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Southeastern Regional Seminar in African Studies (SERSAS)

Spring 2002 SERSAS Conference
22 - 23 March 2002
Georgia State University



Education Reform and the Dilemmas of Rule
in the Gold Coast, Africa, 1920-1951

Jeremy Pool
Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia
jpool@LearnLink.Emory.Edu

Copyright © 2001 by SERSAS and Jeremy Pool
All Rights Reserved

Note: This conference paper is taken from a larger work in progress. Please contact the author directly for information on the full paper and citations.

Education in Africa has often been examined as a sui generis institution - one that may have developed under the aegis of colonial rule, but was somehow fundamentally separate from the colonial project; destined to produce nationalist leadership and to contribute to the modernizing process or to institutional development of African nations (or these days, to the formation of civil society). Like most sectors of colonial activity, however, the development of education was bound up in the changing nature of colonial ambitions and but also produced effects that went beyond the limits of those ambitions. This paper looks at the discourse of education reform in British colonial Africa generally, and in the Gold Coast in particular, from the 1920's to the beginnings of self-government in 1951. In doing so I attempt to contribute to a body of historical literature that has reexamined the construction and transformation of colonial rule in Africa by tracing out the different fields of its articulation in such areas as law, land, labor, and public health. This literature recognizes that the different sectors of colonial governance affected the lives of African subjects differently at different times (that is, that the colonial state was neither uniform nor unchanging). It also recognizes that these sectors each reveal different aspects of or provide different insights into the priorities, hopes, and fears of the colonial project at different moments in time. What I am trying to do here is, rather than looking at education through the developmentalist lens that is most often applied to it, to look at education in terms of what it reveals about the shifting concerns of the colonial project, and, in a tentative way, to consider how the structure of that project was transformed and how it was maintained in the actions taken by Ghana's post-colonial government.

In the 1920's, in the relative peace and prosperity following the First World War, Britain and its colonial administrations began to step back and reconsider the shape and direction of their colonial policies. In the Gold Coast, Gov. Guggisberg, began a set of projects to improve communications and aspects of the economic infrastructure in the colony. In addition to these self-evidently practical improvements, Guggisberg singled out education for improvement saying that, "The government now regards education as the first and foremost step in progress of the races of the Gold Coast, and therefore as the most important item in its work." The Gov. appointed a commission to investigate the history of education in the Gold Coast thus far, and to make recommendations for its improvements in the future. The Committee's report, and Guggisberg's translation of it into a set of educational principles, were concerned, not just with the expansion of existing provisions for education, but with ways to reform the manner in which education was provided in order to better serve what they thought of as the needs of the Gold Coast. Part of this involved the expansion of technical and agricultural education in order to avoid the potential economic dangers of convincing people that non-white-collar work was beneath them, and the political dangers of producing a class of unemployed would-be clerks. But the proposed reforms, including such items as the use of vernacular languages as mediums of instruction, also sought to avoid producing "denationalized" African who could no longer understand or relate to the uneducated, and would thus be unable to act as, in Gov. Guggisberg's words, "leaders in progress."

At the same time that that these reforms were being considered in the Gold Coast, a group representing the interests of British and American missionary bodies was constructing a similar but more expansive set of reforms for education in Africa as a whole. The Phelps- Stokes Fund, which had in 1917 produced a report on Negro Education in the U.S., appointed a group called the African Education Commission (or AEC) to tour Africa and to make recommendations for the improvement of educational efforts there. The AEC's findings were published in 1922, the same year that Lord Lugard published his own blueprint for the policy of indirect rule. They outlined an ambitious scheme for reformulating education in Africa by adapting it what they perceive to be the needs of the community. The AEC's concept of adaptation was based around two things: first, they argued that African economies were primarily agricultural, and sought to adapt school curricula to emphasize both the dignity and importance of agricultural labor. They drew on U.S. experiments at Hampton and Tuskegee such as traveling schools and other mechanisms of adult education, in order to communicate a set of modern techniques and attitudes. Schools, in this formulation, were to extend their reach beyond liberal arts training and to instruct their students and the wider community in such things as the proper ways of organizing their recreation and home life. This brings us to the second principle of the AEC's reforms, which was that, like Guggisberg, they hoped to produce an African subject who would be civilized (convinced to give up barbarous practices) but not deracinated (too much like Europeans), who would in the word's of the AEC, combine "the self- confidence of culture with the simplicity of Africans."

The AEC's report attracted a good deal of attention both from missionary bodies and from the British Colonial Office. In 1923, the Colonial Office commissioned its own Advisory Committee on African education, which released substantial reports in 1925 and 1935. These reports collectively gave central government sanction to most of the AEC recommendations, and saw the adaptation of education to the conditions of African life as a mechanism for mediating the potentially destabilizing effects of social change on African society. The 1925 report argued that educational expansion was necessary because "material prosperity without a corresponding growth in the moral capacity to turn it to good use constitutes a danger." In 1935 the Advisory Committee noted that Africa society was undergoing "profound and rapid change." The Advisory Committee held that such change was "both inevitable and desirable," and that "it is the opportunity and the responsibility of the school to assist in the process of transformation."

In 1943, however, when the Advisory Committee's Sub-Committee on Adult Education published its report Mass Education and African Society, the tone of forward thinking optimism that was present in the 1935 report had been replaced by one more closely approximating panic. Where the 1925 and 1935 reports had recommended that colonial administrations should progressively reform the content and the structure of education, the Sub-Committee report argued for the urgent need for reforms to be enacted and new tactics to be employed in order to respond to the "real danger of social upheaval" in African societies. This change in tone was the result of changes during the intervening period in both the British approach to colonial governance and in the future envisioned for the colonial project. Beginning in 1935, a wave of strike actions and other demonstrations of popular unrest had swept Africa and the Caribbean. (In the Gold Coast these demonstrations took the form of both railway and other strikes(1939), and the cocoa hold-ups(1931-32,1937-38).) As historians such as Fred Cooper have argued, these actions collectively convinced British officials that they needed a new approach to the political management of African territories. One half of this new approach involved moving self-government from a distant and undefined goal of the colonial project, to a concrete objective to be obtained in some definable amount of time. The other half took the form of a new emphasis on economic improvement, as instituted by the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940. The logic of this Act was that the source of African unrest lay in dissatisfaction with material conditions, and that this dissatisfaction could be ameliorated through economic development and the demonstration of benevolent concern by the colonial power. The 1943 Sub-Committee report, however, held that it was unworkable to expect that economic conditions could effectively be controlled for in this way, and that it was necessary instead to turn to the problem of the African reactions themselves. As the Sub-Committee saw it, the problem with material circumstances in Africa, was not simply that they were changing at an increasingly rapid rate, but that the causes of economic distress might lay in some increasingly distant set of market forces (what commentators today might call the global economy). In the eyes of the Sub-Committee, in recent years, Africans had swung from fatalistically accepting the conditions of colonial rule, to challenging them across the board, and were thus likely to hold colonial officials responsible for economic conditions that were effectively beyond their control. As a result, the Sub-Committee held that it was urgently necessary to radically expand education, and to engage in a series of campaigns to expand literacy and cultivate in the population as a whole, both a proper understanding of events and an attitude of informed participation in national development. In order to achieve this it would be necessary to not only to expand the existing school system, but also to create "mass education officers" who would coordinate local campaigns in education and development. In this way, the Sub-Committee hoped, education, including adult education, could both assist in the project of colonial development, and could recreate a politically manageable African population.

Where the Gold Coast had started into the project of educational expansion and reform in the early 1920's, the combination of the Great Depression and the austerities of WWII had meant that very little was done by the government after the late 1920's and that most of the interim expansion in education came in the form of independent efforts. In the period following WWII, however, the combination of new initiatives coming out of the Colonial Office, such as the Mass Education report, and the palpable perception of rising local demand for expanded education, lead the Gold Coast government to take concrete actions. In 1946 it laid out a 10- year plan for educational expansion, with universal primary education as a policy goal, though one that it did not expect to achieve in less than 25 years. It also began a series of experiments in what was called "mass education and community development," which aimed to bring literacy and community betterment projects to rural communities through intensive workshops and training schemes. While this approach was certainly more aggressive than past colonial policy had been, it was still part of a gradualist approach to educational development that the colonial government justified in terms of the need to keep the costs of education within what they judged to be affordable limits. The time in which colonial officials alone could set the pace of educational development was drawing to an end.

In the late 1940's, the rising forces of nationalism articulated a critique of the pace, if not the trajectory of educational development. When Kwame Nkrumah was organizing the Convention People's Party's political base early in 1949, he spoke out against the inability of the colonial government to provide free and compulsory education, which he regarded as a fundamental characteristic of a free society. "In the face of this [problem] the education department is absolutely helpless and hopeless… It draws up a Ten-Year Educational Development Plan and the whole thing is a complete washout." When the CPP was elected to head the first African-majority domestic government in 1951, education was high on their agenda. Among the first of its legislative initiatives was the Accelerated Development Plan for Education, and a nation-wide Plan for Mass Education and Mass Literacy. The Accelerated Development Plan stepped up considerably the previous government's efforts at teacher training and educational expansion, so that the CPP government was able to achieve fee-free primary education by 1954. The Plan for Mass Education and Mass Literacy moved what had previously been a set of local experiments in village-based extra-mural education into what became a national mechanism for rural education and voluntary efforts in development. While this plan reproduced in many ways, the shape of previous colonial discussions of Mass Education, the CPP was, if anything, more aggressive in pursuing a campaign of modernization alongside development. The plan stated that "[Mass education] is an attack on ignorance, apathy and prejudice, on poverty, disease and isolation - on all the difficulties that hinder the progress of a community. It is an education which is designed to teach people, not merely how to read, but how to live." Like previous colonial forces, the CPP saw educational expansion as bound up in the questions of governance. In addition to satisfying popular demand, educational expansion was symbolically important, as universal primary education suggested one of the necessary components of a modern nation. Similarly, mass education represented both a method for reaching out to and incorporating rural areas and a mechanism for cultivating the CPP's vision of modernity in areas that might otherwise have been resistant to it.

In conclusion, initiatives in educational reform reflected the shifting aspirations and concern of rule in African colonial territories. In the 1920's they reflected the desire for education to better serve colonial economic interests, while at the same time advancing an agenda of cultural transformation and controlled social change. In the 1940's it was hoped that education could help manage the political transformation of colonial subjects so that they would provide renewed political stability, as well as economic development. As we move into the post-colonial period (which provides its own sequel to the processes I have described here), education was again aggressively pursued as a mechanism of economic development and political control.


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First Online Edition: 21 March 2002
Last Revised: 21 March 2002