Part 2 – Liberia: What it means to be an educated person?

(This was reposted from the published article on the Liberian Forum at

In exploring what it means to be educated one must take a closer look at how we seek and acquire knowledge beyond the traditional sense. By studying this closer we will discover that there is an evolution of how knowledge has been shared and obtained throughout human history. And it is with this discovery that we will learn that acquisition of knowledge is not a “one-size-fits-all” process that has dominated most educational institutions in the recent decades.

Surprisingly, since publishing the first part of this article in the Liberia Forum on October 19, this concept, of how we define education has sparked a great discussion among some of the readers. This response was quite compelling that it delayed publishing the second part so that I could have time to read all of them and understand the overall concerns and issues.

In reviewing the comments that were shared, it appears that the current educational process has become so convoluted that people have several view points about its relevance and whether a degree determines a person’s level of knowledge. This dialog among the readers shows a divide in how people feel about education to where some see it is a form of elitism. This is a clear indicator why education should be assessable and adaptable. Also, education should be an unalienable right to all types of learners as cited in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[1].

Another interesting point that was shared in these comments is how some of our greatest entrepreneurs, innovators or leaders were not diploma or degree holders like Bill Gates[2]. These were intelligent and innovative individuals, who often were not stimulated in the formalized structured systems or could afford to continue. Then there are others like Abraham Lincoln, who never attended school but independently educated themselves[3]. This is why education needs to be flexible and also affordable for the various types of learners in a nation. So again we must ask “can we continue to quantify someone as educated solely by the number of certificates and degrees hanging on their wall?”

This is one of two questions that led to the research of this two-part article. This first question was explored extensively in part-one of this article. It first examined the lack of educational programs that could serve Liberia’s seasoned adult learners who had some secondary education along with extensive experience in their trade or field. Since no creative or flexible program exists, these people have been denied an opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned from their experiences in cultivating their natural or God-given talents in the classroom of life to obtain their diplomas.

It next examined how many current professional or skilled jobs in Liberia require post-graduate degrees AND several years of experience. This exclusive requirement has led to another problem where many people have bypassed a formal education by falsifying their credentials either with buying fake degrees or fabricating their resume/curricula vitae or other verifying documents. Again, the same seasoned adults who have experience to meet the job qualifications are systematically eliminated from the selection process because they fail to meet the stringent educational requirement.

Proceeding with part-two of this article, it will continue to explore what defines an educated person as it relates to the second question “can we qualify someone as intelligent by their ability to read and write”. It will closely examine whether illiteracy hinders intelligence or knowledge. Next, it will examine why many Liberians, regardless if they can read or write, have no access to critical documents—Liberia’s Constitution, for example,—that can constrain their ability in acquiring essential knowledge such as the responsibilities of the three branches of government or their rights as citizens. This article will conclude on whether nations like Liberia can continue with “one-size-fits-all” educational system, especially when one is emerging from a long history of civil strife.

Illiteracy versus Intelligence

Liberia’s civil war not only devastated human life, but also its physical infrastructure particularly, the institutions that develop and stimulate minds. Since brokering peace in 2003, Liberia has been slowly rebuilding its educational system with international assistance. This includes renovating its existing learning institutions or building new ones, training and certifying more qualified teachers, and creating appropriate learning environments for eager students (the Art of Adult Learning and Education, 2).

However, these initiatives have not adequately addressed the high rate of illiteracy that equates to about 45% of the total population. If we examine the table below, we will also discover that there is a gender imbalance with literacy rates in Liberia. According to the Core Welfare Indicator Questionnaire (CWIQ)—that “surveyed 3,600 households, covering every region, demographic group, income level, and household type” in 2007—women overall had much lower literacy rate than men of 41% to 69% respectively (Poverty in Liberia, 32). In separating urban and rural areas, the ratio of men to women in urban regions is approximately 1.3 to 1, whereas there in the rural areas the ratio of literate men to women is approximately 2 to 1. There is greater gap between men and women’s literacy rates in rural areas.

In examining illiteracy, many people view it as a disease. One example of this is how it can impact someone’s livelihood, because they are overlooked as uneducated or unskilled to possess a job. In another example, is how illiteracy can affect the safety of someone’s life or their families, if they cannot read the warning label on a bottle or machinery. However, if we take a closer look at what “literacy” means, it often refers to “read and write” English or French languages, and it does not take into account whether someone is “literate” in their native dialect. This is definitely the case for the countless countries that were colonized by Europe.

Having worked 18-1/2 years with a Native American business, I have become aware of the impacts that colonization has had on indigenous people. Native Americans and many other indigenous people like Australian Aborigines were forced to learn and speak English, otherwise they were beaten or belittled for speaking their own language. It was through this forced assimilation that languages like English caused many native dialects to or risk of extinction. However, many indigenous people worldwide still speak their native tongue as their first language whereas English or French is there second or third.

Liberia may have not been colonized by a European nation like so many other regions within Africa. However, the English language became Liberia’s official language through the nineteenth century re-colonization efforts of the United States to immigrate emancipated or free-born African Americans back to Africa. Whether it was forced or volunteer assimilation, many of the African American immigrants and indigenous people learned how to speak and write English. Today, most schools, if not all, teach both English and French languages, and some now have added Chinese. However, very few include Liberian dialects in the curriculum.

Regardless of English’s dominance in this nation, there are many native speakers of the recognized Liberian dialects. Many indigenous Liberians, whether formerly educated or not, can read and write English along with one or more of the native dialects. So in understanding literacy we need to ensure that we are not limiting it to languages like English and French that forcibly took primacy over the native dialect of many cultures.

Next we need to determine if the ability to read and write is the only way to learn. There are many methods of acquiring knowledge, but there are three preferred ones. The first are listening [auditory] learners who usually ask for instruction or several questions to understand how something works or how to perform a task. Next there are seeing [visual] learners who read books-magazines-online journals, view pictures or diagrams, or observe others perform a given task or project to know how to do it. Lastly, there are experience [kinesthetic] learners who use their hands to learn how to do something or need to move around to see and try new things. We all have our preferred way of learning and no method is better than another (Shirley).

Interestingly, if we look at the evolution of what appears to be the preferred way of gaining knowledge, we would notice that it has come full circle with auditory learning. In the beginning, our origins were translated and disseminated through oral traditions such as storytelling. In fact, many of us can remember as children listening to a grandparent or tribal elder sharing an interesting story about our family or cultural heritage that has been passed on from one generation to another. Now in the twenty-first century, it appears many people rather listen to an audio book or news podcast than to read a novel or newspaper. Also, computer programmers are continually perfecting their voice recognition software so people can write papers or articles by verbalizing their thoughts rather than typing them in. From these trends, it seems as technology continues to advance, more people are plugging into audio devices that do the reading and writing for them.

Based on the various learning styles, literacy is not an accurate measurement to determine if someone is competent or intelligent. Also, we must consider that there are people who have the ability to read and write that can recite or record the words, but do not understand or comprehend what they mean. So, we must use caution in generalizing people as ignorant or unintelligent because they are illiterate. We must also not define literacy by only the languages from colonizing nations. Instead, we must be open to appreciating along with preserving other languages and dialects, since they are vital sources to a culture’s history and roots[4].

Therefore, it is when we open our eyes and minds, we will discover another person’s intelligence in the nature it was acquired. We will sometimes also find people who have this raw understanding of information without ever referring to book or listening to lecture at a university, which is typically called native intelligence. In seeing things in a new light, we can appreciate the intelligence of someone no matter where they live in the world.

Disseminating Critical Information

The issue of ignorance is not something that we can blame on illiteracy or lack of education alone. Often people are unaware, uninformed or even misinformed, because the actual information is not available or even accessible. So, this leads into the next topic about disseminating critical information to the nation’s populace.

The concept of education is not a matter in how we learn, but what we learn and from what sources. In Liberia, students in primary to secondary schools to universities often do not have textbooks or learning guides for the various subjects they are learning, so they have no source material to refer to when studying. The textbooks that are usually available have been donated by schools abroad and there is a risk that the information is outdated and such. Only a few schools are fortunate to provide computer labs, but they are constrained by using donated older models, operating generators for electricity, and having no access to the internet. And most schools do not have libraries. So, this lack of information sources makes the educational process very challenging for students in all learning institutions.

Having access to key information is not just limited to schools or universities, but also to the general populace. This became quite clear when attending various workshops regarding human rights issues during July.

On July 8 and 9, I attended a workshop on CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) and there were about 40 to 50 women in attendance. As part of this workshop they were asked to review the Liberian constitution and see how it matched up to the articles in CEDAW. When the facilitator later asked comments about the workshop, a majority of the women commented that this was the first time they had ever seen and read their constitution.

On July 13, shortly after the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report came out, I had attended and observed a meeting that brought together members of civil society organizations to discuss the report. As the discussion commenced, it soon became clear that the 50 to 60 people (mostly men) in attendance had not even seen the nearly 500-page TRC report or the other accompanying documents that established this commission such as the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the 2005 TRC Act that was signed in Accra, Ghana among the warring factions.

On July 15, I attended a workshop that brought together the members of community based and civil society organizations to a three-day national conference for the West African Peace-building Coalition of Liberia. This conference was also asked the participants to review and discuss the same above reports. Yet again, a majority of the 70 plus participates (mostly women) had not seen these reports in their entirety except for the excerpts they received in this conference.

Since attending these various workshops and meeting, I have been randomly asking Liberians if they have ever seen or listened to their constitution, and most of them will say no. Some did comment that they saw it once, but do not remember any of its clauses or provisions. Some even commented that they remember it being recited on a radio program at one time. From the sampling of inquires made, it appears for most Liberians no nothing about their constitution and legislative statutes.

In regard to the TRC report, most Liberians have relied on the local media in knowing anything about its contents. Since the report is nearly 500 pages, is not easy to download on the slow internet system for the few who have computers or portable drives (i.e. computer stick), and most of them can’t afford to print or copy this rather lengthy document. This report is a good example how information is not easily assessable to most Liberians, and how the internet is clearly not the best means to disseminate this information since most people do not have access to it.

With Liberia emerging from over 20 years of one civil crisis after another, it would seem clear that the people have access to the documents that brought peace to their nation, govern their lives, and protect their rights. Liberia has made some attempts such as small booklets of their constitution, but this limited to those who can read English and have discretionary income to purchase one. However more can be done to make the constitution and other key documents available in audio and written formats not only in English but also in the recognized Liberian dialects. This does not mean everyone has to have a copy, but the key is making it accessible and affordable to everyone whether they live in the city or village.

More than “One-size-fits-all” Education System…

This two-part article has explored many challenges that are facing Liberia’ current education system that has not been adequately meeting needs of the people during its post-war era. Many Liberians possess the skills or talents to perform many jobs that are currently limited to degree holders. These are people that survived several years of war and destruction, and were unable to continue their education. Also, many people never could receive a formalized education due to poverty or other social ills. However, many people did not let this hinder their learning ability, and they sought out knowledge, wherever they could get it.

Beyond the traditional classroom, Liberia is also challenged as a democracy, because most of its people have no idea of their constitutional laws or rights. Liberia, throughout most of its history, has struggled with concerns of equality and civil rights among the masses, especially with access to education and employment. Since the concept of democracy “is by the people, for the people” to where everyone is treated and valued as equals, it would seem imperative to make the nation’s sacred governing documents available to all citizens so that they can be active participants in this process.

Clearly, education or acquisition knowledge does not start or end in the classroom. We are always learning from the day we are born until we die. There have been some leading individuals who have valued learning outside of the “classroom” and have developed programs to promote education through life experiences, but this article will focus on two in particular.

The first one is Paulo Freire, who was born and lived in Brazil for most of his life (1921-1997). He is most noted for writing the book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in 1972 that popularized social change through education in Latin America and this concept was disseminated throughout the world. The reason for this book was “to educate those who had suffered from poverty economically, exclusion politically, and culturally in Brazil…to plant the seed of a new perspective for liberation through education all over the world (Yoo).”

In his paper Education of Adults and Marginal Populations: The Mocambos Problem written in 1958, he proposed “adult education…had to have its foundation in the consciousness of the day-to-day situations lived by the learners; educational work toward democracy would only be achieved if the literacy process was not about or for the man, but with man (Lownd).”

The second one is Myles Horton, who was born in State of Tennessee in 1905 and lived most of his life in this Appalachia Region until his death in 1990. He is most noted for founding the Highlander Folk School in 1932 that later was renamed Highlander Research and Education Center. Again, like Freire, he believed that education should change society instead of maintaining the status quo. He created a pedagogy that led people to challenge the system, to take risks that he called the “two-eye” theory of teaching. The concept was to “keep one eye on where people are, and one eye on where they can be—forever pushing, making them uncomfortable, stretching their minds, helping them grow in their understanding and critical consciousness (Horton, xix-xx).”

The Highlander programs were not developed by the faculty or the school’s administration, but instead were developed by having the adult students participate in finding solutions to their problems such as social issues of racism. The key in doing this was helping people to learn how “to analyze their experience and learn from it”, so that they could respect it. Also, this process of the students learning more about themselves helped the facilitator to better understand their students’ perceptions of social problems that they would work together in developing a solution. Horton believed in respecting the ideas and involvement of the adult learners who were often overlooked due to poverty and racism in the south (Horton, 70). His students were not only learners, but also participants in developing programs that tackled social ills and the teachers that empowered others like them to challenge these same problems such as racism during the civil rights movement.

Both Freire and Horton valued the experiences of their students and created an educational pedagogy that allowed them to use this experience as part of the curriculum as self-directed learners. They also believed in empowering the people that had been oppressed within their society to use their education to influence social change. Also, they both advocated that the literacy process was with the adult learners, and also that they should know their rights as in Horton’s Citizenship Schools[5].

The current “one-size-fits-all” educational system in Liberia has systematically excluded many of its experienced and non-formalized educated people from being employed in the private or public sectors or even recognized as able entrepreneurs in their natural given fields. It is beneficial for this nation to reform its system to offer adaptable, affordable and flexible programs to recognize the experience and knowledge of its underserved population. By creating educational programs that welcome all types of learners no matter their age or background then Liberia is truly developing their most precious resource—its people, and giving way to a brighter future to this post-war nation.

End Notes:
[1] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 states… “(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
[2] Bill Gates may have dropped out of Harvard to his multi-billion dollar Microsoft empire (Profile), but he been a leader in reforming education especially for children at-risk of dropping out of high school…“It’s the longer-term outlook he’s worried about. He sees that social inequities at home and abroad are harmful not just morally but economically, which explains his obsession with confronting the high-school dropout rate. Over time, he explains, a less equal world hurts everyone (Alter).
[3] “Having received almost no formal education, Lincoln embarked on a quest for learning and self-improvement. He read incessantly, beginning as a youth with the Bible and Shakespeare. During his single term in the House of Representatives, his colleagues considered it humorous that Lincoln spent his spare time poring over books in the Library of Congress. The result of this ‘stunning work of self-education’ was the ‘intellectual power’’ revealed in Lincoln’s writings and speeches (Foner).”
[4] Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain. Language defines a culture, through the people who speak it and what it allows speakers to say. Words that describe a particular cultural practice or idea may not translate precisely into another language. Many endangered languages have rich oral cultures with stories, songs, and histories passed on to younger generations, but no written forms. With the extinction of a language, an entire culture is lost (Disappearing Languages).
[5] The Citizenship Schools were established in the 1950’s for the people who lived on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, who were the last group of slaves brought to the U.S. before the slave trade stopped. In order for them to vote they needed to past a written examination which many of these people were illiterate. This program was established to solve this problem. To allow students to be freer to participate, the teacher was somebody from their own community, who happened to be a successful beautician. The materials that were included in this class were the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the constitution and the rest of the curriculum was developed by teacher and the students went along. This program was later transferred to Martin Luther King, Jr. when it was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Horton, 99, 103, 107).

Works Cited:

Alter, Jonathon. Bill Gates Goes to School. Newsweek. 06 December 2008. 31 October 2009

The Development and State of the Art of Adult Learning and Education (ALE): National Report
of Liberia. The Ministry of Education and Partners. October 2008. 20 July 2009.

Disappearing Languages: Enduring Voices—Documenting the Planets Endangered Languages.
National Geographic. 2009. 25 May 2009

Foner, Eric. The Education of Abraham Lincoln. The New York Times. 10 February 2002. 31
October 2009

Horton, Myles, and Judith Kohl and Herbert Kohl. The Long Haul: An Autobiography. New
York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

Lownd, Peter. A Brief Biography of Paulo Freire. Paulo Freire Institute, University of California,
Los Angeles. 31 October 2009

Poverty in Liberia: The Current Context. Liberia Poverty Reduction Strategy, Chapter Three.
2008. 09 June 2009.

Profile: Bill Gates. BBC News. 26 January 2004. 31 October 2009

Shirley, Randall. Which One are You? World Wide Learn: The World’s Premier Online
Directory of Education. 2009. 31 October 2009

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations. 31 October 2009

Yoo, Sung-Sang. Freirian Pedagogy. Paulo Freire Institute, University of California, Los
Angeles. 31 October 2009

Writer’s Notes: To learn more about Heather Cannon-Winkelman, please visit her blog Uniting Distant Stars at http:///