Whither Education?: Why Western Universities Dominate, Why Developing Scholars Seek Them Out, And Why That Can Be A Problem

Posted on July 29, 2011


Here’re a few little puzzle I’ve been teasing out over the summer as I’ve been working with education and higher education: Why exactly is it that Western institutions dominate the international rankings? Why do African schools score so low? And why is it not only so popular, but in a sense necessary, for Africans (especially those in leadership positions) to pursue their higher education outside of the nation?

While I was recently talking to Stephen Heyneman, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, and Ben Wildavsky, a scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, both experts on international/globalized education, they echoed the same sentiments to me. I brushed them off at first, preoccupied with concerns about teacher quality, funding, and classroom size. But I’ve come to recognize that there was more truth in what they said than just some academic, semantic gripe.

Point one: Most foreign nations, especially African nations, have confused the concept of the university and wound up instead with a series of complex and well-funded trade schools.

It seems an insulting thing to say at first glance, that African nations would simply be unable to comprehend or recreate universities. My initial reaction was to say, well, it’s simply a funding and student-to-teacher ratio and age issue. African universities do not have the funding necessary to take on the research projects or grant to amount of liberties to their educators. African universities have not been around long enough to experiment and find efficient models of education. African universities lack for sufficient high-quality educators to the point that they are forced by necessity to have hundreds in a lecture class. In that view, it’s circumstance that prevents African universities from climbing up the rankings, and with age and development they will come to rival American institutions. I’ve come to see the issue as more complex than all that.

As far as I can tell based on conversations with educators, students, and academics in Kenya, Australia, the UK, and America, the Kenyan educational system actually intends to keep running in the same direction: large classes, muted students, huge universities. Let me pause. Before I go on, perhaps it’s a good idea to give you a rundown of a Kenyan higher education program—upon entering university, one selects a “course,” meaning a course of study that will determine their classes, their closest classmates, and the vocabulary of their education for several years. It also predetermines the direction one will take for the rest of their lives in most cases. The universities focus on large lecture classes, with an implicit discouragement on class participation, questioning, and/or relationships with professors. Advanced research projects and creative/critical thinking within one’s courses are basically unheard of. And that’s not only the way it is by necessity, it’s the way they want it to be.

It’s a trade school. No matter what course one is taking, one is essentially taught the proper way to do something. XYZ leads to ABC result. Memorize it, learn to love it. Even in medicine, one becomes a doctor through an undergraduate course that takes only a few years to complete. The medical course is so short because the focus is not on sending students through an intensive undergraduate course of pre-med to determine basic ability, nor through a round of specialization, research, and training in bedside manner through practical experience, etc. Continuing education and refreshers for doctors are at a minimum. The courses, so far as I can tell, speed a medical student through a field, in the accepted way to stitch up a patient and move them along.

Seems a little odd? Let’s explore the sound logic behind the system (or at least logic that was sound when the system was founded). Your nation becomes independent in the early 1960s. You have a few educated Kenyans, but for the most part the administrative and technical posts were filled by the British and their divide-and-conquer cronies. As the British leave and you purge your political, academic, and technical/service positions of colonial influence, cronyism, and uncooperative elements, you find that you have very few Kenyans to fill their posts. Your immediate focus is on setting up factory models of education to provide a steady stream of Kenyans proficient in the basic skills to make the country run. Even today, with your country drastically short of doctors, your focus is on generating enough doctors to supply the demand (the pressure of the demand does not allow for the foresight that investing significant time and money in better trained doctors and a better medical system/infrastructure could significantly reduce the demand by preventative care and access, decreasing the demand for a factory system and increasing the ability of skilled doctors to replicate themselves).

The development of “universities” in Africa was a simple lifting of a name the nation’s founders had encountered in other regions of the world. The transplant of the title onto a trade school, albeit a trade school for professions we usually associate with a university education, did not make it anything more than a trade school. The lack of academic freedom, inquiry, the factory demand for set curricula and high outputs of proficient (but not necessarily skilled or critically analytic) professionals, it stifles research, stifles growth, stifles change within disciplines and makes it much harder even to advance that basic education (the memorization aspects that do make up a small part of western education) to levels comparable to overseas universities in the classical sense of the term.

Point two: The Western model of education succeeds not because of Western neo-colonialism/imperialism. It succeeds simply because the model appears to work and has worked throughout the ages, across regions, to spur development and improve the lot of a society.

Before we look at that claim, let’s make this clear up front, the notion of a “Western” model of education is a complete misnomer. We’ve all heard the histories of Oxford and Bologna and such ancient universities dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. But the university system as we know it today has non-Western, rather ancient roots. Going through all of this in detail would require another post (and would require me to have access to all my books back in New York to brush up), but the first universities in the modern sense seem to pop up in Buddhist India just around or a little after the birth of Christ.

The early Indian universities collected massive libraries and were not like the ancient Greek academies, where pupils listened to the lectures of their elders, occasionally debating, but extremely circumscribed in their education, philosophies, etc. Perfect example, one of the ancient Buddhist universities is the first we know of to have had a “regional house,” in this case a Tibet House, devoted to understanding and appreciating a different culture and engaging with and absorbing the academic thought of Tibet. If you take the time to look at Tibetan/Indian Buddhist styles of debate and critical thought, class and mentoring structures, you’ll be shocked at how similar they are to modern Western education.

Muslims who first invaded India found these universities (for perspective, beyond the Zoroastrian Persians, the Afghans, Punjabis, Sindhis, Gujaratis, Jats, and other such north-Indian/Khyber residents were firmly Buddhist in culture and religion up until, depending on who you listen to, about 900-1200 C.E.), they exported the model and turned it into the madrasa system. This is highly evident in the architecture of the early madrasas in Balkh (around modern Afghanistan/Tajikistan, the home of many Sufis such as Rumi, and even there you can see some Buddhist influence) and other former Buddhist regions of the empire.

Of course, around the same time the Europeans are being exposed to Muslim thought and academic traditions—through Spain, Moorish Muslims are brining forth translations of ancient texts and exporting scientific and philosophic discoveries and traditions. Many of the Christian scholastics of the time made efforts to learn classical Arabic just to acquire this knowledge. While at the same time a steady stream of Europeans into the Middle East via trade and Crusade leads to the import of the madrasa system and the development of the university system as we know it today.

So to call this “Western” education is oversimplified and disingenuous. The education has developed in the west in recent years mainly because it has followed money, political stability, and academic freedom to the regions that can best incubate the model of education, while fleeing from the east and south as those resources that help to foster such education became scarce (for a host of reasons).

And it survived and traveled not because of Buddhist cultural superiority (although let’s face it, we’re pretty awesome), but because it was a model of education (that probably originated before the Buddhists) with a record of success that other cultures sought to import. The same is true now.

That model of education has a few major characteristics: At some point there is a focus on tutor/small-class dynamics to encourage discussion and a certain degree of equality with and connection to an educator. This system, and a degree of academic freedom, heavy funding, and an ideal of progress, encourages not just the repetition of a learned model, but instead incentivizes advances within one’s field, incentivizes new thought (see an earlier post I made on research culture and the logic behind it). This is helped along by a tradition of loose study, a basic grounding in a multiplicity of subjects (and an adoration for polymaths, interdisciplinary studies, and so on). The merits of this system go beyond innovation and extend to the ability to communicate beyond one’s field (an affliction of all those highly specialized: they tend to speak in a different language—computer scientists and anthropologists essentially speak in different, unintelligible dialects of English).

Anish Bramhandkar, a classmate at Columbia, best summarized this: “The biggest misconception in the liberal arts is that it’s okay to be bad at math. The biggest misconception in the sciences is that it’s okay to communicate poorly. The sciences and the liberal arts, false dichotomy as it is, need each other and one can’t even begin to appreciate the world without a foot in both worlds.”

The example I tend to use is music neuro-therapy. A doctor without a foot in the world of the humanities does not think to apply music as a means of treatment, unless he has the conversant ability to understand musical theories and think about them in a language that slipstreams between the musical and the medical. A doctor with that ability must be a genius to develop it on his own, and we cannot rely on the rarity and absurdity of genius. But we can foster and train the same mentality in a university, and by that token speed the progress of disciplines and the betterment of society beyond what the chance genius would impart to us.

It’s a brilliant system, really (and therein lies the oft-debated value of a liberal arts education). And it does not spread by the sword or the western demand, but rather the recognition of its potential on the foreign side. Because proficient doctors pumped out of a factory, I hope it has become apparent, may keep a nation afloat. But they will not bring it to the next plateau. Hence the desire on the part of academics and students to pursue western education and the ability for these institutions to stay atop the rankings with no fear of other institutions.

But there’s risk in the reliance on foreign universities. The exact figures escape me, but a shocking number of foreign students decide to stay in the West (for jobs, for lack of connection to their old homes, and for freedom and stability—academic and political). And more stay the more advanced their degrees are. Not only that, but the Obama administration is continuing a trend that will make it easier for foreigners to stay—the American mantra of winning the century has led to an obsession with innovation and an explicit mission to keep those trained in America working in America, to deprive innovation and the benefits of a Western education to our “competitors.” It’s shockingly at odds with our development agenda and will not endear us to the world as China continues to hoover up international goodwill for itself. But such is the nature of political myopia, hypocrisy, and the populism of an economic downturn.

The brain drain of this process leads to massive financial losses to nations like Kenya, an overreliance on remittances that masks poverty and makes the economy fragile and contingent on foreign nations (a soft neo-imperialism), and deprives the nation of the services, mentors, educators, role models, leaders, and innovators that well help to bring it beyond just a perpetual scraping by and slow, haphazard growth (which honestly just leads to disparity as it is practiced now, which means high inequality and unrest maybe one or two generations down the road, threatening the stability of the nation in the long term—dark side of development striking again).

But in Kenya at least there is opportunity. At present there are far more students graduating with the qualifications to go to college than there are slots for students in the nations seven major universities-cum-trade-schools. The time is ripe to supplement these trade schools (because trade schools are important and necessary to the functioning of a nation, so they need not be uprooted or changed themselves). If there are four times as many students as there are slots, then there’s room to expand the university system to give more access to those living beyond Nairobi, and in this expansion to root out the pathologies that make the trade school system so inefficient. There’s also room to develop native universities in the India-Muslim-Western (the more accurate name) traditional use of the term. A native supply of critical thinkers, innovators, etc. could be just what African nations need to become real competitors (not just the populist specter of a strawman competitor) on the global playing field—it could also help to eliminate elite trends. As of now those few who do return tend to be from the families that can afford to shelter them on return, meaning that the knowledge channeled into the nation stays in a largely self-serving upper echelon, perpetuating an elite and disconnected class and enabling disparity through development.

Of course the process of establishing new universities in an academic, political and economic environment such as Kenya’s (or Africa’s on a larger scale) is difficult. There’s a reason it hasn’t happened earlier (although the reasons and logics are changing with the nation, the era, and the world, so there is a chance). And adapting the model to fit the society is a tricky balancing act in and of itself. It’s something that requires more than just a blog post to talk about, and it’s something I shouldn’t talk about. It’s something that should come by Kenyan hands, not through satellite campuses, global centers, or Western government/NGO efforts. It has to be native to stick, I’ve become convinced. Yet at present brain drain means that those Kenyans best equipped to change this trend and establish these institutions do not live in Kenya and will probably not return.

Hence we come back to the irony and despair that seem to be a hallmark of this blog whenever it talks about Africa and the erstwhile efforts of natives and foreigners to change the continent. It’s a sad humor, but it’s all I’ve got.

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