Monday, May 09, 2011

Education for Liberation: Towards Academic Freedom in Malawi’s Education System

This article appears in the May-June 2011 issue of The Lamp Magazine: Christians, Politics & Culture

Since the last issue of this magazine in which we discussed professional development for primary school teachers for the coming decade (The Lamp, March-April, 2011), there has been an interesting development in Malawi’s teacher education system. Information from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) indicates plans to phase out the certificate issued to graduating primary school teachers, and in its place introduce a diploma programme in all the teacher-training colleges. Starting this coming September 2011 a new masters’ degree programme is being introduced at Mzuzu University with the aim of preparing the next cohort of lecturers in the teacher training colleges.

Elsewhere I have argued for the phasing out of diploma programmes, which delay people and consume a lot of time and money. I have argued for the adoption of straight bachelors’ degree programmes, instead. However the news from MoEST is still encouraging nevertheless. The move to a diploma programme for teachers ought to better position teacher education in Malawi to benefit from the research and scholarship that has been produced by Malawian and African academics. I discuss this point in further detail later in this article, but the main argument this article explores ponders a definition of educational quality and the goal of liberation as the ideal purpose of education in Malawi.

I argue that a definition of educational quality is incomplete unless it takes into account issues of teacher intellectual autonomy, academic freedom, and the inculcation of a social consciousness. The purpose of education in Malawi ought to be to liberate Malawian society from the various ills that impede democratic progress and development. For purposes of this discussion, academic freedom refers to a teaching and learning atmosphere that not only encourages but also facilitates critical thought and analysis on social conditions and contexts, a better understanding of root causes of problems, and reflexive solutions towards equality, uMunthu-peace, and social justice. 

Five supporting points undergird the main purpose of this article. The first point is that the current debate about academic freedom has relevance for the entire educational system and affects policy and practice at the primary and secondary levels, vocational and higher education levels, including teacher education. The second point is that the debate about academic freedom has been central to the study of higher education in Africa, and as such Malawi ought to seek guidance from what Malawian and African intellectuals have been saying about academic freedom for the past two decades. The third point is a discussion on how Malawian education has not always served the interests of Malawian society, a problem not exclusive to Malawi alone. The debate on academic freedom should lead to a rethinking of the ideal purposes of education. The fourth point probes the implications of the failure of African education systems to benefit from advances made by African scholars, while the fifth point revisits the academic atmosphere at the University of Malawi during the one-party era. The conclusion reiterates the idea of how education for liberation has propelled Malawian society from the times of John Chilembwe, through the independence struggle and the transition from one-party rule, to the present. These five points illustrate the connectedness of problems of educational quality. Together, they argue for how education for liberation can only be achieved when academic freedom is made a central concern for the entire education system.

Academic freedom and the educational system

Out of the many lamentations about the crisis that has dogged educational quality in Malawi, very little has been said about how the low expectations for primary school teachers’ education have contributed to the poor quality of teaching and learning. The quality of teaching and learning in the primary and secondary schools is part of a cycle that affects the quality of teaching and learning in the university classroom, and in the teachers’ college classroom as well. If there is a silver lining in the cloud of the current debate about academic freedom in the University of Malawi, it will be a rethinking of the relationship between intellectual autonomy and improvement of quality in the classroom at each level of the educational system. Malawian educationists argue for more intellectual autonomy for primary and secondary school teachers so as to allow for teacher creativity and imagination. Teacher intellectual autonomy cannot exist apart from academic freedom.

Commenting on the ongoing academic freedom debate, Linde Chisale has written about how the discourse on academic freedom has created the impression that academic freedom is for the university level only.[i] Says Chisale: “I am not very sure whether the assumption is that other levels of education are not intellectual”. In raising this question, Chisale is calling on Malawians to reflect on how the academic freedom debate has implications that go beyond the university classroom. Reflecting Chisale’s point, Dr. Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula told Innocent Chitosi in an interview that “academic freedom enhances the quality of education.”[ii]

These sentiments by both Chisale and Kabwila-Kapasula have precedence in several conferences and declarations African academics have held and issued over the decades, upholding the significance of academic freedom. The Preamble to the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility (1990) starts by saying: “Intellectual freedom in Africa is currently threatened to an unprecedented degree.” It goes on to state: “The struggle for intellectual freedom is an integral part of the struggle of our people for human rights. Just as the struggle of the African people for democracy is being generalised, so too is the struggle of African intellectual freedom intensifying.”[iii]

African intellectuals on academic freedom

The matter of academic freedom has been very close to the hearts of African academics. In 2004 the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) published a two-volume study on the state of the African university and what the agenda for the 21st century should consider. The volume was edited by Malawian scholar Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, a leading intellectual in the study of Africa and her global Diasporas, and of the economic history of the continent.

In keeping with the wider significance of academic freedom in Africa beyond higher education institutions, Zeleza writes in his chapter in the book:

In the African context the discourse ought to be more expansive, for it is quite evident that the pursuit of academic freedom involves not only struggles against the authoritarian predilections and practices of the state, civil society, and the academy itself, but it is also an epistemological one against paradigms, theories, methodologies that inferiorise, misrepresent, and oversimplify African experiences, conditions, and realities.[iv]

Two years prior to CODESRIA’s two-volume publication, the Association of African Studies (ASA) devoted an issue of its peer-reviewed journal, African Studies Review, to the same topic of the African university, in a special issue titled ‘African Universities in Crisis and the Promotion of a Democratic Culture’ (September 2002). The introductory article in that issue is written by Francis Nyamnjoh and Nantang Jua. Nyamnjoh and Jua’s article focuses on the problems that have beset African education, both at the basic primary and secondary levels, as well as at the higher education level. The two argue that African governments have always “sought to control universities and intellectual production through physical and symbolic violence”. They suggest that Africans need to understand the form that the physical and symbolic violence has taken.[v]

Serving the interests of Europe rather than Africa

Throughout their article, Nyamnjoh and Jua use the example of Malawi’s elite secondary school, the Kamuzu Academy, as a case study of how African education has been designed to serve the interests of the West rather than of Africa. They argue that whereas education in most countries draws from the experiences and needs of their societies, in Africa it is different.  Commenting on Malawi, they write: “Western-style training at Kamuzu Academy-type institutions is not just intended to compensate for the real West where these students have not yet seen. It is seen as preparing them for Europe and North America, where they ultimately yearn to go to make use of the skills they have acquired.”[vi]

Nyamnjoh and Jua go on to argue that Africa’s educated people have little capacity to work in local communities, but are better equipped to operate “in any industrialized country, and serve any privileged community around the globe with comparative ease.” When one considers what goes on in most elite private schools in Malawi, where Malawian languages are banned and English is imposed, one begins to see the extent to which the educational preferences of elite Malawians are more aligned towards the West than towards being relevant to Malawi and to Africa. The global importance of English cannot be overemphasized, but when Malawian schools ban from school premises the speaking of languages spoken in the homes where students come from, it raises questions about priorities and purposes of education.

An education that serves the interests of its society inculcates into teachers and students what the late Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire called “conscientization.” Freire defined conscientization as a process through which teachers and students develop a consciousness that makes them aware of the social problems in their community and in their world. Awareness of social problems is a first step in making education relevant in people’s lives, in their communities and in their world. Freire argued that this was the kind of education that liberated societies from conditions of oppression, empowering them to shape their own destiny. It is an education whose ultimate goal is the promotion of peace and social justice, locally and globally, ideals encapsulated in uMunthu philosophy.[vii]

Advances in African scholarship go unutilised in school curricula

The problems that hamper higher education in Africa have a ripple effect on the whole educational structure as well. In his book Manufacturing African Studies and Crises, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has argued that “. . . there is a yawning gap between the knowledge produced by academic historians and that consumed in the schools.” In a chapter titled ‘The Production of Historical Knowledge for Schools’, Zeleza argues that “school textbooks have yet to adequately incorporate and reflect the methods, approaches and findings of modern African historiography.” He goes on to detail the specific areas where the problem manifests itself.[viii]

Most school systems no longer teach history as a stand-alone subject, incorporating it into a diffuse category called “Social Studies”. Zeleza argues that this development has diluted the teaching of history. He points out that as a result, African students “are not taught the long-term historical perspective, or the basic information about the evolution of African societies over time.” He says African historians have come to see the Social Studies curriculum “as a threat to the cultivation of historical consciousness among students.”[ix]

A more significant problem with the teaching of history, writes Zeleza, has to do with Eurocentrism, the practice of understanding the world from the perspective of European civilisation. Zeleza writes that when students learn the history of modern Europe, the focus is mostly on Europe’s apex in its historical development and “global hegemony”. When students learn about African and other civilisations, the focus is on periods of their decline and subservience to Europe. This creates in students the image of Europe as “dynamic and the fountainhead of innovations, while the rest of the world, including Africa, are static and passive recipients.”[x] As such, textbooks tend to depict Africa’s pre-colonial era as fixed and unchanging. “The term ‘traditional’ is bandied about carelessly, implying a changeless order of things.”[xi]

Another problem with the teaching of history that Zeleza highlights is that of theory. He says African history textbooks are preoccupied with dry facts without theoretical explanations to link those facts to historical interpretation. And when theoretical intepretations are attempted, they are presented as fact, rather than explanations for complex phenomenon. He says African history textbooks also lack a guiding Pan-African perspective that ought to teach African students about the ties that bind African peoples on the continent and in the Diasporas. “As a result of all this,” he writes, “the ‘meaning’ of history is lost on the students and a critical historical consciousness among them is hardly developed.”[xii] Beyond the school system, the gap between African scholarship and the school curriculum also results in the absence of a historical consciousness among the general public.[xiii]

Zeleza has gone on to lament the death of historical associations in Africa, the lack of collaboration amongst African countries (with the exception of West Africa) in curriculum development, arbitrary methods for selecting curriculum writers, and the reluctance to involve classroom teachers in curriculum development and textbook development. Future educational and curriculum reforms in Malawi and Africa would produce much more effective educational systems if they took into account insights from scholars such as Zeleza and others.

Academic freedom and university education in Malawi

In the Malawian context, the problems in the education system discussed by Zeleza are tied, in part, to problems in the university system. Problems in one section of the system have adverse effects on other parts, and solutions that treat the parts as distinct and isolated from one other stand little chance of transforming the system as a whole. The end of one-party rule in Malawi in 1994 opened a new era of soul searching and educational reform. The university was not spared the scrutiny, as Malawian academics hoped for a new era in which academic freedom would be promoted and the university would be allowed to play its role in spearheading innovation and development.[xiv] Events that have triggered the current debate serve as a reminder that the soul searching is an ongoing project that should never lose sight of what happened during the one-party era.

In the aforementioned special issue of African Studies Review (September 2002), two scholars who taught at Chancellor College during the one-party era, David Kerr and Jack Mapanje, revisit the period and describe how intellectual autonomy was proscribed. Kerr and Mapanje discuss how the intelligence services of the Banda regime planted “agents in the university to pose as students, administrators, secretaries, cleaners, and even lecturers.”[xv] In an earlier discussion, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza added that students and faculty were encouraged to inform on each other, and senior university adminstrators were co-opted into the ruling party.”[xvi]

Eight years had passed since Malawi’s democratic transtion when the special issue of the African Studies Review came out, but Kerr and Mapanje did not see much change in the way of academic freedom in the University of Malawi and elsewhere in Africa. They wrote that post-dictatorship regimes in Africa were still sought to “curb the emergence of a critical, socially responsible intelligentsia.” An atmosphere still persisted which prevented “rigorous intellectual analysis of contemporary problems.” Even with Dr. Banda vacated from the scene, the University of Malawi was still “far from achieving that principled critical quality.” Kerr and Mapanje predicted that because it “took a long time and a painful struggle to frustrate and debase the intellectual capital of Malawi,” it would likely “take a long time and much struggle to begin the task of restoring it.”[xvii] Nine years after Kerr and Mapanje made the prediction, events unfolding in the university since February 2011 show the premonition to have come to pass.

Zeleza had written earlier in 1997, in a chapter titled ‘African Social Scientists and the Struggle for Academic Freedom’ in Manufacturing African Studies and Crises,  that authoritarian structures still remained. The result was “collective self-censorship” that curtailed “the development of original and creative thought, which is a threat to autoritarian institutions.” As was the case during the one-party era, and continues to this day, as can be seen from the current debate, “the university’s bureaucrats and ossified intellectual elite are as threatened by probing thought and research as are the state functionaries.”[xviii]

Bequeathing a tradition: Conclusion

As Malawians living in the 21st century, we are beneficiaries of an intellectual tradition that has bequeathed to us an education for the liberation of our societies and of our peoples on the continent and in the Diasporas. The Reverend John Chilembwe dedicated his education to the liberation of Africans from colonial bondage, and set our nation a long path to independence. Masauko Chipembere, Catherine Chipembere, Kanyama Chiume, Vera Chirwa, Rose Chibambo and other heroes of the independence struggle also saw their education as bequeathing to them a political and ethical responsibility for the liberation of their people. It was the same intellectual tradition of education for liberation and critical thought, peace and social justice that emboldened the Catholic bishops, the late Chakufwa Chihana, the late Nyandovi-Kerr, Bakili Muluzi, Edda Chitalo, Brown Mpinganjira, and the other heroes of the transition to multi-party democracy too numerous to mention, in the early 1990s. And the struggle continues to this day, with new imperatives posing before us new challenges, for the 21st century.

Steve Sharra holds a Ph.D. in Teacher Education. He moderates Bwalo la Aphunzitsi, an online forum for Malawian teachers and educators at, and co-moderates BloggingMalawi, a forum for Malawian bloggers at For more information email


[i] Linde Chisale, ‘Academic Freedom: An expanded view?’, Malawi News, 2-8 April, 2011, p. 15

[ii] Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, ‘Academic freedom enhances quality of education’, Hard Talk on Saturday, Malawi News, 2-8 April, p. 12

[iii] Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility (1990) CODESRIA,    Retrieved April 5, 2011

[iv] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (2004) ‘Neo-liberalism and Academic Freedom,’ in African Universities in the Twenty First century: Vol 1: Liberalisation and Internationalisation Eds Zeleza & Olukoshi (Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA) p. 60

[v] Francis Nyamnjoh & Nantang Jua, ‘African Universities in Crisis and the Promotion of a Democratic Culture: The Political Economy of Violence in African Educational Systems.’ African Studies Review 45 (2), September 2002, p. 4.

[vi] Ibid. p. 13
[vii] For a more thorough treatment of uMunthu philosophy and Africa’s future, see Harvey Sindima (1995) Africa’s Agenda: The legacy of liberalism and colonialism in the crisis of African values. Westport (CT): Greenwood Press, and Augustine Musopole (1994) Being Human in Africa: Toward an African Christian Anthropology New York: Peter Lang.

[viii] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (1997) Manufacturing African Studies and Crises (Dakar, Senegal, CODESRIA) p. 139

[ix] Ibid. p. 151
[x] Ibid. p. 151
[xi] Ibid. p. 153
[xii] Ibid. p. 155
[xiii] Ibid. p. 156

[xiv] Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula makes a similar point in an interview with Ephraim Nyondo, when she says: “Academics need to be seen as drivers of change and not enemies of the development and betterment of Malawians.” The Nation, 30 March 2011, Political Index | Governance, p. 4
[xv] David Kerr and Jack Mapanje, ‘Academic Freedom and the University of Malawi’ African Studies Review 45 (2) September 2002, p. 79

[xvi] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (1997) Manufacturing African Studies and Crises (Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA) p. 27.

[xvii] Kerr and Mapanje, p. 89
[xviii] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, p. 33


Taylor said...

By academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. I agree upon what you say. Indeed, education plays crucial role.

Samantha said...

Agreed! Education takes a significant role for liberation. But everybody has his own opinion about freedom!

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