Friday, October 31, 2014

Secularization, Education, and Drift

I've been reading and thinking about secularization lately as part of my research on Ashesi University and its blending of Western and African motifs.

In Ghana schools, as in the rest of life, religion is a deeply ingrained part of the routine.  Religious and Moral Training is part of the state curriculum.  The photograph here is of students and staff worshiping as part of the school day.   Religious beliefs are diverse.  Christians are in the majority in most parts of the country, but there are also many Muslims as well as followers of Traditional beliefs and practices.  But a belief in God is widely shared.

Americans of course no longer share that assumption.  In fact at most universities it's safe to say that professing strong religious beliefs will lead, at best, to people regarding you as quaint.

The shift toward secularism has been going on for a long time in American universities, but for the first two thirds or so of the twentieth century the ethos of most campuses--like the culture as a whole--was still strongly informed by Protestantism, broadly defined.  So when professors or administrators talked about serving the public interest, there was a general understanding of what that entailed. In the past several decades academic and mainstream culture have been dominated by an emphasis on what is commonly referred to as expressive or radical individualism, or what some critics have described as a shift from a focus on one's social responsibilities to a focus on one's personal rights.

This expressive individualism has led us to become more sensitive than before to injustice.  But since the alpha and omega of life is the pursuit of individual rather than collective happiness, universities have become much better at deconstruction than reconstruction; we excel at identifying oppression but struggle at advancing positive alternatives, in part because to do so would be to impose, we assume, constructed and arbitrary beliefs on radically free individuals.  The result, as Columbia University cultural historian (who identifies himself as a secular Jew) Andrew Delbanco puts it, is a sense of "drift."

His solution, (advanced in College; What it Was, Is, and Should Be)  is to recapture the sense of mission that U.S. colleges once articulated: "to serve others is to serve oneself by providing a sense of purpose, thereby countering the loneliness and aimlessness by which all people, young and old, can be afflicted."

As Portland State's motto is "To Serve the City," I think we have an excellent foundation from which to build a sense of shared purpose.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

What Do You Do When There Is Too Much To Do?

One of my pet theories is that the great majority of people who live comfortable lives in the U.S. try to arrange our lives so that we can remain more or less ignorant of human suffering.

Father Mawusi, shown in the photo to the right, does not enjoy that luxury, as he lives in a place, Kpandai, where the needs of his parishioners and the rest of the populace are staggering.  Brando and I sat one night over dinner with him and listened to a litany of classrooms without teachers, families without money, women in labor having to travel over a deeply rutted road for thirty miles on the back of a motorcycle or even a bicycle to the nearest health center.  "And it's getting worse," he concluded, cradling his head in his hands.

But after a pause he looked up, smiled and said "we are grateful to God" to be able to serve and make some differences.  The next day he and Father Richard toured Brando and I around St. Kizito Basic School, where we saw part of that labor, teachers and students hard at work, such as the junior high school class Brando spoke with, to the left.  There are many success stories, students who graduate and go on to the neighboring high school and beyond, parents and teachers who make great sacrifices so that their children and students can have better lives.

Brando and I were particularly struck by the four kindergarten classrooms, which accommodate over 300 students.  Currently there are three teachers, including one volunteer.  Father Mawusi is optimistic that they will soon find another.  In the larger scheme of things, it's one small need among hundreds or thousands.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Accomplishing a Lot with a Little

It is easy to pick on Ghana's education system. Teachers lack the sort of resources that their counterparts in more prosperous parts of the world enjoy, which is one of the reasons why Ghana teachers often rely on a system known as "chalk and talk" or "chew and spew" that emphasizes memorization.

But reading through the several hundred letters from Ghana students have recently contributed to their Yo Ghana! partners reminded me that in some respects the current system is very effective.  The great majority of letters are well written.  This is true in the literal sense (the letters are very legible) and of the prose more broadly, in terms of sentence construction and clarity of expression and clever turns of phrase. Students from Ghana who come to to college or university in the U.S. may at first struggle with assignments that require independent thinking rather than rote learning.  But most adjust quickly and then thrive.

This is all the more impressive when one considers that for the great majority of Ghana students, English is a second or even third language.  Indeed, even pre-teen students commonly remark that they can read or speak or write in two or three languages.

Clearly, then, a thirst for learning and access to dedicated teachers counts for a great deal.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Face of West Africa

If you travel to West Africa, you'll find many people like the girl here: friendly children full of laughter.

Such people are rare, though, in mainstream U.S. media's treatments of West Africa.  Here you'll find Muslim extremists, blood-crazed child soldiers, and, now, Ebola.  And why are Americans paying so much attention to Ebola, as opposed to diseases that kill far many Africans?  Well, in part because unlike malaria (or starvation), the disease may "break containment" and come to the U.S.  That was the message of the Hollywood movie "Outbreak" from the 1990s, that a mysterious, deadly disease could move from the steamy and sinister "Heart-of-Darkness" jungles of Africa to ravage innocent American communities.

Ebola is a very serious problem in parts of West Africa that requires our attention.  But its presence should not lead us back into tired stereotypes about the continent and its people.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Unsettling In

Brando and I have been back for about six days now.  After a month in Ghana, it's been hard to "settle in."  Part of that is jet lag.  But part of it is trying to wrap my head around the juxtaposition between life in Ghana and life in Portland--or, at least, my life in Portland.

Here's a photo of part of what I was missing while in Ghana--watching my son play soccer. Thursday night his defense helped vaunt Central Catholic High School to the top of the 6A standings with a tough 1-0 victory.  As it was for me back in the first half of the 1970s, sport is at the heart of Peter's high school experience.

But I had just spent a month around people who seemed to have much more pressing needs: university students trying to figure out a way to help schools be able to graduate sixth graders who were literate; technology teachers grappling with how to teach the subject without computers; school administrators trying to decide whether to turn desperate students and parents away or to fit still more children onto the floors of classrooms that were already crammed way beyond capacity.

My first impulse is to try to fix all of these problems.  And of course that is impossible.  So my second impulse is to try to forget them.

I think that at the heart of what Yo Ghana! means for its U.S. participants is how to live in a way that is poised between these two impulses, to struggle to figure out how to live in such a way that is honest both to what is beyond us and what is not.  I don't know what that means in practical terms, and I may never know.  But I am pretty sure that it begins with the realization that the cocoon of wealth and comfort in which many of us live is both highly exceptional and that it offers us the possibility, if we proceed thoughtfully and respectfully, to help others whose lives are much more difficult than they should be.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Days 9-10

On Tuesday morning we left the warm hospitality of Sampa and Mr. Brew and his staff.  They not only fed us, they also put our logo on the side of their exemplary school!

Not far out of town is Morle Junior High School, where we had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Albert, our tireless liaison at the school, and the rest of the staff as well as very enthusiastic students.  Then it was a very long drive to Kumasi.

Wednesday morning dawned bright and early, and Mr. ["what a road!"] Anthony, our driver and now friend, got us to Awisa Presbyterian Junior High School about two minutes early, more than three hours later.  There Dr. Eric Ananga from the University of Education, Winneba, joined us for a rousing session with the entire student body, which packed itself into one classroom.  We also had a strong meeting with the staff.  This village school has been one of our strongest members for some time and, under the guidance of Mr. Moses, did an exemplary job on their grant application and report last academic year.  And they do a great job educating students from modest backgrounds.

On the way back to Accra we stopped off for an emotional meeting with the leadership of Purity Preparatory School, one of the first schools we began working with.  Proprietress Madam Constance and Headmistress Madam Stella, who volunteers her time, keep the school thriving against great odds

Thursday I rejoined our Accra taxi driver, Mr. Frank, who somehow manages to stay serene and generous no matter how bad the traffic gets, and we visited four schools before a last dinner with Dr. Williams, Yo Ghana! board member and self-appointed head of security and public relations at Chez Afrique, his wife's wonderful restaurant in East Legon.  Then Friday we were off to Mr. Brando's home village, Akalove.  More on that later--we are laying over in London after a very hectic Friday night at the Accra Airport, so we are a more than a little dazed and confused after trying to do far too much in four weeks, operating regularly on a couple of hours of sleep a night, surviving Northern Ghana's roads and Accra's traffic, all punctuated regularly by meetings with inspirational educators whose challenges make you want to weep and whose dedication can't help but make you have hope for Ghana education in particular and humanity in general.  Thank you.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day 8

We had a busy day today. 

First was Nipaba Brew School, where students like the one pictured here surrendered a good part of their holiday to listen to us talk about Yo Ghana!  The school is particularly innovative in helping children to read at a very young age.

Then it was off to Nafana Presbyterian Senior High School, where a roomful of another group of students willing to come in on their day off awaited us.  Enthusiasm was high among staff and students at this school, too.

Then we wrapped up the day meeting the Chief and Elders of Morle, a village outside Sampa and the home of Morle Junior High School.  Some mentioned that they had not seen a white man up close before, but I think I did a good job of demonstrating that white men are nothing special.