Dialogical Possibilities in Comparative Education: Ubuntu Perspectives in the Global Context of Educational Processes and Debates
In his article “On the educational potential of Ubuntu” Yusef Waghid (forthcoming), articulates
"a plausible conception of Ubuntu that can impact any form of human engagement, most notably, associative, deliberative and responsible human encounters. … Ubuntu as respectful action has the potential to engender deliberative action – a significant educational virtue. .... offers much for the cultivation of teaching and learning on the grounds that the former considers dignified engagement, deliberative attunement, and moving towards encounters that are reflectively open to new insights and perspectives. … They would continue to engage deliberatively on the grounds that they remain open to what is new and unexpected without prematurely rebuking one another’s perspectives – a matter of acting with Ubuntu. "
In this quote, the author articulates the idea of conscious search for exchange and deliberation on issues giving due importance to different perspectives towards a resolution. Such a resolution in essence has a collective value considering that it is not a mere addition of the different perspectives expressed but rather, in addition to the relative importance of each of these individual viewpoints, of the different voices but rather as a collective voice enriched by the concerns for the collective interest and wellbeing. In his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire (1970) articulated the concepts of dialogue as mutually empowering and liberating as well as critical thinking as philosophical and practical tools for social transformation.
The thrust of this reflective essay is to argue for the need to use the metaphoric meaning of the “palaver tree” where meetings take place to deliberate on issues of importance to a given community. One of its important objective is to engage a debate by making the case for the need to give equal importance to learning objectives, processes and outputs that do not easily or at all lend themselves to quantifiable measurements. The essay is structured under three headings. The first section deals with some of the major global learning metrics. The second section recalls elements of the fundamentals of Ubuntu. The third section, followed by the conclusion, calls for a deliberative space for WCCES.
1. Educational Processes and Global Comparison of Learning Results
In recent years there has been an increasing emphasis on utilizing quantitative outputs for performance comparisons based on global learning metrics. Certainly, this is not a new phenomenon. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I had the opportunity of attending a lecture by Professor Torsten Husén and subsequently, as a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston, I worked on data from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) that was set up in the late 1950s.
My research led to one of two papers that I presented at the 28th Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) annual conference held at the University of Houston in 1984. My paper was titled “Social Class and Attitude toward Schooling: A Cross-national Comparison.” Besides the cognitive quantitative measurements, I was interested in less easily measurable factors associated with education processes and learning exposure. The main purpose of my post-doctoral research was to contribute to the studies of international and comparative education through the analysis of the IEA data. Every year the IEA was publishing the results of the achievements of students from various countries.
The persistent report of the high achievement scores registered then by Japanese students in Mathematics and the Sciences often triggered heated debates regarding the relationship between culture and achievement. Based on the IEA achievement results, countries whose students do not perform well routinely engage in national debates about improvement. That is to say the recent and ongoing international comparisons have major precedents.
It is worth mentioning, for instance, the TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) test, and the more popularly known now PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test. The issue that is raised herein about these tests is the extreme, de facto and even deliberate focus on the “global learning metrics” with the main interest of being able to know in quantitative terms the level of cognitive knowledge of the learners. Part of the debate relates to assumed inevitability of “Big Data.” All this has the potential of, and has indeed been, reducing the goals and assessment of learning to a lope-sided quantification.
There are a number of issues posed by these global measurements, some of which relate to the question of the implications of decontextualized teaching and learning. These global learning metrics often tend to also use the nation-state as the logical unit of analysis. Of critical importance is that, in emphasizing the quantifiable, other immeasurable or hard-to-measure yet important objectives of education are ignored.
A major point of interest in engaging IEA data earlier was what I considered to be a skewed emphasis on the quantitative component of learning in schools. In my academic education and my professional experiences, I have dealt with and valued the relative and often complementary merits of both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of learning. The issues raised earlier persist.
I would like to make a case for the need to engage systematically learners and their learning experiences from their respective contexts as well as the values and attitudinal skills of educational processes. One main criticism that might be argued against the idea is the potentially subjective nature of such outputs. Such an argument would assume that the quantifiable learning metrics are objective and neutral. Yet, the assumption that the quantitative outputs that are being measured and compared are objective or neutral is questionable. In any case, in reflecting on current local, national and global issues, part of the discussion is to engage in the making of what Robert Dreeben (1968) articulated in On What is Learned in School. As a point of departure, the discussion is framed within the dialogical capability of Ubuntu in educational process that gives equal importance to the acquisition of values for global goodness.
2. Learning toward Collective Wellbeing
In the contemporary period, nation-states are characterized by fierce competition, position themselves based on the perceived actual power of their human capacity that derives from the educational process. Hence, the competitive drive for measurable achievement scores of their respective learners is considered a good indicator of their present and future performance. Values such as the ones imbedded in the Ubuntu paradigm are explored here to provide a guidance in the discussion. Words used in French or English to capture concepts such as freedom, refer to universal values. Similarly, Ubuntu is an African word which, while being localized in Southern Africa among the Bantu/Nguni people, captures universal values. Such values may contribute to enrich the learning processes and the pursuit of socially constructive learning outcomes that aim to advance collective wellbeing within and among nations, like the quantitative learning metrics are supposed to offer.
The values imbedded in Ubuntu are not given. They constitute a guiding principle in the lives of individuals as social beings in settings founded on a collective ethos and they are acquired through a long process of learning. Promoting Ubuntu values in education would be a paradigm shift from the inherited western archetype. Here, I would like to specify that Ubuntu is not antithetical to quantitative measurement of educational processes and learning. It is holistic and embraces both quantitative and qualitative outcomes.
In European languages the digit comes before the names, when counting specific objects/beings. However, in African languages generally the names are referred to first followed by the digit. Thus, “ten students” in a European language would typically be “students ten” in an African language. These are not merely random sequences. Indeed, these orders reflect deep metaphysical positions in relations between human beings themselves as well as their connections to their surroundings, including the entire ecosystem which encompasses the environment and the totality of its constituents. Thus, in the two types of languages the object and figure matter, the persons who have the capacity and opportunity of speaking, naming/counting/naming affirm their respective metaphysical connections.
The question is what are the values imbedded in Ubuntu that may reflect the specific metaphysical characters. Thus, it is important to define the fundamentals of the Ubuntu-based metaphysics. The articulation of the Ubuntu worldview posits “oneness of humanity, a collective, community, and a set of cultural practices and spiritual values that strive for respect and dignity for all humanity” (Goduka 2000, 72). As alluded to above, Ubuntu seeks to emulate common and shared humanity capturing and acknowledging the complex and interdependent ecosystem that includes humans, nature, and the planet (Letseka 2000; Wright and Abdi 2012; Waghid 2014). This ecosystem is all-embracing as the collective ethos to which any human agency must refer asserts existential sine qua non that “to be is necessarily to be in relation” to others and that the “center is a human being who is free and at the same time highly dependent upon others, on the memory of the past, and on emphasizing the balance between nature and culture” (Mudimbe 1988, 1). Hence, the importance of acknowledging the humans (former inhabitants of nature) and the current inhabitants of nature be they animals, trees, rivers, mountains to which they must assert their original oneness. Therefore, there is re-activated memory of equality and shared existential worth between human beings and the broader environment. Every human being with agency has a responsibility to contribute to sustain the collective and co-dependent living conditions. This co-dependence is related to the notion of positive complementarity, which is beautifully captured by John Mbiti, in his seminal book African Religion and Philosophy: “I am because WE are and, since we are, therefore I am.”
The potential benefit of using Ubuntu as a framework for value education stems from its tenet that every human is equal regardless of the differences and all inhabitants of the earth have worth that requires equal rights and respect. Whether it has been applied only to specific groups with specific common characteristics or even never applied, it has the potential that, if actualized, can enhance the sense of mutual care and respect for, and more positive handling of the environment. Despite the social dislocations created by colonization, this metaphysical worldview still prevails. Given the fundamental questions that the world is now facing including profound national and global inequality reflecting excessive greed and compulsive drive for accumulation, violence, unsought migrations, and environmental degradation, it can contribute to achieving the goal of creating and sustaining a society of mutuality. Faced with the collective challenges, Africa must offer its contributions including the essence of this ancient metaphysical worldview that has travelled through time (Odora Hoppers, Oyěwùmí). In this line, Boubou Hama (1968, 376), for instance, stated that “Old Africa” has a role to play despite “old bottlenecks that are entrenched in our old society.” This essay suggests that these worldviews are consistent with the mission of WCCES.
3. Deliberative Space for WCCES
The past few decades have been revolutionary in bringing the whole world closer and connected– the Internet is all pervasive, international trade barriers have generally declined, and people’s movement across nations is on a rise. This intermingling of cultures and civilizations has brought about unprecedented synergies and challenges at the same time. Never before in the history of human civilization have people had better opportunities of looking beyond their own villages, towns, cities, districts/counties, provinces/states, countries and continents to identify their existence as quintessential citizens of our planet Earth.
Ironically, despite the recent knowledge revolution through technology, and at times because of it, our education systems have hitherto proved to be not only insufficient but also not inclusive and effective enough in preparing the world populace to suitably address the challenges that globalization has brought about. The global comparative assessments tend to create more categories of learners regrettably labelled as “waste” because they cannot make sense of what is learned and how the learning takes place. People have increasingly shown intolerance toward others’ religion, racism is still prevalent in subtle and open ways, and language barriers further exacerbate lack of mutual understanding. Violence has manifested itself in new forms, reached new lows in the form of brutal killings, hijackings, kidnappings and crimes against women/children. Proxy wars have provided new battlegrounds for Cold War era foes. Hate crimes are on a rise, and there are numerous lone-wolf attacks by dejected, disgruntled, and other individuals with an array of grievances, on unarmed innocent people. All these manifestations of deep-seated societal program[MD2] of local, national or global nature and reach are a cause of great concern.
The most disappointing revelation is the involvement of youth, with high formal education achievement, some with highest degrees from reputable institutions of higher learning, in several reprehensible acts of violence. Clearly, there is a need of re-education through unconventional means. Comparative education can pave the way for better understanding of what works and what does not in promoting the virtues of nonviolence, peace, harmony, global citizenship and improved quality of life.
There is a dire need to instill values acknowledging and celebrating our common humanity and humaneness with justice, to give these individuals, as social beings in the global village, hope. Hope is essential to make people understand the true meaning of their existence in the world. They are not just isolated individuals but are interconnected in diverse ways with other persons, our natural environment, and the whole universe. The African philosophy of Ubuntu or humaneness is becoming indispensable in our quest for global citizenship, peace, harmony and sustainable human development in congruence with the call for care from the environment so that it can take care of our needs .
Comparative educationists must devise pragmatic and effective ways of propagating the virtues of compassion and humanity while eliminating the ills of hate, jealousy and intolerance through Ubuntu in people of varied cultures, religions and geographies around the world.
The intended contribution of this short essay is to harness comparative education for meaningful prosperity and humanistic wellbeing of the world through the paradigm of Ubuntu, which stands for a shared present and common future, recognizing the importance of factoring in human actions for the protection of the environment. Many African thinkers such as Ali Mazrui, have argued that Africa must not only find solutions to its own problems of past and recent roots, but also those of the world. The Ubuntu paradigm offers a framework for reflecting on guiding principles derived from actions towards a sustainable future through new perspectives on what is learned hitherto and valued but a holistic consideration of what ought to be learned and nurtured.
R. Dreeben (1968) On What is Learned in School (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.)
P. Freire (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum)
I. N. Goduka (2000) ‘African/Indigenous Philosophies: Legitimizing Spiritually Centred Wisdoms within the Academy. in P. Higgs, N. C. G. Vakalisa, T. V. Mda, N. T. Assie-Lumumba, African Voices in Education (Kenwyn: Juta; Johannesburg: [Distributed by] Thorold’s Africana Books).
B. Hama (1968) Essai d’Analyse de l’Éducation Africaine (Paris: Présence Africaine).
M. Letseka (2000) ‘African Philosophy and Educational Discourse’ in P. Higgs, N. C. G. Vakalisa, T. V. Mda, N. T. Assie-Lumumba (eds) African Voices in Education (Kenwyn: Juta; Johannesburg: [Distributed by] Thorold’s Africana Books), 179-193.
J. S. Mbiti (1990) African Religions & Philosophy (Oxford; Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2nd edition).
V. Y. Mudimbe (1988) Liberty in African and Western Thought (Washington, DC.: Institute for Independent Education).
C. A. Odora Hoppers (2002) Indigenous Knowledge and the Integration of Knowledge Systems: Towards a Philosophy of Articulation (Claremont: New Africa Books).
O. Oyěwùmí (1997) The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Y. Waghid (2014) African Philosophy of Education Reconsidered: on Being Human (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge).
Y. Waghid (Forthcoming) “On the educational potential of Ubuntu” in Emefa Amoako and N’Dri Assie-Lumumba (eds.) Re-visioning Education in Africa: Ubuntu-Inspired Education for Humanity (Palgrave, Palgrave MacMillan: New York).