Double take: How does education affect politics in Africa?

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Most attempts to understand how education affects politics miss the point, argues Dan Hodkinson. To understand the link between the two, we need to look again at student experience. Dan is a PhD candidate at the Oxford Department of International Development, at the University of Oxford.

Recent studies of youth have focused on how young people in difficult social and economic conditions create and contest pathways to adulthood. The ‘youth’ in these studies often have to confront violent circumstances: as child soldiers, within gangs and other criminal formations, and so on. Yet for increasing numbers of young people in Africa today, pathways to adulthood are not travelled on the margins of society but through the school and university. So how do these educational experiences affect people’s politics?

Most current studies that touch on the politics of education focus on the level of education, i.e. how far through the system one has travelled (primary, secondary, tertiary). For instance, in a study last year on the politics of the middle class, Cheeseman finds that Kenyans educated to higher level are more likely be supportive of democracy than those less well educated. In a different paper (also published last year) on political participation in Zimbabwe, Croke et. al find that higher levels of education decrease the likelihood of political participation. Both are great studies, but we are missing something if we only consider educational level rather than the processes that a young person travels through.

If we want to know how education affects a person’s politics, we need to explore the subjective experience of studying in people’s lives. Educational processes, according to Bourdieu, ‘break certain self-evidences’ affecting a student in three general ways: their expertise (skills for use in the labour market); their expectations (about a person’s social and political position); and their analysis (ways of seeing the world). The first two of these are important in understanding the frustrations of unemployment or irregular, low-status work that many graduates face today. Following Independence, being a degree-holder was a prerequisite for holding high office in large state-run bureaucracies, and so students increasingly saw educational qualifications as the guarantor of safe, high-status employment. However, the restructuring of African economies in the 1980s and 1990s shrunk the state payroll and increased the privatization and expansion of higher education. Essentially, it broke the formula that a degree provides job security. More and more people have degrees without jobs. What frustrations do these people have and how do they make sense of them?

In answering this, we need to explore the types of analysis students develop in educational institutions. Students-as-protestors, who take the critical analysis of seminars onto the streets, is a powerful image in our contemporary imaginations and not without justification. Teaching and teachers can play powerful roles in a person’s intellectual development. For instance, in 1988 University of Zimbabwe students led violent anti-corruption demonstrations against government. In conversations with some of the participants, the majority have told me how heavily their Marxist law professors influenced their ideas and behaviour. Yet, the notions and identities that educational authorities attempt to impress upon students – of citizenship, elitism, being ‘educated’ – are not de facto oppositional. An obvious case of this is in post-2000 Zimbabwe, where now a highly politicised ‘patriotic’ history is taught within schools is a deliberate strategy to legitimize the ruling party’s claims to authority. I have talked with many students who went through this system. One in particular became more sympathetic to government. She was confused about the degree of power such teaching had over here: ‘I don’t know if I have been brainwashed. I don’t think I have.’

Understanding how education affects African political economies is complex. Today, as well as the church and the state, increasing numbers of private and not-for-profit organisations are involved in operating these systems. In appreciating how these complex systems affect politics-at-large, we should re-focus on how young people make sense of their educational experiences in the context of their lives.

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