Colonialization Through Education: Ethiopian History (Pt1)

Emperor Haile Selassie is universally recognized as being the pioneer as well as the active and dedicated promoter of modern education in Ethiopia.
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With few supporters, he stood up to the stubborn opposition of the powerful Ethiopian Church and most members of the nobility. That is to say the inauguration of modern education in Ethiopia did not occur under favourable conditions. It had to be instituted against powerful conservative forces in a socio-cultural condition that completely lacked the necessary material and human requisites. Sure enough, thanks to the effort of the previous emperor, Menelik II, some rudiments of modern education existed. Menelik had created one modern school in 1908, and some Ethiopians had become exposed to modern education.
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Unfortunately, most of these Ethiopians, who could have provided the necessary transitional administrative and teaching staff, were exterminated during the Italian Occupation of 1935-1941. According to the estimate of one author, “about 75 per cent of those who had some modern education were wiped out during the years of occupation”. (Wagaw, 1979:48). All the efforts of Menelik and Haile Selassie himself, first as Regent and since 1930 as Emperor, to provide a transitional staff were thus annihilated.
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As most of the pre-war educated Ethiopians combined traditional training with modern education, they could have secured a smooth transition. Because of their extermination, the post-war effort to establish and spread modern education had to rely exclusively on expatriate advisors, administrators, and teachers.
Before analyzing the downsides of the complete reliance on expatriate staff, one should note how the country’s economic backwardness had severely hampered the spread of modern education and affected the quality of the teaching. One consequence of the scarcity of human and material resources was that “educational opportunity was not equitably distributed among the regions of the country, favouring instead only a few provinces and urban centers, and administration was therefore highly centralized”. (Ibid.,1979:183). Addis Ababa, Eritrea, Showa, and the most important urban areas took most of the students. This unequal distribution resulted in a very low level of enrolment in modern schools.
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Statistical data show clearly the extent to which imperial Ethiopia was behind most African countries: “In 1961, when the average enrolment in primary schools on the African continent was estimated at over 40 per cent, the estimated primary school enrolment in Ethiopia was 3.8 per cent. On the secondary level, estimated average enrolment for the appropriate age group on the continent and in Ethiopia was 3.5 and 0.5 per cent, respectively”. (Balsvik, 1979:6-7). Equally low was the budget allotted to education by the imperial government. Thus, “in a comparison of 17 African countries’ expenditure on education over a period of years in the 1960s, Ethiopia ranks lowest with 11.4 per cent of the national budget”. (Ibid., 1979:15). Some such low levels of expenditure negatively affected the quality of the teaching. Even in the urban centers, such as Addis Ababa and Asmara, the paucity of teachers and teaching facilities was such that “extreme overcrowding in the classroom” was the rule. (Ibid.,1979:26). To these overcrowded classrooms were added the impediments caused by the lack of qualified teachers and the paucity of textbooks, which paucity “severely lowered the standard of teaching in the schools and encouraged extensive copying and memorization as methods of learning”. (Ibid., 1979:26).
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The sluggish economic progress of the country under Haile Selassie’s rule and the restricted expansion of modern education contributed to the spread of social discontent. On the one hand, as the system was not expanding fast enough, especially to the rural areas, the opportunity for education took the form of a privilege with “the inevitable effects of accentuating class divisions and perpetuating the ‘ruling class’ idea.” (Wodajo, 1959:27).
In other words, the limitation became a source of grudge for young Ethiopians who could not enroll or continue beyond elementary education. On the other hand, unemployment became a primary concern for those who did enroll and reach high schools and even university level. The alarming number of graduates who could not find jobs in the cities was a clear indication that the education system was producing more people than the economy could absorb. The promise of a better life, which was one of the arguments that the imperial regime used to make modern education attractive, was thus flatly contradicted.
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Instead, schools and colleges produced disillusioned students who fell prey to revolutionary ideas. On the severe material and human shortcomings was grafted an educational policy that lacked direction and national objectives. According to many scholars, the main reason for the lack of a national direction is to be found in the decisive role that foreign advisors, administrators, and teachers played in the establishment and expansion of Ethiopia’s education system. That the curriculum tended to reflect at all levels courses offered in Western countries was a glaring proof of their harmful influence. As one author puts it, “appointed foreign advisors tended to think that what had proved successful in their countries would also benefit Ethiopian development”. (Balsvik, 1979:4).
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What is more, the external teachers were neither fully qualified nor appropriately trained. They mostly came from India and the Peace Corps Programme, and as such “were not trained to meet with the specific needs and problems of the Ethiopian society”. (Ibid., 1979:23).
Besides financial, infrastructural, and technical problems, the introduction and development of modern education thus faced the paramount issue of Ethiopianization. To quote one author: “The most important characteristic of the entire set-up of modern education in Ethiopia was that it was imposed from the UK, the USA, and influenced by various other European countries and thus essentially constructed to serve a different society than the Ethiopian one. . . . . Curricula as well as textbooks came from abroad. There was little in the curricula related to basic and immediate needs of the Ethiopian society. To the average child the school was essentially an alien institution of which his own parents were entirely ignorant”. (Ibid., 1979:6).
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Strange as it may seem, though Haile Selassie consistently presented himself as the active promoter and patron of modern education and supported this role by regularly visiting schools, handing certificates and prizes, sending students abroad, and stressing the importance of education to development in many of his speeches, he has never clearly fastened his educational policy to the goal of national development.
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This lack of articulation has been pointed out by an indepth study of the entire education system known as “The Sector Review” published in 1971. In light of the increasing number of dropouts and unemployed and the glaring inadequacy of the education system to meet the needs of the country, the Ministry of Education and Culture decided to undertake a review of the entire education system. The project involved Ethiopian scholars and experts from Haile Selassie I University, ministries of education, agriculture, community development, and the Planning Commission. It also included foreign members from UNESCO, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Ford Foundation, and Harvard University Development Advisory Service. The final report of this serious and extensive assessment deplored “the lack of a clear statement of national ideology”. (Wagaw, 1979:186). Nothing could better illustrate the non-national orientation of the education system than the manner in which Haile Selassie I University was founded and organized.
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The responsibility of supplying the necessary administrative and teaching staff to what was at first only a college went to American Jesuits. The Mormons replaced the Jesuits when “in 1961 a University of Utah survey team organized the graduation of the college into Haile Selassie I University”. (Colburn, 1994). The fact that the administrative and academic staff was predominantly American inevitably entailed the modeling of the University on American universities: teachings as well as organizational structures reproduced the American model, which also provided the textbooks. Though the traditional and official religion of Ethiopia was Orthodox Christianity, it was not given a place at the University and Ethiopian students were placed under the influence of Catholic and Protestant academic staff.
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The dominance of expatriate staff with alien religious affiliations indicated from the beginning that the University had forsaken the goal of defending and promoting the national culture, which was interwoven with the religious legacy. Herein lies the main difference with the traditional education which, as one saw, was prompted by the goal of protecting and disseminating the national culture. Doubtless, Haile Selassie opted for a religious staff because he could rely on their political conservatism. Under their leadership, the University would not become a playground for radicalism. But this prudent policy backfired: the apolitical attitude of the staff drove students to read underground books and pamphlets because they were not offered a liberal alternative, neither could they develop a culture of openness, debate, and moderation. Not only did the University fail to defend students’ traditional identity, but it also exposed them to the influence of underground radicals by not championing a culture of political debate and openness.
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Let us ponder on the Ethiopian paradox. The issue of endowing modern education with a national content and direction is a problem that Ethiopia shares with other African countries. All studies in Africa deplore the irrelevance and alienating effects of the education system. The appropriate solution, the studies suggest, is the Africanization of the system. According to Ali Mazrui, “first, the staff should be Africanized and secondly, the curriculum should be Africanized”. (Mazrui, 1978). Only thus can the education system become relevant and national.
Whereas African countries can impute the lack of national direction to colonization and its aftermaths, Ethiopia offers the unique case of failing to inaugurate and develop a national system of education while not being hampered by colonial rule. Beyond missing the opportunity of harnessing education to a national policy of development, the Ethiopian system took a turn that was even less protective of the national identity than the system prevailing in the colonized African countries.
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Consider the study of history. Given the exceptional status of Ethiopia as an African country that remained independent as a result of pushing back colonial forces and the great pride this victory inspires to Ethiopians, one would assume that an essential component of history courses at various levels would be devoted to explaining the reasons for Ethiopia’s independence. Nothing of the kind happened: because history courses reproduced the schema of Western history, there was no provision for the Ethiopian exception. Asked to give an idea of how history courses described Ethiopia, a former student said: “.. we were only told that ‘she’ had preserved ‘her’ independence”. (Cassiers & Bessette, 2001:333). And as the preservation of independence was not explained, it appeared as an aberration or an accident.
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This omission ceases to be surprising when one recalls that the history course for eight grade students used for many years a bulky textbook entitled “The Old World – Past and Present”. On top of designating Africa as ‘The Dark Continent’, the textbook “mentions Ethiopia as Abyssinia in only one paragraph, referring to it as an ‘Italian colony’”. (Milkias, 1982).
Though Ethiopians are proud of their independence, much of the benefit of withstanding colonial powers was thus taken away from them by the introduction of a system of education that had a colonial character. One should speak less and less of independence and subscribe to the idea that Ethiopia, too, ended up by becoming a colony.
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The introduction of Western education had accomplished what military means had failed to achieve. It must not be made to seem that Haile Selassie and officials of his regime were not aware of the serious shortcomings of the education system. Official speeches repeatedly stressed the need to correct the system, “to Ethiopianize the entire curriculum”. (Wagaw, 1979:123). But nothing substantial was done concretely. True, attempts were made to inject courses dealing with Ethiopian realities into the curriculum. Thus, at the university level, a noticeable place was progressively attributed to the study of Ethiopian history; courses on Ethiopian geography and law were given a much needed boost.
Mention should also be made of the creation of “the Institute of Ethiopian Studies” with its museum and library in which researchers and students could find appreciable documentations on Ethiopia. Granted these efforts to Ethiopianize, the issue that needs to be discussed is whether the efforts successfully redirected the teaching. Indeed, the issue being one of ideological reorientation rather than of quantitative increase of courses devoted to Ethiopia, the proper question is “to what degree did [Ethiopianization] take place and to what extent did agreement exist as to the university’s role as a force for change and development in Ethiopia?”(Balsvik, 1979:61-62).
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Institute of Ethiopian Studies
It is safe to say that courses dealing with Ethiopian legacy, environment, and socioeconomic problems were simply appended to a curriculum that remained largely Eurocentric both in its inspiration and contents. Moreover, the University could hardly become an engine for change and development without a free and critical examination of Ethiopia’s problems. Haile Selassie’s autocratic rule did not grant such a right even to the University. This suggests that the lack of national direction of the education system may be due to the nature of the imperial regime itself. How otherwise could one explain the apparent inconsistency of Haile Selassie’s educational policy? Underlining the fundamental role of the University as guardian of Ethiopian culture, Haile Selassie said in his inaugural address: “A fundamental objective of the University must be the safeguarding and the developing of the culture of the people which it serves. This University is a product of that culture; it is the grouping together of those capable of understanding and using the accumulated heritage of the Ethiopian people. In this University men and women will, working in association with one another, study the well-springs of our culture, trace its development, and mould its future”. (Haile Selassie, 1979:19-20). This major speech ascertains the connection between education and modernization: the fundamental goal of education is to modernize Ethiopia, but to modernize it in the spirit of its traditions and culture.
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The study of Ethiopian culture becomes essential because (1) the Ethiopian legacy is useful and galvanizing; (2) modern education is put at the service of Ethiopia only when it connects with the culture of its people. Education must serve the nation, and it can do so only by promoting its culture.
Development cannot occur if the beliefs and traditions of the people are demeaned or ignored. Haile Selassie reiterates the need to base development on the legacy: “although such education may be technical”, he pursues, “it must nonetheless be founded on Ethiopia’s cultural heritage if it is to bear fruit and if the student is to be well-adapted to his environment and the effective use of his skills facilitated”. (Ibid., 1967:20-21). One of the basic tasks of the University is, therefore, to ensure historical continuity by building bridges between the past and the new. More yet, Haile Selassie recommends the study and development of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage as the best way to fight iconoclastic ideologies. In an apparent reference to the socialist ideology, he says: “These young people face a world beset with the most effectively organized programme of deceptive propaganda and of thinly-screened operations ever known; they deserve the best that can be taught by their parents, by religious institutions and by the university, to prepare them for a wise choice among contending ideals”. (Ibid, 1967:25).
Written by: Messay Kebede Professor, Department of Philosophy University of Dayton USA

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