Blog from Abroad: Colonial education in a neocolonial world

The University of Cape Coast is considered to be one of the best universities in Ghana, but their standards are very different from ours. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

The University of Cape Coast is considered to be one of the best universities in Ghana, but their standards are very different from ours. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

During my initial six weeks in Ghana, the 15 international students and I were the only undergraduates on campus. The professors were on strike indefinitely, and the university renewed promises every week for six weeks that they would end the strike and we could start class. The other international students and I became used to a quiet campus with an abundance of empty benches on tree-shaded paths.

And then one day, everything changed.

On September 13, two days before classes were scheduled to start (for real), a friend and I went on a run at 6 a.m., expecting the same quiet morning routine as always. Much to our dismay, the sidewalks were stuffed with students, most of them pointing and laughing at us, and we suddenly felt as though we were in a completely new place.

With the advent of classes, campus transformed from a strange but peaceful place to one that feels like a university. Approximately 20,000 students attend the University of Cape Coast, making it twice the size of CofC and the second-largest university in Ghana. Every one of these students comes in knowing his or her major, and only takes classes within that department.

20,000 students attend the university. They only take courses within their major department. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

20,000 students attend the university. They only take courses within their major department. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

The difference between my interdisciplinary background and their mono-disciplinary background is striking for two reasons:

1. There is a different standard for what the educated person is expected to know. The idea of the well-rounded individual who can engage in a variety of topics is nonexistent. If you study English, you aren’t expected to know any algebra. If you study biology, you aren’t expected to know any chemistry.

This difference became clear to me in my first African Studies class. The professor made a chronological list of time periods on the board, Old Stone Age to Iron Age, and asked three students which time period they thought we were in right now. All three replied with the Neo-lithic Stone Age. They study African Studies, not history, so why should they know? (They also hadn’t learned about evolution, but that’s a whole separate blog post.)

2. Nobody is expected to think critically, period. The student who can memorize the most is the smartest, and the teacher who dictates notes exemplifies the gold standard of pedagogy.

Perhaps if critical thinking were valued, the students in my first African Studies class would have realized that the time periods were chronological, so we are therefore in the last one listed.

Let me make it clear that Ghanaians are not stupid. They are just experiencing the symptoms of colonialism.

Although quiet when I took this photo, the campus is usually bustling with students. They still learn using the colonial model of education. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

Although quiet when I took this photo, the campus is usually bustling with students. They still learn using the colonial model of education. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

The education system here was forcefully imported by the British in the 19th century as a form of cultural indoctrination. The British wanted to conduct business with the Ghanaians (if “business” can be used to describe the most uncivil acts of economic exploitation), and so they needed the Ghanaians to speak English and understand British culture. The native people were therefore educated in English and the humanities without access to science, technology, physics or math. It was not until Kwame Nkrumah came to power in the 1950s that the very first science university was created. The type of critical and analytical thinking that is imperative in science and advanced mathematics has historically been absent from the colonial education system, which is based in route memorization. The British explicitly did not want Africans to think, heaven forbid they discover that Christianity, education and colonialism were actually brainwashing their societies, which were already decimated and politically unstable because of the slave trade.

Systems take time to change, and although colonialism ended over 50 years ago, the colonial standard for education still exists. The students who grew up with this type of educational system are not taught to question the professors’ knowledge, validity or perspective. It is the most dogmatic and mind numbing of processes. They might as well connect a firewire from my brain to the teacher’s so that I can download his knowledge of the subject, because that’s really all that matters.

Many great writers, thinkers and leaders have come out of Africa, but from what I can tell, they beat the odds of the system and learned to think despite the fact that nobody expected them to. That being said, I will end this post on a controversial note: Without changing their education system to reflect African ways of thought – without nurturing thinkers who will devise African solutions to African problems – development will remain stagnant. Any sort of imported system is bound to fail because stakeholders are not involved in its creation, and an educational system is no different. The next generation of leaders and thinkers in Ghana will need to find a point of intervention in the educational system and revise it from there, allowing for systemic delays, in order to create a resilient society that is able to confront the major challenges of underdevelopment.


Olivia is a junior at College of Charleston double majoring in International Studies and Political Science. She is studying abroad this semester in Cape Coast, Ghana through a bi-lateral exchange program.

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