Emancipate the masses!

Although a lot needs to be done to improve the Namibian education system, it is encouraging to see that many citizens are doing some serious soul-searching in a bid to find solutions to the ailing system. Concerns regarding our education system are evidenced not only by the just-ended national conference on education but also by the contributions that various commentators have been making in newspapers as well as through other media. In my view, the conference in question acted as a good stimulus for further debate, and we should keep the debate rolling. However, I am of the opinion that instead of playing the blame-game, we need to appreciate the efforts the different stakeholders are making. The problems we are encountering are not of our own making. We are all trying to make sense of the complex world we find ourselves in today. Therefore, we should keep personalities out of the debate and tackle issues, the real issues. At the centre of the debate should be the question: How can we make our education system more responsive to the country’s economic challenges? In this piece, I will focus on the Prime Minister’s contribution, despite the different views expressed regarding his presentation at the conference, and combine it with insights based on new conceptualizations of learning and knowledge to chart a new direction for education and training in Namibia.   Personally, I think the Prime Minister provided very useful insights. Such   insights need analysing in order to formulate strategies to propagate the ideology that underpinned the kind of education and training that had been provided to Namibian exiles, during the liberation struggle. In my book, such education could provide ideas with the potential to transform the current system. (My use of the word “potential” is rooted in my belief that words alone cannot bring about the desired change. They have to be accompanied by action informed by a new consciousness with respect to knowledge and learning). Those who are hearing the concept of Education for Liberation for the first time might be sceptical about it. But I think it is a very relevant concept, especially to social scientists who are committed to societal transformation. Such a construct is relevant in the sense that it seems capable of representing a social phenomenon: we can adopt and use it to label social practices geared towards addressing inequalities in our society through learning and knowledge. If the construct in question does not exist, we should not shy away from inventing it. I see Education for Liberation representative of the kind of education that is designed to equip the masses with knowledge and skills and to address the inequalities created by capitalism, apartheid and colonialism. For some citizens Education for Liberation might not sound credible “enough”, probably because they have not read it in the major pedagogical texts from the West used in education today. But like I said it is still a construct which can represent social reality. The problem I think is the fact that we still want to see the world through the eyes of others, which can be limiting. The other danger of confining ourselves to received concepts is that we will only describe the world as others want us to see it, forgetting that their lenses might be coloured by ideologies which could be inimical to our own interests. We should venture into new conceptual territories, if we are to make meaning with respect to our lives and advance our understanding of our social world. To return to the Prime Minister’s presentation, he eloquently presented the thinking that underpinned SWAPO education policies, which were encapsulated in the construct “Education for Liberation”. From what I understood, the philosophy underlying SWAPO’s education programme was meant to help transform economic relations by equipping the toiling masses with knowledge and skills. In other words, Education for Liberation was aimed at countering the effects of capitalist exploitation; it was also aimed at healing the working people’s wounds inflicted during the apartheid era and to strive for social justice. I find Education for Liberation a relevant perspective for several reasons. This is mainly because it has a political and ideological agenda: it takes a broader view of education by acknowledging the struggles inherent in the capitalist society in which we live, ie the struggle between the owners of the means of production and those condemned to selling their labour. In a nutshell, Education for Liberation adds a new dimension to the entire education and training debate in Namibia by viewing education as embedded in political and economic relations. Unfortunately, these aspects are overlooked, even in our training of teachers. In many cases, we talk about education without mentioning its political and ideological aspects. However, we cannot pretend to be oblivious to the wider context, the existing unequal economic relations, in which education and training take place. In my view, it is the centrality of education and training in such relations which makes Education for Liberation relevant. As a construct, it can represent the kind of education and training that is geared towards the emancipation of those who exchange their labour with capital.       Therefore, I argue that in a knowledge economy we need to pursue Education for Liberation with the view to re-conceptualizing knowledge and democratizing it, as a form of capital. This will make it an easy-to-get-commodity, especially with respect to those who got a raw deal from the industrial era. In fact, we should view the democratization of knowledge as a human rights issue. This is because as human beings we are born with the capacity to construct knowledge. But due to the existing social arrangements many of our citizens cannot benefit from this God-given gift; it has become an asset of a select few. As a case in point, there are some citizens who are acting as gatekeepers to the most important knowledge: tacit knowledge, the knowledge that comes from experience. Some of our educational institutions cannot have their students do internship because they cannot get access to such institutions. This is a very serious issue which needs addressing, if Namibia is to develop the necessary human capital to power her economy towards Vision 2030. To further illustrate the political and ideological nature of education, I will use Bantu Education as an example. Bantu Education (a system of education that was crafted for Africans by the apartheid regime of South Africa) was underpinned by an ideology too: it was designed to achieve specific economic and political outcomes. It was never a neutral tool; it was pregnant with ideology: it was designed to make Africans subservient. Bantu Education was also designed to perpetrate a particular economic relation. Education for Liberation, on the other hand, was conceived to act as an anti-dote to the trio: capitalism, apartheid and colonialism. Do not get me wrong. I am not saying capitalism should be abolished, far from it; what I am saying is that we must find ways to offset its negative effects (unemployment, poverty and hunger). I am suggesting that such effects can be mitigated through democratization of knowledge and learning. This can be achieved in two main ways. First, democratization of knowledge and learning can be attained through our acceptance of the fact that knowledge, the most valuable knowledge, is embedded in workplaces and not just in books. Moreover, we must acknowledge that the most valuable knowledge is tacit. In other words, it is action-oriented and can be acquired mainly through learning by doing, anywhere. The question that we need to ask is: How can we make sure the have-nots incubate the knowledge and skills necessary to survive in the knowledge-driven economy and continue to do so to meet the evolving needs of our economy? The answer is simple: through education and training. But can the current system equip the majority of our people with the desired knowledge and skills to enable us keep abreast with global competition? No. This is because such a system is based on a narrow conception of learning in which it has come to be viewed as confined to the classroom. Outside a classroom setting learning is seen as informal. Unfortunately, informal learning has mistakenly come to be undervalued whereas indeed it is the most valuable asset, powering economies today. Besides, research tells us that there is no such a thing as formal and informal knowledge. Knowledge is just knowledge and it is embedded in contexts, meaning that the knowledge you use in a work context is not necessarily the same as the one in the classroom. This explains why after completing their studies people spend weeks or even years learning how to do their jobs.         The problem with our education system is that we focus a lot on “know-that”, also known as “propositional knowledge”. For instance, the capital of Namibia is Windhoek or Science is a study of…. The problem with such knowledge is that it is different from the kind of knowledge which is driving economies today: the world needs products, services and innovative ideas to improve products and services. Instead of explaining science, we should use science to solve problems, unless of course you are clarifying certain concepts. In my opinion, learning by doing in the context of work will have several benefits to the economy: it will help us move away from the current system which was designed to condemn the majority of our citizens to the streets; and which in the process creates and contributes to the “reserve army of the unemployed”. How many young men and women find themselves in the street each year, after failing school? Are they really incapable of learning or is the problem the type of knowledge we are focussing on and the instruments we use to measure learning? Research shows that young people learn through work or doing. In fact, work changes them, even those who had dropped out of school, those who had been written off as ‘failures.’ Through work they change, they do not only mature but they also learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. Therefore we need to change our focus. Institutions of education and training must be more work-oriented, they should vocationalize. I know this is not going to be easy given the investments that have been made so far: some people will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo; but this would be to the detriment of our economy.  Learning by doing is not new in many parts of the world, including Africa. That was how people learned before the so-called formal education arrived on the continent. Novices learned how to make traditional pots or huts by working alongside experts, through observation and trying out the new skills themselves. Unfortunately, we lost all that with the advent of the education system modelled on the assembly-line, which does more talking than doing and uses some assessment tools which do not seem to take into account the nature of knowledge. The only remnants of this type of learning are still found in the training of teachers and medical personnel where insufficient time is devoted to apprenticeship-like learning; in both learners spend time learning among experts. However, it is my contention that more time is required for practicum. If people learn better in work contexts ie if knowledge can also be acquired through participation in communities of practice, then the challenge is on our education and training institutions to create work-like environments or to increase the time dedicated to internship in order to foster the type of knowledge and skills required by the economy. Alternatively, we should have some of our lessons in the workplace if we want to remain relevant. This may appear to be a bold statement, but believe it or not that is the future. Also, we need to experience some sort of a Renaissance in terms of knowledge and skills where we do not see the formal and informal dichotomy. Moreover, we need to open up learning by recognizing prior “informal” learning. This will help us to overcome the current problems of unemployment and poverty; thus liberate the majority of our people who are condemned to the periphery of the country’s economic activities.  Metusalem Nakale is training to become a social scientist at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Labour Market Studies in the UK, specializing in Human Resource Development. This piece is dedicated to the Founding President, Dr Sam Shafiishuna Nujoma.

August 2011
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