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How can we do better?

April 7, 2008

How can we do better?

College education and life beyond college in Ethiopia

By Alethia

I concluded my last article with a promise to share some practical suggestions that aim at helping us, in some small way, do better as college students and 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. This article is a small attempt to deliver that promise.

As anyone can see the title of this article is too broad to cover in a short article as this and my expertise is also limited to provide comprehensive practical suggestions to make our college education in Ethiopia the best it could be. This is once again my own observation and reflection that is intended to share some ideas and also to open a discussion for much better ideas and suggestions from those who’re better equipped than the present writer. This is my first article that focuses on practical matters in a direct way.

In my previous article I argued for the following view: college education in general is a crucial environment for one’s  formative years as  young people; the purposes we have when we go to college and how we view our college education and college experience is decisive for our lives later on. I distinguished between (1) the purpose of college education only as a passport to success, success narrowly defined in such a way that college education is only about earning a college diploma in order to get a job, and (2) college education also as an opportunity to bring about   personal development and maturity as a young adult, and above all as an opportunity to develop one’s character in such a formative environment, if properly understood.

In short, in my last article, I argued that if a college student focuses only on (1) and ignores (2), such an attitude in life is detrimental and a liability, in the long run, for college educated citizens. College educated citizens whose dominant purpose in life after college that focuses only on getting a job at the expense of one’s personal development in terms of good character traits can more likely do more damage to one’s community than good since not all who end up getting jobs do well in what they do, if they’re not also good people, people of character. On what basis, one would wonder, are we supposed to expect a college graduate to be a person of desirable and good character traits if our purpose at college and after college does not have any reasonable and proper room for our personal development beyond earning a college diploma, which could also be earned, at times, without proper education and knowledge and skill. It’s a fact of life also that not all college graduates are equally knowledgeable and skillful and competent though this could have various explanations which need not concern us here.  

My intention here is to list and discuss a little bit what I think could be crucial components of college life that can contribute positive goods for a college graduate as a properly informed and responsible citizen.

   1. Developing a habit of reading widely:  Mostly Ethiopia is dominated by an oral culture to such an extent that even college life and life beyond college can hardly transcend this dominant culture. The easiest thing for anyone to see the truth of the claim I’m making is to see how many Ethiopians, college students or college graduates, spend their time reading when there is no reading requirement that requires them to do a reading and how many would rather choose to spend their time, almost all their spare time, talking, and doing other similar things that are not conducive for the development of one’s overall intellectual life. Ethiopians, who are able to read and write, all else  being equal,  talk more than read; I’m not talking about reading when it’s required for them to do (which most can do reasonably well)  but reading when there is no requirement and hence done for the sake of acquiring knowledge as part of teaching oneself at school or beyond.


1.1.Reading widely but how and where in Ethiopia? There is a real challenge when it comes to resources, libraries, etc., many would point out which I do also know so well. But then let’s start reading whatever we have accesses to before making our complaints about what we do not have. If there is a will, then there is a way, goes the saying. A person who is at a college has more access to resources to read widely than others given the Ethiopian context.  If a college student is committed to reading hundreds (not to mention the thousands) of volumes of books at Kennedy Library at Sidist Kilo, for example, it’d take him/her years to even finish reading those on humanities, literature, biographies, encyclopedias, not to mention the books designed to be textbooks, which students would read one way or the other as part of their required readings. When some complained that there were  no books  to read  what I’d do when I had chances to go to Sidist Kilo after my college days was to take them to the thousands of volumes of books, some really, really good ones, and ask them,  what about these? Have you read most of these? I hope you see the point.  I personally have friends who read voraciously in those college days and now they’re at the height of their accomplishments, though most of these people are just in their 30’s. The editor of Addis Voice was one such voracious reader and now the whole world has started to recognize the kind of work he is doing and can do. The circle of voracious readers in my college days was not too large and it’d be tempting to mention all of them but that is not the point.  If we had/have more college students and college educated Ethiopians whose life is committed to reading and writing widely and deeply and critically, more than talking and avoiding the disciplines that reading and writing require,  I’ve no doubt that we’d be a better society.

1.Again, by reading widely I mean to refer to reading beyond what college students are required to read in their respective fields. Academic majors (such as accounting, engineering, mathematics, the natural sciences, etc)  that do not adequately provide  as their components readings on the human nature, human values, and the individual and social nature of human beings,  fail to directly contribute well rounded education for those majors. It’s only by reading widely in areas that students lack adequate education that they can develop broader and balanced perspective about what it means to be human, individually and in a community. I’m not suggesting or implying, by any means, that engineers, accountants, mathematicians, and those in the natural sciences, etc., are badly educated. Not at all. My point is to make the point that balanced, and broader education would ideally include education on the humanities, such as history, philosophy, literature, religion, etc., that provide knowledge about us, human beings, as the subject of study and reflection as well. I’m aware of the fact that some of the humanities courses have been offered in colleges in Ethiopia. But they are not adequate to make a college graduate a reasonably well informed citizen and one can be such a citizen by developing a discipline and life time habit of reading widely in such areas as the humanities, among others.

2.     We also need to develop a discipline of reading critically: By reading critically, I mean, among other things, developing an independent mind that is conducive to the intellectual development of an individual within his/her community. The dominant way of thinking in a society such as Ethiopia is predominantly communal and ill-suited for the development of an independent mind to produce independent thinkers. Group and communal thinking is, at times,  openly antagonistic to the development of independent and creative minds and in such environments there is no reason to expect a society to develop in various ways desirable for the flourishing of any given society. One major reason for the difference between the scientific and technological developments of the West is due to the irreplaceable contributions of independent and creative minds to the development of their society. We’ve very few and far between such people when it comes to making a decisive difference to a much better destiny of Ethiopia.

2.1Developing one’s mind by reading critically and broadly is an asset for a society in many ways. One area of reading and learning that is largely missing in Ethiopia as part of the college courses or as part of one’s personal reading for the purpose of self-teaching is in an area called critical thinking/ reasoning. Yes, we’ve some courses in logic at some of Ethiopia’s colleges but that is way below the level of what is needed to develop a habit and skill of thinking/ reasoning for a society such as ours. Lack of critical thinking/reasoning habits and skills show themselves in so many ways in a society whose thinking mostly is group-thinking or communal thinking. One of the key missing and essential elements for the development of a democratic culture is an ability to think broadly and critically and being able to engage in discussions and dialogues with a reasonable degree of handling opposing and alternative views without reducing everything to personal attacks, and without adding unnecessary conflicts in such environments. Fortunately, these days one does not need to go to college to develop critical reasoning skills, esp., if one has an access to the internet and online critical thinking or reasoning resources. Though such online resources are inaccessible to the majority of Ethiopians (to the illiterate and the poor) they are available and accessible to most of those who are shaping the destiny of Ethiopia now.  It’s not too late for Ethiopians who are participating in the development of, for example, the democratic culture, to make use of the massive literature on critical thinking or reasoning available online. Such thinking skills are by no means meant to be useful only for politicians. That is just one crucial and timely example I used to illustrate my point.

2.2.One would like to add something in relation to (2.1) with respect to the Diaspora Ethiopian community and how such a community with almost all necessary resources to have an access to has barely begun to develop the critical thinking/reasoning skills as anyone can witness in what has been happening in mostly Ethiopian-run blogs/websites. Lack of a disciplined reading habit is nowhere significantly different among the Diaspora Ethiopians and their counterparts in Ethiopia. The Diaspora Ethiopians cannot find excuses in lack of access to books or the online resources on the internet for a severe lack of reading disciplines or self-evident lack of critical thinking/reasoning skills as anyone, even a casual observer, cannot fail to notice. Except for a handful of contributors to and participants in the Diaspora websites/blogs most who participate in blogs/websites by way of comments,  etc.,  do provide blindingly self-evident pieces of evidence for how much we Ethiopians, even in Diaspora,  lack critical thinking/reasoning skills. Recall and witness most blog/website “discussions”, or “debates” among the Diaspora about the recent political twists and turns in Ethiopia as handled by the Diaspora writers and commentators. If one looks for a research material on how to not   write and think and reason critically  one can’t miss such massive resources in the Ethiopian-run websites/blogs, though not all of them, all of the time, have been bad as noted above. There is more than enough evidence as to what we, Ethiopians, lack no matter where we live and work when it comes, esp., to the lack of disciplined habit of reading as a culture as opposed to predominantly talking

From what I’ve tried to say or suggest I think we as a society have a long way to go to establish a good and positive culture that can go a long way in transforming the lives of Ethiopia’s college students and also college educated citizens who could and can play a much better role in shaping the destiny of their nation. No society in human history has done better in so many ways because of lack of good education or good, informed, and responsibly educated citizens. I don’t think Ethiopia can be an exception and hence the need to start a revolution, in an area that holds  the future of Ethiopia for good or bad, i.e., Ethiopia’s college educated citizens. Ethiopia needs more of those properly educated college graduates for whom college education should   be a means to not only transform their own personal lives but also a means to transform and change for better the lives of their communities and their society (whose future is largely in the hands of its properly educated and responsible citizens).

Some of the practical suggestions that I’ve shared above, I hope, would be challenges to be taken and embraced to change our individual lives first before we go out to change the lives of others and some of the practical suggestions above can make a real difference to us both individually and collectively. Nothing replaces the value of reading widely and critically with an explicit intention to develop and cultivate and nurture our own personal lives first and foremost and also with an equally explicit intention to better be equipped to serve our society and nation better, with knowledge and skill and above all with  character. What is the point of being knowledgeable and skilful without also being a person of character?

Some among my readers would think and might even dismiss such obvious things that can be helpful as if nothing new has been said and ignore investing in their own lives to make a difference to themselves first and foremost. But the problem with such people   is not in their not knowing what is good for them and others but in failing to pursue and practice the good that is known. My hope is that we’ll have more of those who know the good and also pursue and practice the good and without such people we’ve no good reasons to see Ethiopia’s destiny being shaped for better.








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