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Can Ethiopian College Students Do Better?

March 30, 2008

By Alethia

This is a sequel to my last article on Ethiopian academics. This time I decided to reflect on the role of Ethiopian college students in the Ethiopian institutions of higher education. Reflections on the role of the institutions of higher education, colleges & universalities in Ethiopia, cannot be complete without including the role of students as well as teachers in higher education, of course, among other things.

It’s crucial to bear in mind that the thoughts in this article are my personal observations and reflections based on my experience of having been a student in Ethiopian institutions of higher education for a number of years. I’m deeply convinced that Ethiopia as a nation can undergo a tremendous change for better if Ethiopia’s institutions of higher education undergo a long overdue change for better from within.

Nothing short of a revolution in the lives and thoughts and actions of those that constitute the community of higher education in Ethiopia will bring about the much desired and desirable change for better for Ethiopia as a nation. This is the conviction that underwrites the present article as well as all in this series on Ethiopia’s institutions of higher education.

As any reasonable person understands that the issue I’m trying to address is a very complex one and much of what I say cannot be comprehensive enough to address all sides of this complex issue in a short article and hence any shortcomings that one might encounter in this writing. Forewarned is forearmed, goes the saying. By students I refer to students whose days as college  students overlapped with mine (since the 90’s) and those whose days as college students is continuing since then in Ethiopian institutions of higher education. The focus of this article is not so much on individual students as it’s on the mindset that, I think,   is prevalent among a current generation of students in Ethiopia. I must also add this: this mindset that deeply bothers  me is not exclusively and typically confined to Ethiopia. But this latter clarification cannot be an excuse to ignore the problem that must be addressed for any society to flourish due to the positive contributions from the community that constitutes those in institutions of higher education.

Why does one go to college?  Why would one decide to spend some formative years of one’s life at a college as a college student? [By college I mean a four year college and that is also equivalent to saying roughly a university; additional distinctions are irrelevant to the purpose of this article]. Having a clear answer to this fundamental question would be helpful for any student who decides to go to college for a clear purpose.

Now one can argue that there is a clear answer to the above question as to why one decides to spend one’s formative years as a college student almost anywhere in the global community as it’s been the case for a long time. Hence, one almost universal answer to the question why one goes to college is to earn a college diploma which has largely become essential for one to get a job. Fair and who can dispute such an answer? But then since there is such a ready and universal answer to the question why one should spend one’s formative years at a college it does not follow from that that earning a college diploma and getting even a good job is the only or even the most important reason for one to go to college in the first place.

A few weeks ago I raised a question to my students (in one of US universities) while discussing the meaning or purpose of life. My question was this: will any one of you come back to school next week if Bill Gates decides to give you right now some millions of dollars to do whatever you’d like to with the money? There were only couple or so students who hesitantly showed a slight desire to come back if that were the case. The rest of the students in class unequivocally answered that they will not come back.

The reason almost the whole class answered the way they did was based on much the same MINDSET that is the concern of this article: we’re here to get a college diploma so that we can get a better job with it than otherwise. There isn’t much more to a college education, was/is the implicit message behind such a mindset.  Though I’m not saying, by any means,  that my student’s response  is a representative one  for the rest of students elsewhere, I’ve no doubt that  the response of my students is a typical response of the majority of students in Ethiopia and in many of the US colleges.

One must bear this mind: I’m not saying nor am I arguing or suggesting that college education and earning a college diploma in order to get a good job is a bad reason/motive for one to go to college.  What I’m suggesting is rather the following point: the purpose of college education need not or should not be reduced to only one purpose, i.e., earning a diploma and getting a job. I argue that it’s wrong for almost any college to portray, in any way, implicit or explicit, the purpose of college education as only a passport to securing a good job, period. It’s also wrong for a college student to think and believe that college education has only one purpose and that is getting a good  job and hence to think of college education as a passport to success only in terms of getting a good job.

Based on hundreds or thousands of conversations with hundreds of students from my own AAU days since the early 90’s until this moment, both in Ethiopia and overseas, what I’ve seen countless times is the mindset that reduces the purpose of college education to getting a college diploma as a passport to success, which translates only into getting a good job. One might dispute the way I portray the prevalent purpose of college education as being both simplistic and also untrue.  Until I see arguments to the contrary I maintain that what I say in this article is as accurate as things could be based on countless observations over the last 15 or so years of my life. 

 I think that the purpose of college education is much broader than preparing college students only for a job at the end of their college career. Yes, preparing and equipping college students for jobs is unmistakably one of the major roles of almost all colleges. I contend that college years are among the most decisive and formative years for any college student in broader terms as well. College years are years when mostly young students form and shape their characters, ideally speaking, as reasonably and broadly well informed, knowledgeable, understanding, skilful, diligent, perseverant, patient, foresighted, concerned and compassionate, responsible and visionary citizens. One of the central purposes of education, in general,  is to bring about significant changes in character or behavior of those who undergo education over an extended period of time.  

It’s easy for one to raise an objection to the broader purpose of education that I mentioned above that should decisively shape the lives of college students by pointing out that there is not much in typical college curriculum these days, esp., in Ethiopia, that aims at shaping the characters/behaviors of college students that is intended to produce college students with some of the above character traits. I realize that such an objection could be a powerful reason why we observe the kind of college students with a reductionistic view of the purpose of college education in the first place. But again that is not so much of an objection against my suggestion as it’s one of the reasons why we observe the type of college students’ mindset that, I think,  is undesirable and counterproductive and also contrary  to the broader purpose of education. Yes, one can construct an argument to show why contemporary college education suffers from failures that are consequences of holding wrong or misguided reasons for college education by both the colleges and its students but that only confirms my suggestion.

Now it’s inevitable to wonder how Ethiopian college students could do better when their college career is beset with so many problems: lack of good and competent teachers (as I’ve argued in my last article), lack of adequate libraries or some such resources, among other problems that one easily finds oneself surrounded with just being part of a poverty-stricken nation such as ours. I know all of these problems and setbacks first-hand for an extended period of time. If I’ve overcome most of the problems that stand in the way of a college student’s success in the broader sense that I’m arguing for the key reason for my success, if I’ve ever succeeded in any sense is this: I never equated the purpose of college education or education in general to earning a college diploma in order to use it as a passport to success.  

For me, as I hope it’s the case for other like-minded people, college education (even in the midst of abject poverty, lack of good & competent teachers and adequate library, etc) has been, first and foremost, an opportunity to develop and grow and mature as an adult person and only secondarily as a means of getting a job. I realize that my personal educational odyssey is not a typical one and hence I’m not taking it as a typical example of understanding the purpose of education. But that does not mean that I argue for anything short of re-orienting  the  purposes for college education in order to bring about a revolutionary change in our college career with lasting fruits of college education for the rest of our lives.

There is no doubt in my mind that with a conviction that  characterizes the purpose of college education only as a means to   earn  a diploma  in order to get a job it’s hardly possible to produce college educated citizens with character and integrity who’re also responsible and visionary,  among other things.  A person, college educated or not, who does not sufficiently care about his/her own personal development, maturity, in short, his/her own  character, integrity, etc, can hardly care about others with whom he/she comes in contact.

A college graduate (or whoever) who cares only about money and how to make money at the expense of opportunities to develop and shape his/her character is a liability, in the long run,  to himself/herself and also to his/her community. A college graduate who fails to see that one’s character is as important as (I think it’s more important) getting a good job at the end of  one’s college career is more likely to contribute more bad  things to one’s community than good things overall. I think this reasoning captures the reality of what is going on in our own community/society. Why don’t we see clearly appreciable changes for better in our community or society at large in light of   many college/university graduates year after year?

 I think that Ethiopian college students hold much of Ethiopia’s destiny in their hands. I’m deeply convinced that if (1) a significant number of college students in Ethiopia challenge the prevalent mindset that wrongly equates the purpose of college education with only earning a diploma and getting a job and nothing more,  in order (2)  to broaden the purpose of education to include   a broader mindset that aims at acquiring virtues that complete (and also  complement) the purpose of education, then there is a hope and reason to believe that Ethiopia as a nation will see good and better days.  

Imagine a community of college students in Ethiopia whose passion is not only to make use of their college education to personally improve their own lives by holding good jobs but also having consuming passions to change the fate and the future of their own community/society by series of selfless and thoughtful acts that are exclusively aimed at bringing about long overdue changes in their community. Imagine such college graduates passionately trying to directly translate the lessons/skills that they’ve learned/acquired as part of their college education into life transforming actions and activities in their own community and for the sake of those who never had and will never have the privilege and benefits of college education.  

Imagine again such college graduates pursuing virtues, good character traits, that define and distinguish them for who they’re, and imagine such college graduates empowering their communities and also penetrating the lives of their communities and thereby emerging as trustworthy leaders, consistently being people of character and integrity that are rightly and deservedly sought after in the life of their nation, be it in political leadership or otherwise.  

Education that is proper and broader and balanced in a number of relevant ways can certainly change a nation’s destiny upside down, for better and forever. This is not a baseless pipe dream, nor is it nostalgia of a future, as it were, for our society. Such a radical revolution can happen within a generation but only if Ethiopia’s college community changes its mindset and its core values and convictions in a radical way.  No community or society can undergo any desirable change without some significant number of its citizens changing and replacing some of their destructive values, beliefs, and desires and convictions. Among those values and beliefs and desires that urgently and systematically need change is the one I mentioned above, i.e., the purpose of college education is exclusively about earning a diploma and getting a job, period. There are thousands that have already earned their diplomas and have held jobs all over Ethiopia. That is a fact. But what radical or even significant changes have we witnessed in our society that we can attribute, without a mistake, to Ethiopia’s college educated community? Mind you that I’m not, by any means, implying that Ethiopia’s college graduates have not contributed anything important. Absolutely not! My focus is on what could have been done better if college graduates have had a broader and more balanced perspective, the way argued above, on college education which I seriously doubt. Can Ethiopia’s college students do better then? I do hope so but I don’t have good reasons to believe that that will happen overnight or even in a few years. Changing (and also replacing) values and beliefs and desires and convictions of individuals and also a community do not take place overnight yet such changes can come about. But such changes come about only when a mindset, along with values and beliefs and convictions, of the current generation of college educated Ethiopians changes for better and forever.

 In a sequel to this article I’ll try to share some practical suggestions that can help us, in some small way, do better as college educated Ethiopians in going beyond the narrow and reductionistic view of the purpose of college education to the broader and more complete ideal of education.    

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