Could Ethiopian Academics Have Done Better?
There is no doubt that these days many Ethiopians are wondering and thinking long and hard as to what Ethiopians from various walks of life could do to make a difference to their society: a difference that will truly make a difference for better for generations to come. This is my reflection on what the Ethiopian academics could do and could have done to make Ethiopia a much better country.
By academics I refer to college and university teachers. My focus in this article is on the Ethiopian academics in Ethiopia. Since this is a large topic my focus will be limited to some key roles that Ethiopian academics could play in the Ethiopian context that can make a real difference to the way the society functions.
This is personal reflections on observations that I’ve made over a long period of time. Personally, I’ve also been through no less than ten years of post-secondary education in Ethiopia. I’ve a great interest in what has been happening and is happening and will be happening in post-secondary education in Ethiopian colleges and universities. I’m an academic myself and look forward to contributing my share of responsibility in the years to come. I’ve not held an academic position in any Ethiopian colleges/universities yet with an exception of teaching at various colleges briefly and in all of these only on a voluntary basis, without any reward in any form at all. No one can overemphasize the value of education for any society, including ours. Good education is among those absolutely essential things for any nation’s development in any form. No society can enjoy any desirable human civilization without some contributions from learning, mostly in the formal setting like colleges and universities. I’m by no means implying that we should not pay attention to teaching/learning process before colleges/universities. That requires a separate article. If and when there is some relevance from what I say to pre-college teaching/learning experience that is because these things are intimately related and no wonder about such relationships when they’re obvious.
Once again this article will be limited in its focus; it’ll mostly focus on teacher-student relations and the attitude of teachers to their students in the academic environment and the academic competence of some of the teachers in colleges and universities in Ethiopia. First to teacher-student relations.
The relationship between teachers and their students varies from place to place and from culture to culture. One does not have to expect a radical departure in teacher-student relationships in one’s academic environment from the dynamics of the larger interpersonal relations in any given society. However, since teachers are more educated than their students and are expected to have learned something important in life and are also expected to be wiser and more mature than their students, it does not seem right to think of teachers at colleges/universities to act and do their jobs in much the same way like the rest of the society. Teachers who’ve undergone years of academic training that challenges, in various ways, their mindset, their knowledge, their emotional and intellectual maturity, and judgment are naturally expected to be role models for their students, and, of course, ideally speaking, for the rest of the society. Teachers who’ve undergone years of academic training would naturally come to see what it takes to produce responsible, knowledgeable, emotionally and intellectually mature students as fellow citizens since these people shoulder the responsibility of perpetuating their society’s civilizations.
The way teachers interact with their students and attitudes that teachers bring to their students and their work do not seem to have been adequately explored areas in explaining why some societies keep producing likeminded academics and citizens and I think our society’s experience is nowhere different. Now those of us who’ve gone thru the Ethiopian college /university education environment can easily recall so many unacceptable, inexcusable and absolutely wrong, characters and actions of our teachers from our many years of experiences. If asked personally I’d single out, maybe very fortunately, only one teacher from more than a dozen or so who taught me at the university who does not belong to the others whose attitude to their students and whose relationships with their students were totally unacceptable and downright wrong.
Now many of us who’ve had experiences of having been taught by our college/university teachers could say things like the following without making any mistake: most of our teachers would look down upon us, their students, as lords would do to their slaves or subjects; most of the time the best way to show that students are not as good as their teachers is by composing the toughest exams that those who composed them would not even be able to do at their ease if they had to take the same exams; many times if a student academically challenges the teacher chances are that such a student would most likely suffer years of condemnation with failing grades as retaliation; many times teachers would not tell their students where they get their lecture notes from so that students would not get hold of them as a way of avoiding being challenged by bright students or any; when it comes to grading so much worse could be said about how teachers want to prove their alleged superiority to their students by grading their students’ exams in such a way that only a few or no student gets an A or As and the rest, the majority, would get some Bs and mostly the usual Cs and Ds and these were experiences of the 80’s and 90’s, if not entirely true today; no one can make a mistake that grading in such severe ways by teachers has been used as weapons to protect their “superior’’ status in the name of teaching and learning process; some teachers would do whatever it takes to look like they know much, much better than they actually do in order to avoid exposing their lack of competence due to the following reasons, among others.
This brings us to our second item for consideration. Lack of academic competence by a teacher negatively affects the teaching/learning process perhaps more than teacher-student relationships and teachers’ attitudes to their students. Academic incompetence could be explained in a number of ways for a number of reasons. My focus again is limited to a few reasons. Any student who’s been even vaguely attentive could not fail to be aware of lack of adequate preparation for teaching by the typical Ethiopian college/university teachers. I’m not talking about incompetence due to lack of resources like books and as such. Not at all! I’m talking about academic incompetence due to, mainly, lack of resourcefulness and personal initiative and lack of personal motivation for learning for oneself first before one undertakes teaching as a college/university teacher. Due to lack of personal initiatives and lack of motivation it’s so common to see a typical Ethiopian teacher using the same lecture notes, not good ones in the first place, over and over and over for years.
Why do most of the college/university teachers in Ethiopia lack motivations to learn as much as possible for their own personal development first in the process of learning and teaching? Some might want to explain such lack of motivation for personal learning and personal development due to lack of adequate research facilities, poor libraries, and any number of external factors that could negatively affect one’s level of personal motivation. But such explanations are not going to work well in all situations. I’d rather argue that lack of research facilities should be among good reasons to be more motivated and resourceful to overcome such handicaps in a country such us ours! This is not a place for me to go autobiographical but the truth is that lack of adequate research facilities added more reasons for me to be more aggressively motivated and resourceful to overcome such barriers and handicaps even when I did not have the privilege of being part of an establishment such as colleges/universities.
If one’s determined to learn and grow intellectually as an academic, I think, it’s eminently possible to overcome some of the existing barriers and handicaps with which we all are familiar. If a teacher, as an intellectual, has more than an average desire and level of curiosity to learn for himself/herself and if a teacher is genuinely interested in the well being of his/her students and in the generation of people that he/she is molding and shaping, I think, such things are more than enough reasons to overcome almost any existing handicaps in terms of lack of research facilities. Persistent lack of personal initiatives and motivations to do more than the least required to just make one’s living by doing much the same year after year seem to have severely affected the quality of a generation of students in Ethiopian colleges and universities. I’ve no doubt that most of the academics that have presided over the teaching/learning process in most of Ethiopia’s colleges/universities, mainly at AAU, could have done much better as teachers whose work and life is responsible for producing a generation of fellow citizens whose life could make a tremendous difference to the future of Ethiopia.
We’re now ready to draw out implications of the above. It does not take a genius to figure out why we in Ethiopia see, for more than a generation, much the same in terms of the quality of educated citizens, mostly those who’re college/university educated and those who’re teaching at colleges/universities. Put another way: the arrogance and ignorance by some so-called educated Ethiopians, the unacceptable degree of incompetence of some so-called educated Ethiopians, the indifference to whatever happens in the larger society by some so-called Ethiopians, etc., can be explained by the way the academics live their lives and carry out their responsibilities as I’ve tried to show above.
A teacher who thinks and acts in such a way to show that his/her student is his/her inferior and also a rival that deserves destruction; that his/her student does not deserve his/her best efforts at the teaching/learning process; that one way to prove that one’s student is not his equal is by grading his/her student as harshly as possible; that one way of showing a teacher’s “ superior knowledge” is by hiding the sources a teacher uses to teach his/her students, etc., such vicious characters and actions can only perpetuate the cycle of problems that have destroyed the purpose and mission of the life of colleges/universities. Those who’ve suffered from really low GPA’s as a consequence of their teachers’ unreasonably harsh grading policy, which is based on all kinds of wrong reasons, have inevitably failed to meet requirements for graduate studies, and how many of such young Ethiopian college/university graduates have lost countless opportunities for advanced studies only God knows.
Add to these the incompetence of college/university teachers and one can easily see how much we’ve regressed in terms of producing properly educated Ethiopian citizens. It’s no exaggeration if one says that for most of the time the actual learning process for some or many of those who teach at Ethiopian colleges and universities has stopped at the moment they graduated with whatever degrees they’ve earned. Unless they’re forced by external pressures so many of those who teach at Ethiopian colleges/universities do not have a visible and established tendency to advance their knowledge/scholarship even about the very subject matter they mean to teach. This is one of the easiest things to document if one were to challenge this view. I’m not a stranger to the Ethiopian academics and I’ve known some for many years and what I share here might even be somewhat a generous description about how some of our academics live their lives as academics.
Now from what has been said above one can safely conclude that the persistent damages that we as a society have suffered from the failure of the teaching/learning process in the Ethiopian colleges/universities could easily be the second worst damage done to our society next to the damages done by ill-governance in Ethiopian political history of our generation. Yes, we’ve some, or rather a few good and competent and caring teachers at some of Ethiopia’s colleges/universities. But they’re too few to make all the needed difference. Now imagine what kind of educated citizens could have been molded and shaped and produced if we have had considerably many teachers whose life’s most important goal is the wellbeing of their students, a care one could compare to the care parents extend to their children. For me the well-being of my students, esp., their future is of paramount importance and I can’t imagine sleeping at peace while doing anything less than my very best to my students who’re entrusted into my life for one of the most important jobs one can imagine: molding and shaping the lives of one’s students in the most positive and desirable way that can sustain and perpetuate the life of scholarship and also the life of virtues that can sustain the life of the larger society when these students go out into the larger society to make an impact and leave their legacy likewise.
I think, the future of Ethiopia, the future of a generation we’re bringing up after us cannot be a better generation in any desirable way if the life of learning continues at Ethiopia’s colleges/universities the same way it’s been going on for a generation or so now. We need a revolution that is designed to change the teaching/learning environment in Ethiopia’s colleges/universities. We desperately need a radically renewed commitment to produce a new generation of students, a new generation of properly educated citizens that Ethiopia has been waiting for generations.
My message, in a sense, is a continuation of a call for better, virtuous characters in Ethiopia’s academic environment which, ideally speaking, is a proper place to bring about change in character as one of the often neglected goals of education is to bring about change in character. What is the point of amassing knowledge, theoretical or practical, if one’s life, one’s character does not change for better? What is the point of education if being educated does not make a difference to how we should live our lives and lives lived between those who have had the privilege of being educated and the others who did not have such a privilege?
One can easily see that when we’ve properly educated citizens who’ll be knowledgeable, responsible, informed, wiser, sensible, understanding, tolerant, broadminded, more perceptive, of sound judgment about issues personal and societal, and when the more we’ve such citizens the better the future of our society will be. Universities are, without any doubt, the most important institutions that any society should care about and my hope is that those whose lives are deeply tied to universities/colleges in Ethiopia will do much better to bring about a much overdue change for the Ethiopia of now and tomorrow. I do strongly believe that Ethiopian academics could have done much better for their nation, their society, and therefore they should do much, much better than whatever they’ve done. I look forward to the time when my role as an Ethiopian academic will be an opportunity to contribute to the well being and flourishing of my society, for a generation to come. I hope to see more likeminded fellow Ethiopians with a shared and common goal that will make a real difference as to how we should live our lives as part of our society, as academics and responsible citizens too.