By Nat Galarea Gbessagee (June 7th 2005)
Liberia is in total shambles—social, economic, and political—today due to poor leadership, false standards, and the recent 14-year civil war. Darkness harbors over Liberia due to a lack of reliable sources of electricity supply, amid acute shortages of housing and employment opportunities. Health and sanitation services have become luxury items in Liberia, while educational institutions are barely functioning without adequate instructors, textbooks, and conducive learning environments....."
Education & the Liberian Power Dynamics: Part I
I devoted Part I of this article to defining the essence of education in society at large. I emphasized that education encompasses a whole spectrum of individual learning activities and experiences, including academic learning, practical learning, and social skills. I also emphasized that education is not confined to the structured classroom learning environments manifested by the kindergarten to 12 th grade (K-12) and college routines. I explained that the structured K-12 and college routines are relevant insofar as with creating a context and framework for systematic learning, but that these routines are not by themselves a true measurement of education. I argued that education can be acquired at any time and at any place through self-study, apprenticeship, on-the-job training, and community activities, in addition to the structured classroom routines. I believe the factors I have alluded to in this paragraph represent the basic truths about the essence of education in society, unless I am convinced otherwise.
But the thrust of my article is not just about the essence of education in society. I want to expose the continued use and application of false educational standards in Liberia that defy the country’s social, economic, political, and cultural developments. I want to draw public attention to the fact that unless we in Liberia begin to rethink our development and educational strategies and priorities, our country would remain an unprotected goldmine ready for exploitation by the most manipulative persons amongst us, aided by their foreign allies. I want to impress on my Liberian compatriots to realize that while standards are necessary to measure the productive capacities of members of society, educational and leadership standards must be realistic and must be based on the social, economic, political, cultural, and institutional developments of each society. And this is why I believe educational and leadership standards in Liberia must take into account the practical and intellectual developments of the Liberian populace, if the current gulf of suspicions between western-educated Liberians and traditional-educated Liberians must be bridged in order to accelerate the development aspirations of all Liberians.
Liberia is in total shambles—social, economic, and political—today due to poor leadership, false standards, and the recent 14-year civil war. Darkness harbors over Liberia due to a lack of reliable sources of electricity supply, amid acute shortages of housing and employment opportunities. Health and sanitation services have become luxury items in Liberia, while educational institutions are barely functioning without adequate instructors, textbooks, and conducive learning environments. In addition, no higher institution of learning in Liberia offers advanced degrees in “economics, development studies, public administration, and management,” yet these were the very advanced degrees the Liberian planning ministry required of potential job applicants for an administrative support position in the ministry’s RIMCO Support Office. The requirements in the ministry job vacancy announcement read:
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 (see RIMCO, The Perspective, 2004).
By such job vacancy requirements, the planning ministry not only demonstrated a propensity to use false educational and professional standards in public service employment, but also ignored the basic reality of the adverse effects of the civil war on the manpower base of Liberia. It made no sense for the ministry to expect that job applicants living in Liberia during the 14-year civil war from 1989 to 2003 could possibly have 15 years of uninterrupted managerial job experience in “public policy formulation, management, analysis and aid coordination” in 2004. And under similar circumstances, no job applicants in Liberia could possible have five years of managerial job experience in a conflict or post-conflict country, unless such Liberians worked with the UN and private international relief agencies, which have near exclusive domains over jobs in conflict and post-conflict countries. But, like most Liberian public institutions, the planning ministry’s obsession with college degree and specialized managerial skills—not to mention that no colleges and universities in Liberia offer the degrees and managerial training requested—prevented it from making allowance in the job vacancy announcement for persons with comparable job skills and competences to apply.
Of course, by comparable skills, I mean persons with some sort of managerial experience and administrative support skills (not necessarily with advanced degree, 15 years managerial experience or five year experience in a conflict or post-conflict country) that could perform the essential functions of the job. Often job knowledge, skills, and experience can be acquired under difference circumstances, so such regimented job requirements in a country still recuperating from 14 years of two brutal civil wars just didn’t make much sense. But, unlike Liberia, public and private institutions in the developed countries often make allowance for comparable skills in job vacancy announcements in order to accommodate a high pool of eligible candidates. The following job vacancy requirements for an English composition instructor at a U.S. junior college illustrate the essence of comparable skills:
QUALIFICATIONS: Minimum Qualifications Possession of a California Community College Credential authorizing full time instruction in Language Arts and Literature. OR A Master’s Degree in English, literature, comparative literature or composition. OR A Bachelor’s Degree in any of the above AND Master’s Degree in linguistics, TESL, speech education with a specialization in reading, creative writing, or journalism. OR The equivalent to District minimum qualifications described above. Equivalency may include any combination of education, training, teaching, or related employment experience that would be approximately equal to a Master’s Degree in this field. (Applicants wishing to be considered for employment under District equivalency standards must submit a detailed statement explaining why you feel you possess the equivalent to a Master’s Degree in the required field.) Desired Qualifications: 1. Community College teaching experience; 2. Demonstrated excellence in the classroom; 3. Demonstrated ability to work with students of diverse academic, socio-cultural backgrounds, and students with disabilities; 4. Ability to work harmoniously and effectively with students, colleagues and others; 5. Candidate must be a strong teacher of English composition, with an emphasis on critical thinking, analysis, and effective use of evidence; 6. Additional experience in the field of English, e.g., writing, publishing, editing and/or tutoring; 7. Demonstrated skill in or knowledge of educational technology, particularly current computer and Internet instruction as it applies to composition (www.higheredjobs.com).
By comparing these two job vacancy requirements, it is clear that the planning ministry’s requirements were much narrower and more stringent than the U.S. junior college in question. The planning ministry’s requirements seemed tailor-made for a specific candidate, while the U.S. junior college’s requirements seemed open to any candidates with the desirable skills set. Nevertheless, it must be made clear that while both the junior college and the planning ministry sought candidates with a master’s degree, the planning ministry was the least prepared to accept candidates with comparable job knowledge and experience without a master’s degree. And this was in addition to the fact that no schools in Liberia offer master’s or PhD degrees in economics, development studies, public administration, or management or related training. Ironically, the junior college, which had access to a huge pool of graduates with master’s and PhD degrees in English, literature, comparative literature, rhetoric and composition, linguistics, speech education, reading, creative writing, or journalism from countless colleges and universities in every U.S. state, made allowance for comparable skills. “Equivalency may include any combination of education, training, teaching, or related employment experience that would be approximately equal to a Master’s Degree in this field,” it said.
I think my point about the use and application of false educational and professional standards in the Liberian public service is reinforced here vividly. I believe educational and professional standards in Liberia must be made more realistic in order to conform to the objective realities (social, economic, political, cultural, and educational developments) of a country reeling from 14 years civil wars where the literacy rate is hobbling around a mere 30 percent. I think before Liberians begin to set educational standards for public employment opportunities that rival or exceed standards in the most advanced countries of the world, the first priority must be the preparation of Liberians to meet the anticipated standards. I think it is unnecessary and foolish for any society to set standards or laws that no reasonable persons in society can easily meet. I think the goals of standards in society must be to create a system of measurement and accountability that rewards each member of society equally based on individual talent, creativity, and achievement rather than to create a self-styled, self-indulgent elitist group at the expense of majority of the members of society.
I think before potential job applicants in Liberia are required to provide a master’s degree, Liberia must have one or more higher institutions of learning that award a master’s degree to graduates in whatever discipline sought. And this does not mean that I am opposed to Liberians obtaining graduate and other degrees from abroad. I think that would be fine as long as no conscious effort is made to create a privileged class of job applicants to the disadvantage of the majority of Liberians. I believe not every Liberian has the financial resources or opportunity to study abroad, so the only way for all Liberians to have an equal and fair chance to compete for job opportunities in Liberia is for Liberian institutions to offer the relevant degrees or training. Otherwise, we would only be perpetuating the false standards of education that have undermined the development aspirations of all Liberians
First, we need to revamp the educational system in Liberia to inculcate a sense of national responsibility and patriotism among youth Liberians who will be the future leaders of Liberia. At present, high school education and college or professional education in Liberia is in a precarious state. Liberian institutions of learning are known for teaching foreign concepts and ideologies that have no real bearings on the social, economic, political, and cultural development aspirations of Liberia. For example, the University of Liberia, the only public university in Liberia, found logic in establishing a Department of French Studies and awarding baccalaureate degrees in French, American history and literature, and other euro-centric studies, but up to this day has no department of Liberian Studies or degree programs in Liberian history (only topics in Liberian history course), or comparative Liberian literature (see 2002 Liberia College catalogue). In addition, Liberian high schools do not teach about the rich cultural heritages of the 16 major ethnic groups of Liberia, nor do they teach anything about inter-ethnic relations. As a result, many Liberian high school and college graduates have no real national symbols by which to foster national unity and peace in Liberia.
Second, I think the time has come for Liberians to stop paying lip-service to the development and promotion of education in Liberia and begin to take concrete actions to build the necessary educational institutions in Liberia that will benefit all Liberians. We should forget about what we should have done in the last 157 years of our national existence as a nation and people, and begin to build those institutions that will sustain us in the future. For instance, if education is important to us in Liberia, then we must build the appropriate educational institutions rather than pretend that carbon-copying the educational standards in other countries would help our cause. It is a pity that while we seek the highest educational and management standards in public service employment, Liberian higher institutions of learning have no graduate degree programs in agriculture, forestry, management economics, personnel management or human resources, mass communications, engineering, public policy, statistics, geology, occupational safety and health, mining, agricultural economics, and a host of other professional studies and disciplines that have direct relevance to producing the manpower base necessary to man Liberian industries, natural resources, and public service. As a result, Liberia has to rely on expatriate workers from neighboring African states and other countries in the world for undertaking strategic planning and other development goals. I think it is time to reverse this trend of educational development in Liberia if we collectively value education at all.
Right now, in 157 years of national existence, Liberia can only boost of two graduate degree programs in the country based at the University of Liberia—one in regional planning (established in the 1970s), and the other international relations (established in the 1980s). Consequently, Liberians with advanced college degrees in any disciplines outside regional planning (international relations classes were disrupted during the civil war) obtained their degrees outside Liberia, mostly on direct Liberian government scholarships, bilateral scholarships stemming from Liberia’s relations with other nations, or paid their own tuitions abroad. Yet Liberians with advanced college degrees from abroad think they have special rights to leadership in Liberia, or that they are even smarter than Liberians who never had the opportunity to obtain college degrees from abroad. And I think this insensitivity on the part of Liberians with college degrees from abroad is a constant breeding ground for the current disunity in Liberia. Even Liberians without college degrees who have excelled within their chosen professions, such as George Weah and James Debar in soccer, and Morris Dolly, Zack and Gebar, Zea Tete, and Fatou Gayflor in Liberian pop and folk music are constantly looked down upon as persons “uneducated” or “undeserving” of leadership positions in Liberia.
I think such attitude underrates the value of education and leadership ability at both the societal and individual levels in Liberia. We live in a complex world in which there is no certain or single way to success, so we must avoid this tendency of evaluating complex issues from a simplistic standpoint. We must learn to appreciate and respect those Liberians who think college education is the key to success for them, in the same way we much appreciate and respect those Liberians who think selling farm products in the open market is the key to success for them. In other words, Liberians are different individually so they are bound to make different choices in life based on individual circumstances and opportunities. All Liberians ought to appreciate the commonality of our coexistence and realize that—like each society in this world— Liberia depends on all its citizens for growth and development. We in Liberia must understand that our country is at a crossroad after 14 years of instability, so we must learn to appreciate and value the diversity within and take appropriate steps to accommodate every member of the Liberian society based on individual talents and circumstances.
We cannot continue to putdown other Liberians as “illiterate,” “uneducated,” and “incapable” of national leadership on the basis that they did not acquire their education through the K-12 or college routines. I think if a person can read and write in any of Liberia’s major languages and manage his or her own business as many so-called “illiterate” people in Liberia do daily, then that person is neither “illiterate” nor “uneducated.” Similarly, any person with a high school or college degree from a correspondence school or distance learning school cannot be considered “illiterate” or “uneducated” in any sense, unless the goal of education in Liberia is set to mimic a false standard in society. I believe the education of a person can be measured only in terms of that person’s job knowledge, competence, experience, and social skills, and not necessarily by what school the person graduated from.
The school a person graduates from is important in society insofar as to reinforce institutional belongingness or social stereotypes, and not necessarily to measure job knowledge, skills, or performance. I think we need to get away from this habit of underrating other Liberians on the basis of false standards that have no direct bearings on educational qualifications or job experience. Certainly, I have not known of any society in which everybody acquired the same level of education at the same time. But I do know that people in every society desire, and will acquire, the relevant job experiences, college degrees, and other levels of formal and informal education based on the opportunities available to them. I think this reality should be a given in Liberia, considering the fact that many of the teachers who taught in Liberian grade schools and high schools never had a college degree, but many of the students they taught are now first degree, second degree, or advanced degree holders. Now, can it ever be possible that the very teachers who taught us in grade school would be deemed to be “uneducated” because some of them still do not have college degrees? I don’t think so, but here lies the simplicity of some Liberians in determining who is “illiterate” or “uneducated” in Liberia.
As I stated in Part I of this article, education is more profound than college degree. I believe a college degree is a worthless piece of paper if the college degree holder cannot practice or work in his or her area of study. For example, if a guy holds a master’s or PhD degree in agricultural studies or computer science but works in the last five years as a nursing aide or used car salesman, he is, in my estimation, the least qualified person compared to an agricultural field technician or computer network administrator without a college degree who has two or three years of professional work experience.
Of course, this does not mean that I would fault the guy with the master’s or PhD degree who could not work in his chosen profession due to circumstances beyond his control. But this is exactly my point. Many Liberian college degree holders living in the United States and other countries are forced daily to work in manual jobs outside their college majors and minors due to social prejudices and other stereotypes that limit their access to professional employment and managerial opportunities. Yet these Liberians still think they are more qualified than Liberians in Liberia without access to college degree who have been doing the same jobs for years? But is it not a great irony that the guy forced to do manual jobs in the United States in spite of his ability would think that the guy living in Liberia without access to graduate education, or college education in general, lacks leadership and intellectual ability? To me, neither the college degree holder forced by circumstances to work outside his chosen profession, nor the guy forced by circumstances not to pursue his desired educational goals should be faulted. Both situations required appropriate remedies. For Liberians in the U.S., becoming a U.S. citizen might improve their chances at professional and managerial job opportunities, but the case of the Liberian in Liberia is not quite so simple. Higher education opportunity in Liberia is limited mostly to Monrovia, while access to advanced college or professional education in Liberia is scarce or nonexistent. But we can do something to correct the situation. We can invest in education in Liberia.
I cited the Liberian planning ministry job vacancy requirements as a glaring example of the use of false educational standards in Liberian public service. I believe the use of such false standards of education and professional qualification create myths about job qualifications that have the direct effect of marginalizing and discriminating against the majority of Liberians who are unable to obtain graduate degrees in Liberia at no fault on their part. I believe it is unfair use of Liberian resources and public authority to award managerial job opportunities in Liberia to foreigners or mostly Liberians with college degrees from abroad because the Liberian government failed in its social responsibility to build the appropriate institutions to educate Liberians living in Liberia. I think we need to change this trend in the new Liberia by reevaluating educational standards and opportunities in Liberia. Liberian society is rift with false standards in every sector, and I think the time for action is now, especially in the absence of appropriate degree-granting institutions in Liberia.
- We need to treat education in Liberia as a holistic enterprise that rewards individual talents and creativity, and halt our reliance on K-12 and college routines as the only basis of education.
- Those of us with baccalaureate and advanced college degrees should set up and operate adult literacy centers throughout Liberia to help our less fortunate compatriots in developing the reading, writing, and social skills necessary to adequately compete in society, within the framework of the western culture and standards of living we have adopted.
- We need to build the appropriate vocational and technical schools, and two and four-year colleges and universities in each of the 15 political subdivisions of Liberia to train Liberians in general, and to promote higher education in Liberia in particular.
- We need to set up a national high school equivalency examination similar to the GED in the United States to empower Liberians without previous high school education to go to college.
- We need to borrow the concept of the student loan program in the United States to set up a similar program in Liberia to assist Liberians without the necessary financial resources to pay for college.
- We need to set up national credentialing boards in Liberia to evaluate the instructional quality of each higher institution of learning operating in Monrovia and other parts of Liberia, along with the professional competences of instructors and professors at these colleges.
- We need to get beyond the mere recognition of degrees from abroad and begin to evaluate the job knowledge, skills, competence, job performance history, and the social skills of any person who presents a college degree from abroad for teaching or other forms of employment in Liberia, with respect especially to cabinet and other managerial appointments in the Liberian public service. (I understand some Liberian colleges are now requiring the academic transcripts of job applicants, but the effort must be duplicated in the Liberian public service)
- We need to realize and appreciate—especially my fellow Liberian compatriots with college degrees—that not every Liberian desires an advanced college degree or even a college degree, but every Liberian desires the opportunity to live well based on individual talent and creativity.
- We must, based on these realizations, create opportunities in Liberia for every Liberian to utilize his or her natural talents without requiring every person to obtain a BS, MS, LLB, or PhD degree. If a Liberian is productive and feels comfortable with a certificate from a trade school or beauty school, he or she should be respected on the basis of that educational achievement. In other words, every Liberian has the right to choose his or her own educational path in life—as with other life choices, so no steps should be taken to penalize and marginalize Liberians who desire other options in life than advanced college degrees.
I believe every Liberian would be well served should these recommendations be implemented. It is anticipated in these recommendations that all Liberians will be evaluated regardless of academic degree, and that every candidate for a public service job in Liberia would be given a fair or equal chance at success based on individual job knowledge, skills, experience, and competence. In essence, with both degree holders and non-degree holders being fully aware of the required standards of employment and evaluated accordingly, there would be no need for the kind of false educational and professional standards contained in the Liberian planning ministry’s job vacancy announcement.
I think for too long a group of unqualified persons have relied on college degrees from abroad to marginalize other Liberians in Liberia only to plunge Liberia into one chaos after another. It is time to change the very trend that has undermined developments in Liberia for generations. I believe the solution lies in an education that is holistic, enterprising, and empowering in the sense of developing and promoting individual talent and creativity. I think any society that equates college degree to leadership ability, or functions on the false notion that a person without college degree is not “educated” is doomed. I believe education is the totality of a person’s learning activities and experiences, including academic learning, practical learning, and social skills. I don’t believe that education is about college degree, but I am prepared to listen to another point of view. In the meantime, I think we need real educational and professional standards or a whole new direction in promoting education in Liberia.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.