Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Imperial Influences on African Education Systems

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Preface[edit | edit source]

The Berlin Conference (1884–1885), the formal beginnings of the Scramble for Africa.

European colonists have a long history of imperial influences in Africa, spanning from the Scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century to the post-war, decolonisation era to the present day.[1][2] This chapter examines how European colonists changed the education systems in its African colonies and explores the lasting impact that this influence had on the region. We begin with an introduction to traditional African education, followed by a summary of how colonial education developed from a form of missionary work to a means to racial subjugation and economic exploitation. Furthermore, we discuss how academic imperialism was informed by the disciplines of culture, economics, and politics, exemplifying it as an interdisciplinary issue.

Traditional African Education[edit | edit source]

Traditional African education consisted of developing skills and values that would help youth become self-sufficient and productive members of the community. While the specific skill sets that were taught varied between tribes, children generally learned about agriculture, religion, moral principles, and social life within the community.[3] For example, children of the Bamba tribe in Northern Rhodesia could name fifty to sixty species of trees by the age of six, as it was a society based on "cut and burn" agriculture.[4] There was no distinction between manual and intellectual education.[3] Education did not occur in formal institutions; rather, skills were taught through experiences and knowledge passed down from elders. Thus, responsibilities for education fell largely to the family in early development and shifted to the larger community in later stages of life.[3]

The Development of Colonial Education Systems[edit | edit source]

"Colonial schooling was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion... an instrument to serve the European capitalist class in its exploitation of Africa. – Walter Rodney[5]

The division of colonial Africa amongst imperial powers in 1913      Belgian Empire      British Empire      French Empire      German Empire      Italian Empire      Portuguese Empire      Spanish Empire      Independent

Pre-World War I: Missionary Education[edit | edit source]

The interference of Western actors in African education was primarily initiated by Christian missionaries. Early colonists opined African beliefs as fictitious and a form of witchcraft.[4] They established missionary schools to correct their perceived misbeliefs and convert Africans to Christianity. Such conversion was a method to "civilise" the African people, which was thought to be both necessary and beneficial to African society.[3][6] In missionary schools, very little was taught about African culture and their contribution to society. Instead, children were taught to suppress their culture and nationalism and to idolise their European counterparts, allowing Europeans to assert social and economic superiority.[5][6]

Post-World War I: Centralised Education[edit | edit source]

After the First World War, the focus of education in African colonies shifted from religious subjugation to economic optimisation.[4] Colonists utilised education to facilitate the exploitation and domination of the continent by preparing a paucity of Africans to work low-ranking jobs for the local government or for private European companies.[4] By doing so, colonists were able to maximise economic productivity in the colonies to fund the capitalist pursuits of the Empire.[7] The placement of Africans in the government also allowed colonists to exercise a greater degree of control over the colony. A native elite class, educated with Western ideals, would better satisfy the general population while be more effective at propagating acceptance of the colonial hegemony.[5] Despite the vast wealth generated by the colonies, their education systems were poorly funded. In 1935, 2% and 3% of the gross national income (GNI) was spent on education in British colonies Nigeria and Kenya, resulting in just 0.2% of African youths receiving higher education.[4]

Decolonisation: From Subjugation to Self-governance[edit | edit source]

After Second World War, it was agreed upon by the international community that imperial powers should work towards the gradual decolonisation of their imperial possessions. Thus, education in African colonies shifted to a curriculum that promoted the production of a self-governing nation.[4] Since then, the overwhelming control of Western ideals on education in Africa has largely diminished, although certain groups believe the imposition of Western academia in Africa still exists (e.g. through globalisation and foreign aid).[8]

The Informing Disciplines of Academic Imperialism[edit | edit source]

Culture[edit | edit source]

Africa is presently dominated by European languages – namely French, English, and Portuguese.

Racist ideologies and the propagation of cultural superiority were deep-rooted within colonial schooling.[4] Prior to the implementation of British schooling, African children were taught to appreciate the history and culture of their tribe. They were taught valuable skills and customs that were unique to their community, and such knowledge would be passed onto future generations by elders in the tribe.[3] Thus, indigenous education was very much intertwined with indigenous identity. The stigmatisation of indigenous pedagogies – and, by extension, indigenous culture – has led to the loss of languages, religions, and history.[8] African youths feel that knowledge of their own culture has little use in a world dominated by Western society. For example, the majority of Africans speak a European language, such as French or English, and indigenous languages are becoming increasingly unpopular.[7] Young Africans were further disadvantaged from their lack of understanding of their own heritage, making them feel alienated from their community.[4]

Economics[edit | edit source]

Human capital was mainly defined by its significance to GNI.[2] With this in mind, global education organisations such as the World Bank primarily focused on teaching people in developing nations new skills that were directly correlated to modernisation of the country. It was a scheme of establishing ideas of economic competition and growth through education. However, the process was largely unsuccessful, and the focus shifted to resource allocation to certain levels of education while still having human capital increase in mind. This led to a conclusion that compulsory primary education was the most significant to country's gross domestic product.[2] Consequently, this led to an increase of international organisation's influence on education in low-income nations, which, in itself, is a new form of academic imperialism. This process created a certain dependence on Western teaching practices and prevented indigenous populations from conducting their own research on educational curriculum and further learning. Wide use of Western textbooks and other learning materials ensured that a certain 'Western-centric' type of education prevailed as a desirable one.[2]

Politics[edit | edit source]

With a surge of new political elites, taking control of the educational structures was seen as an opportunity for political influence and formation of new concepts of sovereignty. In some cases, it meant establishing support for dictatorship or one party rule; in others the creation of a new liberal mindset. The widespread modern view on education was that it necessary for further globalisation, poverty reduction, and economic growth. Despite this, the African illiteracy rate stood at over 80% - twice that of the world average – and only 16 of 13 million Congolese received higher-education – a deliberate ploy by Belgian colonists to incrementally civilise their subjugated population.[2] This last statistic shows how the political ideologies of imperialist states had permeated through into education systems, emphasising the interdisciplinary influence of academic imperialism.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Overall, widespread imperial influence on various parts of development of previously colonised African territories has been implemented in multiple ways through education. The 'Western-centric' learning material, emphasis on certain subjects and linguistic tendencies have affected not only the way that children learn, but their perception of self identity, history, valuable skills and through that the economy and politics of the region. If one wants to comprehend the full effect imperialism has on education, the scope of research has to exceed disciplinary boundaries.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Harlow, Barbara. Volume Introduction: The Scramble for Africa. In: Harlow, Barbara, Carter, Mia (eds.) The Scramble for Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; 2004. p. 1-9.
  2. a b c d e Tikly, Leon. Education and the new imperialism. Comparative Education. 2004; 40(2): 173-198. Available from: [Accessed 28th November 2018].
  3. a b c d e Omolewa, Michael. Traditional African Modes of Education: Their Relevance in the Modern World. International Review of Education. 2007;53(5/6): 593-612. Available from: [Accessed 25th November 2018].
  4. a b c d e f g h Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. United Kingdom: Black Classic Press; 1972. Available from: [Accessed 4th December 2018].
  5. a b c Whitehead, Clive. British Colonial Education Policy: a Synonym for Cultural Imperialism? In: Mangan, J.A. (ed.) Benefits Bestowed? Education and British Imperialism. London: Routledge; 1988. p. 211-230.
  6. a b Ekeh, Peter. P. Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 1975;17(1): 91-112. Available from: [Accessed 25th November 2018].
  7. a b Phillipson, Robert. Linguistic imperialism: African perspectives. ELT Journal. 1996; 50(2): 160-167. Available from: [Accessed 1st December 2018].
  8. a b Shizha, Edward. Neoliberal Globalisation, Science Education and African Indigenous Knowledges. In: Kapoor, Dip. (ed.) Critical Perspectives on Neoliberal Globalization, Development and Education in Africa and Asia. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers; 2011. p. 15-31.