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Education & the Liberian Power Dynamics: Part I

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee (January 2005)

"....“education” is not based on academic credentials such as a high school or college degree, but on the totality of a person’s theoretical learning, experiential learning, and social skills expressed in terms of the person’s job knowledge, skills, competence, and performance in a particular profession or subject matter. I think in the new Liberia we are seeking to build, it would be very important not to overrate, but also not to underrate, the role and value of high school or college degree in Liberian society, especially with respect to the Liberian power dynamics and political leadership...."


No one in our modern world can easily dismiss the adage that “education is power.” The influence and intrusive nature of information technology in our homes, offices, and communities have made education mandatory for the acquisition of knowledge in every sphere of human endeavor. Education is therefore the bedrock of every modern society, since education holds the key to individual success or failure in our current world. And this is why I think it is incumbent upon any ambitious person alive today who wishes to excel in society to avail himself or herself of the power and opportunity secured through education. But the key question arises as to what exactly is “education”? Obviously, this question has dogged Liberians for a long time, if only quietly, until recently when the question rocketed into fierce public political, social, and intellectual debates amongst Liberians inside and outside Liberia, following the dramatic entry of Liberian international soccer superstar George Weah into the 2005 Liberian presidential race.

Mr. Weah’s declared presidential bid ignited a firestorm of public debates about the role and value of education in Liberian politics, sociality, and political leadership. Many Liberian political commentators speculated by way of newspaper articles and open letters that Mr. Weah might not be a “good presidential material” because he supposedly lacked a high school or college degree, although the commentators gave no hints as to whether Mr. Weah might have instantly been a “good presidential material” if he had had a college degree. To these political commentators, the most important attribute of a potential president of Liberia is “education” and not the presidential aspirant’s leadership ability, political ideology, and socio-economic programs and plans of action for Liberia . But the saga of the relentless focus on the educational background of just one of 20-plus presidential aspirants not only smacks of bigotry on the part of the few Liberians with high school or college degrees, but also underscores more clearly the sad fact that many Liberians still perceive college or academic degree as embodying “education,” even where in reality an academic degree is just one of several manifestations of education.

To me, education encompasses a whole spectrum of individual learning activities and experiences, including academic (theoretical) learning, practical learning, and mannerisms or social skills. Education is not defined or constrained by individual perceptions and proclivities, nor is education confined to the kind of structured classroom learning environments manifested by the kindergarten to 12 th grade and college routines. Generally, the structured kindergarten to 12 th grade and college routines are relevant insofar as with creating a context and framework for systematic learning, but these routines are not by themselves a true measurement of education. Education can be acquired anywhere and at any time through self-study, apprenticeship, on-the-job training, and community activities, in addition to the structured classroom routines cited. Education is a manifestation of individual competence and performance, with respect job skills, knowledge, and experience in a particular field of study or job category. The very fact that every college degree holder must be taught specific job skills, office procedures, and etiquettes at every new job or company of hire makes the case that the clearest evidence of a person’s education lies in the person’s job knowledge, experience, competence, and performance and not whatever high school or college degrees the person has.

For example, the professional skills and competence of a barber are measured not by the barber’s academic degree, but by the way the barber cuts the hairs of clients. And the same evaluative principle applies to a chef, an electrician, an auto mechanic, a network administrator, an actor, a goldsmith, a teacher, and persons in any number of professional and nonprofessional jobs. Basically, a cook must be “educated” in the craft of cooking; a driver must be “educated” in the craft of driving; an accountant must be “educated” in accounting principles; a writer must be “educated” in the art of writing, and a teacher must be “educated” in the subject matter he or she teaches, and so forth. In other words, as human beings, we must be “educated” in and about everything we do and every profession we enter in this world in order to survive and prosper. But we all need not be college degree holders to be “educated” because education speaks to a person’s job skills, competence, and performance.

A high school or college degree, like anything in life, has its own place, time, and purpose. And this is why in many professions, including law and medicine, a college degree is not enough to be admitted into practice. The new law or medical school graduate with degree in hand is not qualified to practice law or medicine unless he or she first sits and passes a set of qualifying public examinations aimed at measuring subject knowledge and competence. Similarly, a college degree is inconsequential to obtaining a driver’s license. Each prospective driver must sit and pass a set of driving tests to obtain a driver’s license, as no special waivers exist for prospective drivers with a high school or college degree. Moreover, a competent and successful computer programmer, network administrator, bank teller, writer, poet, telephone operator, cashier, receptionist, customer service representative, gas station attendant, security guard, auto mechanic, army ranger, carpenter, mason, welder, musician, sculptor, painter, graphic artist, cab driver, actor, model, photographer, or newscaster required not high school or college degree, but relevant “education” in terms of the specific training required for proficiency in each profession. Of course, some persons in these professions have advanced college degrees and others are in pursuit of their high school and college degrees, but the key point is that each person must be “educated” in the specifics of each profession, which shows that “education” is more profound than the mere acquisition of a high school or college degree.

Conversely, a college degree is almost a must for persons in certain professions. For example, a college professor, geologist, nuclear physicist, biochemist, astrophysicist and persons in other specialized professions might require advanced college degrees not only to booster subject matter knowledge and competence, but also to garner professional respect and acceptability. After all, it makes no sense for a college professor not to have a college degree since one of the goals of a college or university is to confer degree on graduates. Nevertheless, colleges and universities have been known to hire professors without a college degree who are highly skilled, experienced, and successful in particular fields. In other words, no matter how much Liberian college degree holders and political commentators tried to equate high school or college degree to “education,” the reality is that high school and college degrees do have their value, time, and place in society, but they can never, and will never, substitute for “education” in any sense of the word.

Mind you, my goal throughout this article has been to impress on my Liberian compatriots that “education” is not based on academic credentials such as a high school or college degree, but on the totality of a person’s theoretical learning, experiential learning, and social skills expressed in terms of the person’s job knowledge, skills, competence, and performance in a particular profession or subject matter. I think in the new Liberia we are seeking to build, it would be very important not to overrate, but also not to underrate, the role and value of high school or college degree in Liberian society, especially with respect to the Liberian power dynamics and political leadership. Every young Liberian must be encouraged to acquire an education based on individual talent and creativity, but we must not deceive our youngsters into thinking that they cannot be productive citizens without a college degree, or that they can automatically become the most qualified persons in Liberia once they acquired a college degree. I think such falsehood has wrecked havoc on the productive capacity of Liberians and undermined the collective security, ingenuity, and creativity necessary to build the relevant political, social, cultural, economic, and educational institutions in Liberia for the betterment of all Liberians. It is my hope that the next generation of Liberians won’t have to follow the foolish path of past and present generations of Liberians who paid so much lip-service to the development, standardization, and institutionalization of education while they shamelessly set false standards of educational requirements for public service employment opportunities in Liberia .

And this brings me to the realization that current wranglings over the educational background of presidential aspirant George Weah might not be about “education” at all, but about a political power dynamics driven by egotism grounded in a desire by some members of the minority Liberian college degree holders to preserve political power, prestige, and all leadership positions in Liberia to themselves. First, it makes no sense to me that the primary concern of Liberians regarding the presidential ambition of a highly successful millionaire soccer superstar is not about his leadership ability, motivations, political ideology, and programs of action for Liberia, but about his educational background as if the devastating effects of the two civil wars in Liberia made Liberians to lose sense of national direction and priority. Second, I do not see how it might be possible to change Liberia ’s current adult literacy rate of 38 percent (CIA World FactBook, 2002) to 100 percent by election day in October 2005. At least it is foolish for anyone to think that the overwhelming neglect of education, especially public education, in Liberia for the past 157 years can be sufficiently discussed and resolved in a nine-month span from January 2005 to election day in October 2005. Otherwise, the emphasis on education as the desired attribute for presidential leadership in Liberia is a misdirected ploy by the few Liberian college degree holders (unofficially at 5-10 percent of Liberia’s 3.4 million population) to gain political capital in the ensuing elections, rather than any genuine concern for the development and promotion of education in Liberia.

But granted that current debates about the role and value of education in Liberian power dynamics and political leadership are a genuine attempt to begin scrutinizing the character, public record, leadership ability, and competence of each of the men and women desiring to be president of Liberia, then the key questions might be: “1) What is the role and value of education in the Liberian political power dynamics? 2) Is education a true measurement of good leadership in Liberia ? 3) Do Liberians perceive high school and college degrees as a reliable measurement of education, or does education mean more than high school and college degrees? 4) In a country of 3.4 million people with a 30-percent literacy rate, who should contest for national offices in Liberia ? 5) What are the constitutional requirements for a potential presidential, legislative, or chieftaincy candidate in Liberia ? 6) What do Liberians want in their national leaders? 7) What is the essence of free and fair democratic elections in Liberia ? 8) Should Liberian voters in any elections in Liberia care more about a candidate’s level of education or the candidate’s political ideology and socio-economic programs?”

I think these eight questions, while not the lest exhaustive, are key questions that must be studied and answered appropriately by the Liberian populace and all presidential and legislative candidates if we wish to establish a clear barometer by which education might be a genuine criterion for seeking public office in Liberia. Otherwise, the whole idea of making education a foremost requirement for public office in Liberia is a mere smokescreen for political advantage by the very small group of college-educated Liberians who want to dominate political power in Liberia . And my suspicion continues to be that some of the few Liberians with college degrees are desperate to crown themselves the new political elites and minority leaders in Liberia , just as the True Whig Party doubled as the political elites and minority leaders in Liberia for 103 consecutive years from 1877 to 1980.

I think it would be a tremendous boost for the intellectual growth and development of Liberia if all Liberians could read and write in English, French, a national Liberian language, or each of the 16 major languages in Liberia . But I know such desire might be pure fantasy and not reality because Liberia currently lacks the institutional framework to empower every Liberian to read and write in English or a local language. So I find no faults with those Liberians who continued to fantasize about a miracle in the socio-economic and politico-cultural growth and development of Liberia if all Liberian public service managers and political leaders were college degree holders. Fortunately, I think my compatriots and I know that fantasy and reality are never on the same wavelength, as the reality of the social, economic, political, cultural and institutional frameworks in Liberia makes it impossible for even half of Liberia ’s negligible 3.4 million people to be college degree holders in the foreseeable future. Liberia is reeling from 14 years of two brutal civil wars that destroyed virtually all national institutions and infrastructures and reduced Liberians to the status of vagabonds and beggars in their own homeland.

Liberians were driven en-masse from their homes, towns, villages, schools, and farms throughout Liberia during the civil wars only to congregate in abandoned and dilapidated buildings and displacement camps in Monrovia and refugee camps across the West African sub-region. Liberians are grossly malnourished, underpaid or unemployed, and lacked a conducive environment for educational pursuits as the country has been in darkness for nearly a decade for lack of electricity. Schools are barely functioning without textbooks and quality instruction, yet the advocates of college degree for public service jobs seemed blinded to the existing realities in Liberia . And this is why I think it is pure foolishness, if not misdirected ambition, for any well meaning Liberian, including politicians and social activists, to even fathom that college education would be the preoccupation of people living in abject poverty, insecurity, and unsanitary conditions.

But even if we disregarded the residual effects of the Liberian civil wars, the literacy rate in Liberia has remained within the 30 percent range for decades, and I know of no plans and programs at the moment to promote literacy in Liberia through the establishment of adult literacy centers and the constructions of public elementary, junior, and senior high schools in each political subdivision of Liberia, let alone the building of technical high schools, professional schools, two-year community colleges, and four-year colleges and universities. The only plans floating around in Monrovia right now are those aimed at marginalizing the rest of the Liberian population to satisfy the misguided egos of the few Liberian high school and college degree holders. A glaring example of this kind of egotistical tripping or tactical marginalization of the majority Liberian population by the few Liberian college degree holders couldn’t be more revealing than the qualification profile contained in a job vacancy announcement in early 2004 by the Liberian ministry of planning and economic affairs for its RIMCO Support Office: “Advanced degree in social sciences (economics, development studies, public administration, management) and or related fields. Minimum 15 (fifteen years) proven working experience in public policy formulation, management, analysis and aid coordination. Minimum 5 (five) years of demonstrated managerial experience in conflict and post conflict countries. Must be computer literate and fluent in oral and written English” (RIMCO, The Perspective, 2004).

We will continue our discussion in Part II. Happy New Year!


About the Author: Mr. Gbessagee is a former director of public affairs in the Liberian Ministry of Information, Culture & Tourism. He is Executive Editor/Senior Writer with Galarea Communications and Secretary-General of LIHEDE. He can be reached at

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