" of the Ever son decision in 1947 by the US Supreme Court. . . . Figures released by the US Office of Education indicate that the cost of books has risen much more sharply than the general cost of living. With 1947-1949 as a base, the prices of all consumer commodities had gone up in 1960 by 25.7 per cent, and wholesale prices for all commodities had risen 20 per cent. The rise for books, however, was 46 per cent and for periodicals, 48.5 per cent. . . . In Britain, the 106,000 full-time students now in the universities are twice the enrollment of 1939. This number is expected to rise to 135,000 by 1965 with two-thirds of the new places reserved for science and technology. The University of Sussex took its first students last October; the new Universities of York and Norwich are to open, respectively, in 1963 and 1964. Between now and 1965, the British government plans to finance this expansion of higher education to the tune of about $154 million. . . . The US Public Health Service estimates that there may be no more than 850 cases in the entire nation this year of paralytic polio. This would represent a reduction of almost 95 per cent from 1954, the last year before the wide use of Salk vaccine. . . . The American Library Association regards ten books per student as the minimum standard for high school libraries. . . . Governor Nelson Rockefeller recently directed that all present and future state-owned buildings in New York be modified to permit easy access by the physically handicapped. This policy will mean, among other things, greatly increased opportunities for employment by the state of persons with ambulatory impairments. . . . One in every four Americans is now registered in a public or private school! Increasing for the seventeenth consecutive year, enrollments last September reached a record peak of 49.3 million, 1.4 million more than a year ago. The largest gain, a thumping 700,000, was made at the high school level, a datum that will undoubtedly give colleges pause as they look forward to 1965.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 63 Number 3, 1961, p. 180-188
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3091, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 4:13:38 PM

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