Photo: African philosophy of education: a powerful arrow in universities’ bow By Yusef Waghid
An African philosophy of education offers new ways of thinking about the continent.
To understand what an African philosophy of education is and why it’s so important, consider the role that universities should play in any society.
Universities, no matter where they are, ought to be places where
knowledge is internalised, questioned and considered. Such knowledge
should respond to a university’s particular social, political and
economic context. The pursuit of such knowledge happens in a quest for
human development. What would a university be if its only purpose was to
produce knowledge without considering its effects on a society and its
But it’s perhaps precisely this disjuncture – between what
universities purport to do and what happens in society – that starts to
explain why knowledge in Africa has become so misplaced. This has
happened in several Arab and Muslim states, where some universities have
seemingly become reluctant to encourage critical learning. Knowledge
produced in such universities does not attend to public concerns,
whether these are political, economic, social or cultural.
African knowledge can’t just be considered for some academic purpose.
It must also keep in mind why and how such knowledge ought to affect
society. This is why an African philosophy of education can be such a
powerful tool for the continent’s post-colonial universities as they
work to become producers of knowledge that has a public concern. This is
particularly important for African universities. The continent’s
citizens have to be initiated into ways of being and living that
emphasise human cooperation, openness to debate and discussion, and
responsibility towards one another.
Many of the continent’s political dictatorships could be avoided if citizens were encouraged to question and disagree.
Search for meanings
Simply put, an African philosophy of education is a way of asking
questions about education in Africa. It allows education students to
search for meanings that relate to their chosen field.
An African philosophy of education offers a discourse to address the
continent’s many problems. These include famine, hunger, poverty, abuse,
violence and exclusion of the other. One of Africa’s most common and
major dilemmas offers a useful way to illustrate the approach I’m
describing: the prevalence of military dictatorships.
A student of African philosophy of education would ask how military
rule affects education. How might education, in turn, address the
restrictions of a military challenge?
When the military is in charge, a country’s institutions of learning
are expected to toe the line. Coercion and control are the order of the
day. There is no room for dissent and democratic engagement. How, if at
all, should an African university respond to a society that is under
military rule? When students are taught to deliberate – to talk back to
others and to listen to them – they would be serious practitioners of an
African philosophy of education. Such students would not only willingly
engage with others and their differences, but also be prepared to
listen to dissenting views.
But adopting an African philosophy of education isn’t about just
analysing the continent’s problems. Instead a student will go on to
envisage how these problems could be resolved by considering education
as one possible medium. Then they’ll need to examine what both the
problem and its solving might imply for education.
Theory vs practice
As elsewhere, the idea of
doing or practising an African philosophy of education is connected to
bridging the pseudo-dichotomy between theory and practice. Some may
claim that African philosophy is merely an act of theorising. They are
wrong. It’s actually embedded with an energy and drive to change
undesirable situations and conditions.
In any case, there is no
separation between theory and practice. One cannot delink thinking from
acting upon happenings in society. Any good theory on education should
affect educational practices positively. What constitutes a positive
theory of education? To my mind, the answer lies with practices that
take shape through autonomous thinking, engagement and freedom made
visible through deliberation. In this manner, theory and practice are
An African philosophy of education also allows
inquirers to look at how educational practices – teaching, learning,
managing and governing universities on the continent – can be made to
Sadly, it’s rare for many of today’s universities in
Africa to teach any philosophy of education. Philosophy of education is
wrongly perceived as being some abstract exercise of the mind that’s not
connected to real-life issues. Africa’s institutions of higher learning
should seek to change this.
Any university that wants to advance
its status as a knowledge producer ought to be responsive to knowledge
claims. It’s here that the idea of an African philosophy of education
can become so important. It’s a crucial element for enhancing the
autonomy and freedom associated with university teaching and learning.
other key feature of an African philosophy of education is that it’s
invariably geared towards addressing the continent’s injustices and
inequalities. A university education that is guided by a concern for
educational justice – an advocacy for freedom, autonomy, democratic
engagement and responsiveness to the other – is one that takes African
philosophy of education seriously.
Africa’s concerns to move
beyond its subjugation to repression and exclusion will gain
considerably more momentum if its people can produce analyses and
responses to the legitimate concerns that confront humanity on the
continent. If this is allowed to happen, African philosophy of education
would have acquired significant potency in its educational quest for
Yusef Waghid is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy of Education, Stellenbosch University