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Education For A Purpose: Self Revealed and a Look Back in Time

Dr. Zacharie Nzepa Petnkeu

This text is neither a fiction, nor a scholastic analysis per se. Its a narrative of my actual experience through educa­tional system in my native country, Cameroon in Central Africa. The story is narrated in the light of the model of lib­eral arts education I experienced on Concordia College Campus, and from the point of view of the mature person I have become. It highlights the difficulties I went through, from my childhood through adolescence and adulthood, and underscores the growth of my faith in education. It ends with the stress on the need of rationalizing the correla­tion between both concepts - faith and education - in Africa in order to transform education into an actual instrument of the emancipation of individuals and the development of African communities in a globalized and changing world.

I had always equated faith and vocation, con­sidering both from an institutional religion standpoint; devotion to a specific religion was essential to the definition of both concepts. Consequently, there was no use imagining some form of significant correlation among faith, vo­cation, and education. Then came my participa­tion in a year-long seminar (2008-2009 academ­ic year) on Faith and Learning on the Concordia College campus in Moorhead, Minnesota. Books and articles as well as discussions with fellow participants introduced me to thinkers and scholars like Cantwell Smith, James Fowl­er, Ernest Simmons, or Neil Postman, to name a few. (1) Their contributions to the understand­ing of the above-mentioned concepts on the one hand, and with regard to liberal arts education or pedagogy in general on the other hand revealed me to myself and opened new perspectives to my approach to educational issues. I re­alized how far I had been for many years from understanding the full meaning of the purpose of education, mainly from the liberal arts per­spective. I could clearly perceive the interconnectivity of faith and educa­tion and apprehend how the power and the efficiency of any educational process is grounded in the understanding of the need of empowering one­self in order to empower other people and a community as a whole; the more a society values the learning practice, creates a mentoring envi­ronment, and trusts education as a factor of empowerment and change, the more efficient is teaching and the more motivated are students.


My paper is a narrative of my personal experience as a student, an at­tempt to underscore the painful itinerary I followed to reach the statement above. Is it worth sharing a personal story? Isn't the ego hateful, as the seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal once put it? Writ­ing about oneself may sound embarrassing to some writers or pretentious to some readers. The leader of the nineteenth-century Romantic Move­ment in France, Victor Hugo, felt this kind of malaise. His reaction to the egocentrism he was being accused of reassures me of the legitimacy of my own undertaking: "Is my book about one man's life?" Hugo questioned. (2) Yes, the poet answered; but it's also about other people, he added. "None of us has the privilege to boast about one's life. My life is yours and yours is mine. Your struggles are mine; there's only one destiny... Alas! When I am talking about me, I am talking about you. How don't you feel it? You are insane if you believe I am not you!" (Hugo 24).


So is my story. It's a window to generational issues; many young and old Africans alike are seriously concerned with countless challenges. As sim­ple as it may sound, the issue of the use or the purpose of education I am addressing in this paper is one of the nagging questions Africans are con­fronted with. There's no specific approach to my story. I am taking a look back in time from the standpoint of the old adult I have become; the story is therefore structured and sometimes informed by analysis and remarks m the light of my knowledge of the purpose of education and liberal arts model. The journey, whose background is education in a postcolonial system, will take me from my childhood (search of self) to my adolescence (faith awakening and doubt), and to my adulthood (big questions).


Primary Education: The Aftermath Of Colonization and Search For Self

I joined the very basic level of the school sys­tem - the kindergarten - a few years following 1he independence in 1960 of my native coun­try, Cameroon, located in Central Africa. It was colonized by three European colonial powers, Germany, England and France respectively. he latter applied the colonial administrative system known as "direct rule," assimilating the people of the colonized territory into French culture. The two years I spent in the kinder­garten were the best during my eight years of elementary education (pre middle-school). We sed to play with a lot of toys, recite French alphabet, eat, and sleep. Our teachers were nice and classes were fun at that young age. The promotion to the primary school came with a lot of changes; verbal abuse from teachers substituted for nice words. The whip took over bread. Memorization and recitation of many courses by heart replaced the alphabet games. Students were always split up into two groups in different classrooms: a group of smart students and a group of the weak, moreover, the whip­ping students group. The end of the school year and the grade passage were moments of anxiety for me and many other classmates: how good or bad was the next teacher in terms of using his/ her whip?, we would ask. What was the so-called whip made of: a piece of solid rubber, a stick of strong wood, or a bunch of electrical wire? In ad­dition to whipping, what kind of practices would he/she use as punishment methods? These are he kind of questions that mattered for students. Some teachers gave their whips names such as "His Excellency," "the assistant teacher," "the black snake"... Depend­ing on each teacher, there were so many means of torture that I could not list all of them here. Principals, teachers and the whole educational system trusted the range of chastisement devices as adequate to back up the teaching process and acquisition of knowledge. Thus, no one found the system abnormal, neither educators, nor families. No wonder many children ran away from the school and sometimes from their families, for they could not bear all the pain supposedly inflicted for their instruction. How does one define "education" in such a context?


What was the curriculum like in the midst of this hard-line discipline? During my six years of primary school, we covered a large variety of courses, namely history, geography, observational sciences, arithmetic, French grammar and literature (reading of selected texts), hygiene. As I stated above, almost everything needed to be recited. Two-thirds of the materials covered derived from French environments and the remaining from the African realities in which French authors and pedagogues were interested. Their primary focus was to completely transform students into French language speakers. We were to be faultless, perfect. Even though almost all the teachers at the primary level were Cameroonians, the language for teaching was French and French grammar was their main de­light for punishment. No supplication would save faulty students from flogging. The assimilation process was running high and proved to be successful. Today, French grammar seems to me like the most elementary component of the French language. I am always ashamed to acknowledge that I can speak my native language, but I know nothing about its struc­tures; the French administration had put a ban on the teaching of native languages in schools. Up to this day, no native language is taught in Cam­eroon by the formal education system.


At this point of the narrative, it seems appropriate to underscore the influ­ence of the French colonial legacy on the Cameroon educational system, and this more than a decade following the independence of the country. With regard to the discipline rules at schools, the coercive and constrain­ing methods bring to mind the punishment techniques lots of Cameroo­nians endured due to hard labor on many construction sites during the colonial era. We were still in a French world. And this world was white. Under the French domination, education in Cameroon was meant to provide the colonial administration with the indigenous auxiliaries. The highest level of education for the largest number of students was Grade 6. After that, a few practical and professional education schools - there were two, actually - would train the auxiliaries whose job was to support the colonial administration. The independence in 1960 brought changes: the number of Kl2 schools increased and a university was created. But approaches to education and curricula did not change considerably. But who could implement necessary changes, given that the new political class and decision-makers who took over from French came from the above-mentioned auxiliaries group?


In such a context, how could I make meaning at that young age and under­stand what education was without the helping hand of parents and those in charge of the educational system? What need was there for trusting the education system? These questions call attention to the analogy between trust, love and faith. If trust comes from faith that is personal, and if be­yond religious belief faith could be expressed "in art, in institutions, in law, in community, in character, and in still many other ways" as Wilfred Cantwell Smith advocates, how could I believe in and love or trust an institution that did not awaken or nurture my faith (171)? Commenting on the relationship between belief and faith, Sharon Daloz Parks views the latter as a multifaceted phenomenon; she draws from Wilfred Cantwell Smith's analysis to equate the noun "faith" and the verb "to believe" as "to hold dear, to prize, ... to love, ... to give allegiance, to be loyal to. to value highly" (17).


Seen from that angle, there was no evidence in our context that education was a value,. a source of any form of expectations and hope. Instead, be­sides severe sanctions, there was no motto, no slogan that could boost our energy and help us dream. The following are two examples to make this point clear; both are from the United States. There's a school in Browns­burg, Indiana, named Eagle Elementary School. The motto of the school is: "Where Children Spread Their Wings!" My second example comes from Maryland. When I was living in Silver Spring with my family, my daughter was then a 3rd grader. At her school they would daily recite a credo titled: Eagle Expectations Daily Pledge (at Burnt Mills Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland). Below is the short text of the pledge.

                                             As proud as an eagle, 
                                             I pledge to stand 
                                             To spread my wings 
                                             And lend a helping hand. 
                                             To myself and others, 
                                             I will be honest and true. 
                                             I will take pride in my school

                                             And everything that I do. 
                                             I will aspire to go higher. 
                                             To get better, I'll give my best.

                                             I'll work hard and play safely

                                             And never settle for less. 
                                             To myself and all others, 
                                             I will show great respect.

                                             I will look. 

                                             I will listen

                                             And learn all that I can. 

                                             Then as confident as an eagle, 

                                             I will proudly stand. (3)

The day my daughter brought this self-explana­tory text home in January 2006, I read, remem­bered my primary school years in Cameroon, and wept. The eagle flies high, symbolizes power, freedom. sharpness, and many other characteristics. Students' identification to these features is a great source of motivation. In my time, school environment was always an ordeal, a nightmare, a confrontational scene of victims (students) and torturers (teachers). I do believe any child around the world is born with a pair of wings, regardless of the space and race. In our postcolonial context, our wings had not only never been unfolded, they were broken. But we still had our eyes to shed streams of tears. Why should I therefore believe in something that was hurting me and my classmates? Yet, I did not run away from school; why?


I was a kid and I knew nowhere to go. School was like a curse, with no way out. Paradoxically, the very subject we were being treated severely about at school - French language - gave me a way of expression out of the formal school system; I could read any text, no matter how difficult it was. I could discover new things and worlds. Comic strips were my favorite. In our neighborhood, I translated letters, instruc­tions, or forms some families and individuals received from their relatives or from the local administration, and I helped them write answers or fill in the forms in French. Very often, the job was rewarding. Most of the time, I received gifts and money as a token of gratitude. I started loving education for what it would continue to help me discover by myself and for all the small gifts I got from using my knowledge around the neighborhood. 

For my grandmother I was living with at the time and who knew nothing about French language, I had already achieved more than her expectations; her own way of measuring my progress was through the spelling of my name. "Teachers will not kill you; at least, you can write your name," she used to say each time I would go to her to complain about physical cruelty from school. I should stress that my grandmother had so far experienced nothing but colonial domination and French contempt. Writing one's name was of a significant importance to her. That meant one could work for and communicate with the white masters. When I was a child, Cameroon was a free country. But in my grandmother's mind, independence had the primary education was marked by two examinations: a certificate and the Common Entrance to the secondary school (middle and high schools combined). I was successful in the first, but failed the second. My grandmother showed no sign of disappointment. I was sad because I missed that year the opportunity to escape the whipping, one of the main reasons everyone was working hard; there was no more whip from the secondary education upwards. I was nevertheless determined to learn more than writing my name.


1. In Lutheran Higher Education: An Introduction for Faculty (1998), Ernest Simmons draws from the Ian Barbour's work to summarize the four models of faith and learning. The third and the fourth model (Dialogue and Integration) seem instructive to me to understand his analysis in chapters 5 (Student Faith Development) and 6 (Pedagogical Issues). His sur­vey of the seven stages of Faith is highlighted by James Fowler's findings.


I subscribe to James W. Fowler's definition of faith in Stages of Faith. The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (1981); in section 2 ("Faith, Religion and Belief') of Part I of his book, Fowler moves beyond a simplistic definition to widen the focus of faith and to assert with Wilfred Cantwell Smith that "faith is a quality of human living. At its best, it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find mean­ing in the world and in one one's life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen to oneself at the level of immediate event. Men and women of this kind of faith face catastrophe and confusion, affluence and sorrow, unperturbed; face opportunity with conviction and drive; and face others with charity" (page 11 ). 

James Fowler pays tribute to Wilfred Cantwell Smith for the above broader opinion about faith. This view comes as a result of Smith's analysis using the phrase "cumulative tradi­tion" to transcend in his definition the mere domains of religion and belief: "By 'cumulative tradition,' I mean the entire mass of overt objective data that constitute the historical de­
posit, as it were, of the past religious life of the community in question: temples, scriptures, theological systems, dance patterns, legal and other social institutions, conventions, moral codes, myths, and so on; anything that can be and is transmitted from one person, one gen­eration, to another... " The Meaning and End of Religion. (1962, p. 156-157).


Obviously, education stands as a part of transmittable social values that require personal 
faith, as Smith puts it, from individuals engaged in the process of learning. My story is a 
reflection of an itinerary of confusing faith in education in an environment of purpose, attention, and meaning deficiency. Yet, Neil Postman affirms: "without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are house of detention, not attention," in The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. (1995, p. 7)


2.The original text is from the Preface to Les Contemplations by Victor Hugo. The transla­tion

     is mine. In this collection of poems written in 1856, the author grieves and pays homage to

     his daughter Léopoldine, accidentally drowned with her husband in Sep­tember 1843. 

3.Refer to



Creel, Richard E. Religion and Doubt. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1991. Print. 
Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith. New York: Harper and Row. 1981. Print. 
Hugo, Victor. Les Contemplations. Paris: Flarnmarion, 1995. Print. 
Parks, Sharon Daloz. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000. Print. 
Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print. 
Postman, Neil. & Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Delacorte

     Press. 1969. Print. 
Simmons, Ernest L. Lutheran Higher Education: An Introduction for Faculty. Minneapolis

     Augsburg Fortress, 1998. Print. 
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Meaning and End of Religion. New York: Harper and Row, 

     Publishers, 1962. Print.

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