“The world we have is a world created by humans,” says N’Dri T. Assié-Lumumba, Africana Studies and Research. “So we have the capacity to create another world, to imagine that world, and to work toward it. That is the passion that guides my work.”
Assié-Lumumba’s passion is evident in her many articles and books that focus on education in African countries within the global context. These works reflect her educational trajectory and disciplinary specialization in comparative and international education. She looks to the future, even when her work analyzes historical situations. It is imbued with umbutu—the African concept of collective existence and the quest for justice and equal human dignity and rights. “My happiness depends on yours. We are interconnected,” she explains. “That is umbutu. It is an ethos of African society.”
Assié-Lumumba takes umbutu to heart when she looks at gender representation in African education. “Women have been consistently underrepresented in contemporary educational systems in Africa since the colonial era,” she says. “One of my arguments has been that if you want to advance the economy of a country, if you want to propel that country—or a continent—to a level of socioeconomic development, you cannot do it with men only. Education is both a right and an investment, and you cannot invest in just part of the population.”
Disparities between Men and Women in African Higher Education
Currently, Assié-Lumumba is researching gender and disciplinary clusters in higher education, that is, the distribution of men and women in African higher education, especially as it manifests in the different disciplines to which they gravitate. Over the years, more African male students have tended to pursue science and technology degrees compared to female students who have tended to earn degrees in the humanities and social sciences. That pattern reflects educational and societal pressures that both directly and indirectly influenced those choices, Assié-Lumumba says. “We need to ask, how do we make the system practically equal so that when a person makes a choice, it is a real choice and not the result of indirect processes leading to that decision?”
Intrinsically, disciplines have no hierarchical values. We need all of them to promote social progress, Assié-Lumumba says. The problem resides in the superior financial rewards and prestige that accompany careers in science and technology compared to the humanities and social sciences. Those rewards will only increase given that African countries today are emphasizing science and technology in their national goals for higher education expansion and socio-economic development for the next few decades.
“If you are highlighting the importance of science and technology, and you have different probabilities for males and females to access those disciplines, then you’re creating or perpetuating the world of inequality,” Assié-Lumumba explains. And that will have far-reaching effects into the future. “Don’t expect women to show up for the science or technology job interviews 10 years from now because they won’t be qualified in the disciplines that the governments say will be a priority in the coming decades.”
“One of my arguments has been that…to advance the economy of a country, if you want to propel that country…to a level of socioeconomic development, you cannot do it with men only. Education is both a right and an investment, and you cannot invest in just part of the population.”
Assié-Lumumba is especially interested in the processes that have kept women out of the science and technology fields. “Why are women not there? What are the societal, educational, and institutional constraints that prevent them from being there? And what is being done to facilitate change?”
As she studies the situation across many countries, she finds inspiration in a few of them, she says. She mentions Rwanda. There, rather than affirmative action, the Rwandan system allows women into universities even if they have not passed the entrance exam and offers remedial programs to help girls bring their skills up to college entrance level. “They make it possible for girls to strengthen and close some of the gaps. So, when the girls do go to the university, they are fully capable of admitting them rather than having them fail as a result of societal and institutional hindrances.”
How the Television Classroom Can Inform the Future of Technology in African Education
Assié-Lumumba also has a special interest in the use of technology in education. In particular, she is researching the history of television teaching in her home country—Côte d’Ivoire. “At independence, African countries were committed to advancing their societies through education,” she explains. “In the early 1970s in Côte d’Ivoire, the decision was made to use technology—the days before the internet and cell phones—to fast-forward a project that would increase enrollment in all levels of schooling. The project would produce all the human resources needed to help the country proceed toward its socio-economic goals.”
The idea was to install televisions in primary school classrooms throughout the country and have lectures beamed from a central location to even the most remote villages. The program ran for 10 years, from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. Then it was discontinued.
“It had many fascinating areas, many pedagogical issues,” says Assié-Lumumba. “While teaching children to read and write, it inadvertently created new potential citizens because of the way it was organized. Some people said it was too successful, and that’s why it was discontinued.”
In a typical Côte d’Ivoire classroom, Assié-Lumumba explains, children were required to sit passively and not say a word until the teacher told them to speak. Challenging the teacher’s authority was not allowed. In the television classrooms, however, the teacher would discuss with the students what they had just seen on the television. Sometimes the class would re-enact something from the program. “The child could literally correct the teacher because she observed something on the television that the teacher missed,” Assié-Lumumba says. “There was a disruption of power in the classroom. This signaled that television education had inadvertently become an instrument for making new citizens who could exercise the power of their agency.”
The fear of future consequences of this disruption of power may have contributed to the demise of the program, according to one theory. Assié-Lumumba is looking at historical documents and archival information to get to the bottom of what really happened. There were other issues too, she says, relating to cost, as well as the unwelcomed conclusion that many television-taught students could speak French, the language of education and government, better than their traditional student counterparts. But they could not spell or write it. The program also suffered from the attraction of many outside interests, including international financial institutions, private foundations, developmental agencies of Western countries, and the United Nations. These external players, while adding their contributions, claimed their respective spheres of control and protected their interests, she says, resulting in a loss of national coherence, regarding the television-teaching program.
Assié-Lumumba plans to combine the historical research with a critical look at the current transfer of technology. “It’s not just an historical case. I want to look at how it can guide us in the way we’re using technology today,” she says. “Some have said that in using technology, African countries should ‘leap frog’ and skip some of the steps the advanced countries followed as they developed their infrastructure and society. In skipping these steps, what wisdom should guide us so that we can make the best use of technology to do good? That is what I am asking.”
Assié-Lumumba continues to look forward to the best future world possible. She has several forthcoming publications and also pursues additional research projects, including “Generations of African Intellectuals and Higher Education Institutions,” the role of “Education in African Renaissance” and “Differing Patterns of Gender Gaps in Higher Education in Africa and the Diaspora: Cross-national Comparisons of Female and Male Under-Representations.”