What is Wrong with the Foundations of Education in a Pluriverse? A Personal Account

by Victor Nweke

The call to decolonize institutions of learning both in terms of the composition of the curricula and the facilitators (teachers) is now an issue even in Europe, the United Kingdom, North-America, and Australia. Prior to the 21st century, the call was predominantly made by intellectuals and students from colonized nations, of which Africa is part. But, what is wrong with the foundations of education? What is sustaining it? Why is it difficult to undo? These questions can be and have been coughed and approached in different ways by different scholars. I choose to address them from my intersubjective experiences as a human being, an interconnected individual member of the Igbo nation, a citizen of a country known as Nigeria.

Nigeria is a country of diverse nations created by the colonial agents of ‘Great’ Britain through subjugation. I did my formal education from primary to tertiary level (with a master’s degree) in different parts of Nigeria. I also held academic and non-academic positions in urban and rural communities across diverse ethnic nationalities. My views are tainted by my intersubjective experiences as an Igbo and a Nigerian. Reflecting and writing from my lifeworld, may help my readers to connect with what I think is wrong with the foundations of education, what is sustaining it, and how we can collectively do something rather than just write about it. A list of some works that support my analysis will be provided at the end.

Foundations of Formal Education in Nigeria

‘Formal education’, is the local terminology for education in the school system that British colonial administrators and European missionaries brought to Nigeria.  Following Chinweizu (1975), I think the proper term should be ‘formal miseducation’. As Walter Rodney (1972) aptly posited, “colonial schooling was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment”.

Underlying the curriculum of colonial education is the conviction that the world is a universe. There is only one perfect worldview, which encapsulates a perfect monolithic framework for human flourishing and social progress. The proponents of colonialism take articulate ideas of revered male thinkers of Anglo-American and European enlightenment on human nature and social progress as the perfect monolithic framework that defines the ideal nature of human beings and social progress in the world. Let’s call it the Eurocentric Universalism of European Enlightenment (EUE) – the said ideas, which includes the views of Immanuel Kant, projects white supremacy and male privilege as normal.

Among other things, EUE dismisses human beings with physiological features that differ from that of Europeans as sub-humans. Any alternative worldview or framework that is inconsistent with EUE is counterfeit. Ridding on these presuppositions of EUE, the forceful subjugation, and systematic miseducation of the colonized was christened a civilizing mission and recognized as legitimate by political leaders of powerful European nations mainly because the physiological features and worldviews of the colonized differ from that of Europeans.

My Formal Education

I was born after decades of political independence. Yet, the formal education that I received was an example of colonial education. English was the language of instruction from the lowest to the highest level. The dream of every one was to learn how to read, calculate, and write in English. The ability to speak English is desired as a mark of academic excellence.

English language, Mathematics, Religious studies, Social studies, and Integrated science were core subjects in my primary school. Speaking any language besides English was a punishable offense. These subjects were taught in a way that demonize indigenous approaches to God (gods); indigenous ways of eating and cooking, songs, musical instruments, dance steps and dressing; indigenous approaches to farming, fishing, healing and so on were presented as either abnormal, outdate or demonic.

My university education was also structured to prevent me from self-discovery through critical engagements with diverse perspectives. I studied philosophy. The curriculum, which follows the approved benchmark for philosophy programmes in Nigeria, was fundamentally white and male. The programme introduces aspiring academic philosophers to prominent schools of thought in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic down to political philosophy articulated by male Anglo-American and European philosophers from Thales to John Rawls. African philosophy is part of the programme mostly as a reactionary appendage to real academic philosophy. The works of female philosophers suffer the same fate. At the postgraduate level, I was taught classical and contemporary political philosophy by a Nigerian female professor of political philosophy. Neither any African nor female political philosopher featured in the course. Note, my university education was in the 21st century (I started my undergraduate studies in 2005; postgraduate in 2013).

The Flaws and Global Effects of Eurocentric Universalism

The major premise of Eurocentric universalism is false – human beings are not living in a universe. There is no perfect worldview or conceptual framework that is culture-neutral. A view that proceeds from an erroneous premise is problematic even if it is logically valid. The implicit normalization of white supremacy and male privilege is still driving inhumane actions/reactions across the globe. Education that follows EUE alienates one from a specific form of human flourishing and social progress that comes from critical reflections on one’s lifeworld as an embodied rational agent, an interdependent being, and a member of a defined political community in a diverse world. Julia Schöneberg presents a broader view on this. The zeal for self-discovery, innovative thinking, and profound understanding of the factors responsible for the condition of one’s social reality hardly comes from studying prescribed texts in many schools. Why?

Prolonged miseducation in institutions that adopt the parochial universalism of European Enlightenment produced many experts that find it difficult to recognize subtle forms of white supremacy and male privilege within and around them. Many experts across the globe are accustomed to thinking and acting strictly from a parochial framework because of their formal miseducation. Many academics working in institutions that define, generate and disseminate what count as knowledge do dismiss an otherwise plausible view as unlearned mainly because it differs significantly from influential perspectives in Anglo-American and European academic traditions. The possibility of African philosophy as a distinct academic discipline was questioned for decades even by academic philosophers that are citizens of African countries.

Unlike the proponents of Eurocentric universalism, some theorists are of the view that the world we live in is a pluriverse – it is inherently pluralistic. It contains many imperfect worldviews from where many plausible modes of thinking, doing and living can be developed and employed. Self-critical intellectuals have continue to generate many plausible modes of thinking, doing and living from the intellectual heritage of different peoples.

The idea that there is a perfect monolithic approach that is culture-neutral and perfect is increasingly now seen as deceptive. Education in many parts of the world is still fundamentally tied to the erroneous assumptions of Eurocentric universalism mainly because, as the Igbo would say, anaghị amụta aka ekpe na agadi (one does not learn to be left-handed at old age). Self-reorientation is a rare choice and a difficult process that becomes more unlikely and difficult after one has gotten used to a particular orientation. A similar English saying, you don’t teach an old dog new tricks, also captures this point.

Conclusion: How to Overthrow Eurocentric Universalism

My formal education equipped me with the requisite skills to read and write from a single point of view. I think I have managed to escape because I am a human being, an embodied, interconnected, and reflective being. Reading un-recommended texts authored by intellectuals that question the parochial universalism of revered Anglo-American and European theorists across the globe made my presumed intellectual liberation possible. Should many teachers begin to use such texts in their teaching, and many students begin to read such texts on their own, the whiteness and maleness of knowledge may crumble faster than expected.

Hiring a diverse faculty in terms of race and sex is a necessary step that should be cautiously embraced. My formal education in Nigeria rightly demonstrates that it is in principle possible to have a diverse faculty without a diversified approached to knowledge. I try to undermine Eurocentric universalism by thinking from the lifeworld of marginalized groups as curated in hitherto marginalized academic traditions. My continuous training and activities as a foundational member of an academic forum that seeks to promote the ‘Global Expansion of Thought (GET)’, through a deliberative form of ‘glocal’ intersubjective engagements with relevant ideas across diverse cultures, shaped my basic disposition. The project – Diversity, Power and Justice: Transcultural Perspectives – where I am currently working as a researcher, is an ongoing experiment on how to undermine parochial universalism without negating the possibility of global political theory.

Victor C. A. Nweke is a researcher/Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Cultural Studies, University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany. In his research he interrogates and (re)conceptualizes perspectives on right conduct and human flourishing in an interconnected world of diverse nations and entities using ideas of African philosophy as a focal point of departure. Victor is happy to be contacted at vcanweke [at] uni-koblenz[dot]de

Selected References

Chiamkonam, Jonathan O.   2017. “Conversationalism as an emerging method of thinking in and beyond African philosophy”, Acta Academica, 49(2): 11-33.

Chiamkonam, Jonathan O.  & Nweke, V.C.A. 2018. “Why the ‘Politics’ against African Philosophy should be Discontinued”. Dialogue, 57: 277-301.

Chinweizu. 1978. The West and the Rest of Us, Lagos: Nok Publishers.

Dübgen, Franziska. 2012. “Africa Humiliated? Misrecognition in Development Aid.” Res Publica 18(1): 65-77.

Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Eze, Emmanuel C. ed. 1997. Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Malden MA: Blackwell publishers.

Eze, Emmanuel C. 2001. Achieving our Humanity: The Idea of the Postracial Future. London: Routledge.

Featherstone, Mike, Scott Lash, & Roland Robertson eds. 1995. Global Modernities, London: SAGE.

Freire, Paulo. 2006. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary edn. New York: Continuum.

Masolo, Dismas A. 1994. African Philosophy in Search of Identity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mignolo, Walter D. & Catherine E. Walsh. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kerner, Ina. 2018. “Postcolonial theories as Global Critical Theories”, Constellations 25:614–628.

Okere Theophilus I. & C. A. Njoku, eds. 2005.  The Scramble for Africa: The Scramble Continues, Owerri: Assumpta Press.

Oyeshile, Olatunji & J. Kenny eds. The Idea of a Nigerian University: A Revisit. Washington DC: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2018. The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South, Durham: Duke University Press.

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