Fulbright Scholar Dr. Fetene Centers the Evolution of Education in Africa

Photo courtesy of Natalie Tsur.

On February 16, Boston University Fulbright Scholar Dr. Masresha Fetene delivered a lecture titled “African Knowledge Systems,” explaining the transformation of African higher education in the context of colonialism.

Fetene highlighted the importance of studying this subject as a benefit for African universities and discussed the implications that a lost sense of culture can have on society. The problem is largely institutional and little research has been conducted in this area, resulting in few proposed strategies to combat it.

“Western Thought [is] rooted in the African spirit,” he said. The African worldview values ​​the “right to pursue knowledge for its own sake” [that is] free from political interference.

Fetene explains, however, that there are ways to navigate indigenous and traditional education systems in African institutions to find an appropriate balance between the two. This then requires an understanding of institutions, histories and systems of societal knowledge production.

“There is ample evidence that Africa produces knowledge in philosophy, mathematics and medicine,” he said. “But the problem with African knowledge is that most of it has been oral. As a result, a lot of history and wisdom gets lost.

The continent had been occupied by European powers, such as the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany. Colonialism – coupled with slavery – erased much of African knowledge because it relied on the spoken word as a means of telling and recording information.

One of the most remarkable and perhaps relevant facets of African knowledge centers on medicinal methods of healing. This skill had been passed on by gurus whose traditional practices require plants and herbs that are now rare or even extinct.

Although word of mouth was the most accessible and immediate way of disseminating information, some African knowledge survived through written texts. The manuscripts of Timbuktu, for example, have been preserved for centuries and are often referred to as the center of learning. Their content highlights medicine, philosophy, science and the Koran.

Other countries like Japan have been able to apply Western knowledge by implementing its technology, but in ways that root those lessons in their own language and culture.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, has “produced elitists, sometimes disconnected from the needs of society and their culture” through a Westernized education, Fetene explained.

“There was a tendency towards individualism and consumerism…and the absence of sufficient understanding of wisdom and knowledge…and an increased desire for power and material gain,” Fetene said. .

Although a balance is possible – and there are methods to create it – limits remain. Educational barriers that threaten self-integrity can be projected onto society as a whole, leading to much larger and more complex issues.

“African universities have not benefited from traditional African knowledge systems that would have helped them to appreciate the needs of the continent and the direction of its social, economic, political and personal development,” Fetene said.

At the lower and advanced levels of learning, the school’s overarching goal is to socialize students through storytelling, which restores cultural norms and understandings. Instead, African universities tend to imitate Western teachings, which requires students to forge their own identity.

“It is necessary to look for the problems and to study [for] systematized discussions to find solutions and positively [encourage] Africa’s transformation,” he said.