Topics / African Academics

Transforming African Higher Education

A landmark collection of essays offers fresh perspectives on decolonizing the curriculum


From Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers: Transforming Humanities Curricula in South Africa, Africa and African-American Studies | Oluwaseun Tella and Shireen Motala, eds. | Fanele | 426 pp. | 2020 | ISBN 978-1-4314-2955-4 | More about this book

Carnegie Corporation of New York organized its first staff trip to East and South Africa in 1927, visiting 124 educational institutions in all. Corporation president Frederick Keppel and his team were “continually drawing attention to the pitifully unsuitable textual and illustrative content of the primers and educational posters used — little English boys in straw hats, sailing little boats at the seaside.” Keppel was moved to make a $5,000 grant to support the publication of more suitable teaching materials.

Almost a century later, curriculum transformation continues to passionately engage students and educators in South Africa and the United States — as exemplified not least by the #feesmustfall and #BlackLivesMatter movements. From Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers, a Corporation-supported book project led by Adekeye Adebajo, director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, provides a historical perspective on higher education curricula transformation in select African countries and the United States authored by well-known African and African American scholars, historians, and student activists.

The book shares learnings from humanities departments in postindependence East and West African universities as well as from African American studies programs in the United States. Scholars and educators at the time were confronting and reshaping curricula that was prescribed by colonial, national, and global forces with little relevance to or understanding of African postindependence identities and development agendas.

Ahmed Bawa highlights a question posed in the post-apartheid 1994 policy moment, one that is still relevant today: how our universities could best be deployed to fit the purposes of a transition marked by transformation towards a non-racial, non-sexist democracy, together with the development of a globally competitive knowledge economy.

 

Beginning with the current South African context, Ahmed Bawa highlights a question posed in the post-apartheid 1994 policy moment, one that is still relevant today: how our universities could best be deployed to fit the purposes of a transition marked by transformation towards a non-racial, non-sexist democracy, together with the development of a globally competitive knowledge economy.

The pre-independence African university was characterized by the devaluation of indigenous African knowledges, the hegemony of Western forms of knowledge, and the fundamental erasure of the knowledge legacy of the African people. African public universities that were founded and run by colonial governments began to Africanize their staff mostly after independence in the 1950s and 1960s. However, this did not necessarily translate into curricula transformation, particularly when African faculty had been trained in Europe and North America.

In “Ugandan Transformation Efforts,” Pamela Khanakwa points out that some Ugandan university staff preferred and foregrounded European-oriented courses, while in 1952 African history curriculum at Makerere University was initiated by non-Africans. Furthermore, research on the history of East Africa relied heavily on donor agencies like the Rockefeller Foundation. In “The Dar es Salaam School of Political Economy,” Severine M. Rugumamu emphasizes that the range of academic training and ideological orientations of faculty members at University of Dar es Salaam in the 1960s resulted in mixed responses to the government’s mandate to restructure teaching and research programs to respond to the imperative of building socialism and self-reliance in Tanzania. Political science courses relied on texts from China, Cuba, or the Soviet Union to demonstrate socialism’s relevance to Africa’s development. Rugumamu details the Dar es Salaam School’s debates, actors, ideologies, and production of intellectuals, as well as its eventual fall from grace, and concludes with the relevance of its practices today.

From Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers illuminates perhaps the most productive development of the period, which saw African scholars writing their own histories, compiling national archives, and developing and incorporating contemporary African literature as well as classic African texts into the curricula. For example, the renowned Nigerian historian Kenneth Onwuka Dike founded the National Archives of Nigeria to address the country’s problem with national record storage and preservation. He also founded the Ibadan School of History at the University of Ibadan, subsequently becoming the university’s first African vice-chancellor. Chiekh Anta Diop, chair of the Association of Black Researchers and Scientists and professor of history at the University of Dakar (now renamed after him) strengthened the Dakar School of Culture by establishing the profound linguistic, cultural, historical, and anthropological unity among African populations. All of these efforts were transformational, leaving indelible imprints on their countries and peoples.

Turning to the written word, the late Nigerian poet and professor Harry Garuba sat on the editorial advisory board of the African Writers Series, one of the most prolific of postindependence literary initiatives. The series made African writers accessible to Africans, offering low-cost paperbacks, reprinting classic texts and popular titles, and publishing translations. Although the Heinemann series was critiqued for being linked with a London-based publisher, it could be argued that it made the canon of modern African literature. In “The Development of Contemporary Literature in East Africa,” the renowned literary critic Chris Wanjala explores Kenya’s literature debates, which expanded curricula to include African writers, separated the study of literature and language, and exploited the rich tradition of oral literature. Sadly, both Garuba and Wanjala passed away during the production of the From Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers project, but their final narratives stand as important first-hand accounts of the growth of contemporary African literature and, in Wanjala's case, of the critic who pioneered the Africanization of the literature syllabus at University College (now the University of Nairobi) in the 1970s.

Howard is truly central to the story of Black empowerment in the United States. Attracting 80 percent of all Black PhDs in 1936 (the highest concentration of Black PhDs anywhere in the world), Howard University became the leading center of Black scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

 

The final section of From Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers turns to the United States. In America at the turn of the 20th century, debates on higher education for Blacks focused almost solely on industrial or vocational education as opposed to liberal arts education. Booker T. Washington sought economic opportunity for Blacks through the former, while W.E.B Du Bois advocated for empirical methods and research as the leader of the Atlanta School of Sociology, which “embraced scholarship as an intellectual weapon in the service of emancipation and liberation.” From the 1930s to 1950s, scholars at the Howard School of International Affairs were known for problematizing hegemonic paradigms, demythologizing colonial views of history, and theorizing race relations. This included conceptualizing race as a social construct intrinsically related to capitalism and imperialism, as opposed to the then prevailing biological and anthropological interpretations of race. Howard is truly central to the story of Black empowerment in the United States. Attracting 80 percent of all Black PhDs in 1936 (the highest concentration of Black PhDs anywhere in the world), Howard University became the leading center of Black scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

Jimi Adesina concludes his contribution to From Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers:

For the students, while it is important to rail against a colonial, extraverted curriculum, this is only an initial step: a necessary anger that needs to be expressed. The real task lies in study groups that read, debate and exhaustively consider existing works. Inspired by what already exists, the crucial task is to produce new waves of endogenously grounded knowledge.

Indeed, while the 20th century began to address the colonial legacies of humanities curricula, universities worldwide are currently facing the erosion of support for the humanities. Due to the rising costs of university degrees, concerns about unemployment, and decreasing enrollments in humanities programs, researchers and professors are challenged to defend the value and utility of their disciplines in developing engaged citizens who are committed to social justice and democracy. To that end, From Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers, by compiling and documenting the historical trajectory of humanities curricula in leading African universities and select Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States, makes the case for the vitalness of humanities curricula as a catalyst producing leaders who will reinforce the identities and cultures of nations — while freeing them from oppressive legacies of colonialism.


 

Claudia Frittelli is a program officer for Higher Education and Research in Africa in the Corporation’s International Program



Top: During a candle lighting ceremony organized by the University of Pretoria #FeesMustFall movement on October 24, 2016, students prayed for fellow students who were arrested and they also discussed their legal options in regard to going forward. (Credit: Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images)