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:///

Part 1 – Liberia: What it means to be an educated person?

Should we quantify someone as educated solely by the number of certificates and degrees hanging on their wall? Should we qualify someone as intelligent by their ability to read and write? These questions need to be examined, because too often we measure someone as educated by their achieved academic level, ability to read or write, and knowledge learned in the traditional classroom. Based on these accepted standards, we often forgo that someone is also educated in the “world” classroom, because much insight and wisdom are gained through life experiences.
This two-part article will explore what defines an educated person. Part one examines how this relates to the need for educational programs that serve Liberia’s seasoned adult learners with some secondary education; and how Liberians are being arbitrarily eliminated from good paying jobs in private and public sectors including international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) for lacking a diploma or degree, or being bypassed by individuals who falsify their credentials. Part two will examine how people believe illiteracy hinders someone’s intelligence or knowledge; and how most Liberians, regardless if they can read or write, have no access to critical documents such as their constitution. It is important to note that all these barriers (perceived or not) were erected from poverty, war and other social ills. Therefore, this two-part article will question why these barriers continue to exist.

What Defines an Educated Person

As someone who continues to seek knowledge and understanding, I have come to value “what it means to be an educated person.” I was first introduced to this question when I entered my alma mater—Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota—in 2003 as a new freshman. As someone who was entering college in her mid-thirties, I could not discount the knowledge and experience I had gained outside the classroom as I pondered this question. Then this question was re-stated in 2005 during a perspective’s class where I decided to select the First College student-centered, individualized degree program (i.e. self-designed degree). It was during this class that we read various essays, watched films and participated in group activities that delved into an interdisciplinary study revolving around all the “-isms” in defining an educated person. This question was posited for the last time during my capstone class in 2008 as we prepared to graduate that semester. This time around many of us took an introspective approach to this question, since we had each experienced and overcame a critical life test that altered our futures. Many of these individual life trials were included in our final assignment to where we shared our “heroic” journeys in oral class presentations. These personal stories shared in this class illustrated how our life experiences shaped and defined our own existence as an educated person.

Metropolitan State University caters to primarily older students with an average age of 32 of diverse backgrounds. This highly diverse group of students is an invaluable database of knowledge and wisdom; since each person enters the classroom with a wealth of experience from being employed or self-employed, raising children, being involved in their communities, and living through situations that had profound impact on their lives. This diversity enhances the learning process through thoughtful exchanges in the classroom, because eyes and minds are opened to new perspectives as someone shares their experience of a life-changing or perilous journey. This unique learning institution values these experiences and the time constraints of these life-long learners by offering flexible creative learning strategies that allow them to demonstrate their knowledge as a way to earn college credit.

As a graduate from this university, I hoped to find something similar in Liberia that valued the life experience of those who suffered through a lifetime of poverty and survived 20 plus years of civil conflicts that may have prevented them from getting their high school diplomas or higher. I recently made an inquiry at one of Liberia’s public schools about the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP)[1] it offered, because I knew two Liberians who were interested in getting their diplomas. These two men, now in their 40’s, had achieved some secondary education when they were younger; however, poverty and war stifled their chances then. As adults they are forced to work long hours to maintain their families’ survival and that stifled their chances now. I have found both individuals to be very educated and knowledgeable in many areas, so this prompted my inquiry.

When talking with the principal, my hopes quickly diminished that this accelerated program met the needs of these two men. What I hoped to find was a program that advanced these adult learners through the various disciplines by demonstrating their knowledge either by oral presentations, writing papers, tests, or other means. Then they could focus their attention on areas that needed classroom room instruction or only theoretical study in the areas that they possessed practical knowledge. Instead the ALP program only advances older children and adult ex-combatants through primary education.

In exploring what options were available for adult learners I was referred to meet with someone at the Ministry of Education, but that meeting did not occur as planned. Fortunately after scouring the internet for information about Liberia’s adult education programs, I did find one option and it is categorized as a non-formal education[2] program for adults. This program offers literacy training and elementary elements of small business development and management skills that lead to micro-credit loans for graduates (The Art of Adult Learning and Education, 4). Neither the ALP nor the non-formal program is an option for adult learners who have some secondary education and advanced skills in business and management.

Based on these preliminary findings, it appears that there is a great need for an educational program that targets Liberia’s lifelong learners. There are some educators from private and public schools that I have discussed this issue and they have acknowledged a need for such as program. Additionally, from what I discovered from visiting and living in Liberia that there is a hidden wealth of knowledgeable, hard working and experienced Liberian people. However, the current reality in Liberia is that these educated people continue to be overlooked for simply lacking a piece of paper that states they are.

Is this reality benefiting Liberia’s adult learner? If we examine the rate of Liberians who have completed some secondary education or higher, we find that the results are rather dismal. Looking at the table below, the number of Liberians having some secondary education is 20.3% while those completing high school is 7.1%. The percentages for individuals completing post-secondary education barely registers with only 0.7% receiving a vocational or technical degree, 0.7% receiving a bachelor’s degree, and 0.4% having a master’s or doctorate degree. What is even more alarming is the total ratio of men to women receiving some secondary and up to completing post graduate education is 1.8 to 1 and for those receiving post-secondary degrees is 2.6:1.

Table: Percentage of Literate Population 10 years or older by Highest Educational Grade Completed

In equating this ratio imbalance, there are 492,707 men out of 1,217.970 literate males to 271,054 women out of 1,222,232 literate females who have some secondary education up to post graduate degrees and this equates to 1.8 males to 1 female. Likewise, there are 32,635 men and 12,263 women out of their respective literate populations that have received post secondary degrees, so in other words 2.6 males to 1 female.

These percentages could easily increase if there were programs that allowed working adults to earn their high school diplomas or college degrees through accelerated alternative learning initiatives that valued their life experience. Also include programs that encourage more women to enter institutions of higher learning, and empower them to be more competitive in the job market.

Since returning to Liberia in January, I also have been seeking paid employment in this depressed market either with a NGO or the UN. Surprisingly, as I scan the postings I have discovered some for Liberian citizens that require both a post graduate degree and a vast amount of experience. How does a person acquire a master’s or doctorate degree living in a nation that has endured one civil crisis after another from 1979 to 2003? Again, the numbers from the Liberian 2008 Census show only 7,796 men and 2,423 women (3.2 males to 1 female) have acquired post graduate degrees which span from ages of 20 to 85 plus

Valuing Education over Experience: Falsified Credentials

Clearly, this educational background has frustrated Liberian job seekers in my community of friends, because they have extensive field experience with certified training in professions such as healthcare practitioners. However, they continue to apply for positions where they meet the job qualifications while knowing they have a good chance of being eliminated in the selection process for failing to “possess” the required degree.

Another frustrating point for many qualified and experienced Liberian job seekers is how some of their competitors are bypassing university standards of learning to purchase a fake degree. These fake degree holders see this as a means to quickly obtain the extremely limited management or specialized jobs in a country with 85% unemployment rate. And most often they will be employed in these prime jobs regardless if they possess the required knowledge or skills.

Liberia’s National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) has been probing this problem and shut down ten so-called online institutions offering fake distant learner degrees. For example, on December 9, 2008, the NCHE in collaboration with the Justice Ministry arrested and jailed Rev. Dr. Johnson Oni Akinnola for illegally operating a bogus institution of higher learning—Monrovia University (MU)—in New Kru Town, a Monrovian community. As the President of the bogus MU, Rev. Akinnola was providing fake master’s degrees to eager students crammed in an overcrowded “one-room institution” that could barely accommodate ten people (Wolokokollie).

This problem of degree buying is not limited to Liberia, because even in countries like the U.S. people can obtain degrees from websites for $50 USD up to thousands (Counterfeit Degrees). Interestingly, many of these “purchased” degree holders become gainfully employed in upper management or executive level positions, because their educational backgrounds were not properly verified during the hiring process.

For example, in an 11-month congressional investigation conducted by the General Accounting Office it was discovered that over 300 U.S. federal employees4 had obtained phony degrees from “diploma mills.” This probe exposed one high profile case when an employee of the Department Homeland Security reported on May 2003 concerns of the credentials of the Chief Information Officer Laura Callahan, who was appointed one month earlier. It was discovered during this investigation that she had obtained all three subsequent degrees from the same institution, Hamilton University of Wyoming, within one year’s time, March 2000 to March 2001. These degrees, by the way, had been conveniently backdated to 1993, 1995 and 2000 in their respective order. This is one of several “diploma mills” operating in the U.S. and elsewhere that use similar names of accredited schools to disguise their illegal operations, and with this case it was the reputable Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, (Sperry).

Interestingly, U.S. and Liberia were linked to an $8 million “diploma mill” scheme from 1999 to 2005 that included over 100 phony institutions and over 9,000 individuals in the U.S. and elsewhere obtaining fake degrees. Several members of this scheme based in Spokane, Washington were arrested and charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act for bribing several Liberian officials for more than $43,000 (USD) to obtain accreditation for three online distant learning universities. These alleged Liberian based schools sold about 6,000 phony degrees which 40% were bought by foreign residents seeking entry into the U.S. This is just a small sampling of the corruption in this billion dollar industry (Probation for FCPA).

There is also a cheaper alternative to buying degrees and it involves falsifying one’s résumé, curriculum vitae or other verifying document by simply listing a degree earned from accredited institution. This was the case of the notorious U.S. businessperson Tom Petters, who was arrested in 2008 for defrauding people for multi-millions of dollars in financial investments and charitable donations. A few years before his arrest, a New York hedge fund manager Richard Bookbinder of Capital Management passed on one of Petters’ dubious investments after learning he lied on the Dun & Bradstreet questionnaire about earning a degree at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota (Phelps, 5).

These are several good examples of how valuing a person as educated merely by the degree they claim to possess could be extremely hazardous. Not only could this lead to fraud as for Tom Petters, but also the hired “professional” may not have the experience to operate safely machinery or equipment, or manage people to effectively and efficiently achieve the goals of the business or organization. Therefore, it becomes a calculated risk to hire someone without verifying their education or experience, because people could be seriously hurt if not killed or the business could lose valued customers and sustain low profit margins if not go out of business.

Many Liberians have not been educated in the formal system or traditional setting, but they have acquired a great deal of experience throughout their life. In fact, since 1998, I have met individuals who are experienced technicians in automotive, communication, computer, and electronic fields; successful entrepreneurs; knowledgeable and wise teachers; skillful craftsmen and craftswomen; and others who are proficient in their vocations and avocations. The skills possessed by these individuals were not learned in any traditional institution, but were achieved in the “school of survival” What I discovered from this observation is how in countries like the U.S. we have so many career options that we can go years before we select one. But in countries like Liberia where poverty and war determine their fates, one does not have the luxury of time to choose a career. Instead their natural or God-given talents emerge out of necessity to continually exist. The studies and lessons from the “survival classroom” are some of the hardest and toughest exams a person can ever take, because their life and the lives of their family depend on them passing these critical tests.

Liberia cannot afford to continue to overlook these “educated and experienced” people, because they too are capable of contributing their knowledge and skills to help rebuild their nation. These are people that are worth investing in by developing an accelerated and flexible educational program that values their life experiences and demanding schedules. Poverty and war can no longer be a barrier for people who are eager to complete their education and to be acknowledged as qualified applicants based on established standards. It is time for Liberia and its international partners to recognize this talented and skilled labor force who are ready to contribute in the rebuilding process.

The second part of this article will be posted next week.

End Notes:

1 The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) was established in 1998 by providing life skills training including literacy and numeracy for older children (i.e. children above the primary school age of eleven plus years), former combatants, and children associated with the fighting forces. The six years of curriculum in primary education was condensed and structured to enable this target group “to pursue and complete their primary education in three years.” (The Art of Adult Learning and Education, 4).

2 The non-formal education program also includes basic and secondary literacy training, post-literacy activities, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training, extension services, vocational courses, youth training, etc. It targets adolescence, young men and women, normally those fifteen years old and above (The Art of Adult Learning and Education, 2).

Works Cited:

Counterfeit Degrees. 27 August 2009.

Kinder, Molly, and Emily Stanger. Policy Brief: What will the revitalization of Liberia’s economy mean for the women at its center? Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. 2008. 09 June 2009

Phelps, David, and Jon Tevlin. Part 1: The collapse of the Petter’s empire. Star Tribune. 26 October 2008. 27 August 2009

Probation for FCPA Offenses In Fake Degree Case. International Law: FCPA Blog. 02 October 2008. 27 August 2009

Sperry, Paul. Cut-Rate Diploma’s: How doubts about the government’s own “Dr. Laura” exposed a résumé fraud scandal. Reason Online. January 2005. 27 August 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

2008 Population and Housing Census Final Results. Liberia Institute Of Statistics And Geo-Information Services (LISGIS). May 2009. 14 July 2009

Wolokollie, Alva P. Reverend Jailed for Granting Fake Degrees. Daily Observer. 11 December 2008. 27 August 2009

This was published in the Liberian Forum on 19 Oct 2009

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