Children's Rights Focus Month Human Rights

Education as an Investment for the Future

books on brown wooden shelf
Source: Susan Yin

COMMENT Temu Goodluck 25 June 2021

On 24th January 2021, the world celebrated the International Day of Education. This day results from the Resolution of the United Nation’s General Assembly of 6th December 2018.[1] Among others, the Resolution recognizes that “education plays a key role in building sustainable and resilient societies and contributes to the achievement of all of the other Sustainable Development Goals.”[2] Further, the Resolution notes that education

“increases the productivity of individuals and strengthens the potential for economic growth, develops the skills needed for decent work, develops the professional skills needed for sustainable development, including in the fields of water and sanitation, green energy and the conservation of natural resources, helps to eradicate poverty and hunger, contributes to improved health, promotes gender equality and can reduce inequality, and promotes peace, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”[3]

UNESCO, the UN body tasked with promoting education, notes that education “is a human right, a public good and a public responsibility.”[4] In the light of the enormous importance of education, especially for children and adolescents, I revisit thoughts of the first president of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, on education. Nyerere, who would have been approaching his hundredth birthday next year, was adamant in ensuring that Tanzanians, as far as he could make it during his administration, receive the best education possible. His enthusiasm in promoting education for self-sustenance saw him establishing massive educational programs and infrastructure, some of which are remarkable even at today’s standards. In fact, during his time, teaching was one of the most respected professions.

Most of Nyerere’s policies, including those on education, were articulated in his speeches characterized by his remarkable eloquence. One of those speeches is that of 1970 on the inauguration of the University of Dar es Salaam. It has to be remembered that until then, Tanzania had no university of its own. It only had Dar es Salaam University College, a constituent college of the then University of East Africa. On this memorable day, Nyerere delivered a speech on the role of an African University.[5] I must caution here that this speech was delivered at the time when Tanzania was in the third year as a socialist state. Nevertheless, Nyerere’s overall idea was that an African University must provide education that liberates the receiver and contributes to his or her society’s total well-being.

To Nyerere, education was first personal, in the sense that it must change the receiver for good and universal, in the sense that it must benefit the entire community. Nyerere captured this fact very well when he noted that university is

“a place where people’s minds are trained for clear thinking, for independent thinking, for analysis, and for problem solving at the highest level.”

For him, a university must achieve three things: transmitting advanced knowledge, acting as a center to advance frontiers of knowledge, and providing high-level man powers needed in the society.

Way back in 1970, more than fifty  years ago, Nyerere observed that our universities and our entire education system had missed the focus. Sadly, we were striving to understand western societies in an attempt to solve African problems. By having this missed focus, the produce of our education system would find itself a misfit in the society. Or, in a different view, society will reject it. Unfortunately, what Nyerere saw fifty years ago is still prevalent in most African education systems, including my home country Tanzania. If anything, we have failed to identify what is needed by our society in order to produce adults who can very well address those needs.

Nyerere’s idea did not insinuate that our education system should completely divorce from whatever happens outside our countries. Such an approach is dangerous and, in Nyerere’s own words, “extremely foolish.” Tanzania, and other African countries, in that case, are not living in isolation. Therefore, they should not attempt anything that would make them irrelevant altogether in the current world of increased globalization.

What then is the right approach? Nyerere has an answer to which I fully subscribe. Regardless of the approach, he would appear to suggest, our universities and entire education systems must first and foremost understand the society to which they are called to serve. It should not produce ‘intellectual apes, whether of the right or of the left.” (referring to East and West as perceived during the cold war days.) In other words, we should never strive to copy, imitate, or reproduce whatever comes from Washington, London, Berlin, Moscow, or Beijing. Neither should we do anything, hoping to receive their validation. Instead, the best African university should seek to produce self-respecting and self-reliant graduates ready to solve African problems. Only then, Nyerere believed, would any institution worth a name university asserts its relevance.

Nyerere’s idea has always been that education must be at the center of society and its development. His passion for education came as no surprise as he was a teacher before joining politics. One author argued that his thoughts on education “have a universal relevance and have inspired many educators and educational and development organizations around the world.”[6] The author appreciates Nyerere’s philosophy as relevant in third world countries where there was “underdevelopment, perpetuated by colonialism and nascent capitalism.”[7]

Thus, Nyerere’s approach was that education had to liberate sons and daughters of Africa. He even introduced adult education to ensure even those whose ages have gone by would still have an access to education. Education, according to Nyerere, would lead to “liberation of man from the restraints and limitations of ignorance and dependency.”[8]It was his vision that education should be provided for self-reliance.[9] For him,

“education has to increase men’s physical and mental freedom—to increase their control over themselves, their own lives, and the environment in which they live. The ideas imparted by education, or released in the mind through education, should therefore be liberating ideas; the skills acquired by education should be liberating skills.”[10]

Therefore, according to Nyerere, the ultimate goal of education is a free man in a free and developed society. As he notes, education must

“contribute to an enlargement of man’s ability in every way. In particular it has to help men decide for themselves—in co-operation—what development is. It must help men to think clearly; it must enable them to examine the possible alterative courses of action; to make a choice between those alternatives in keeping with their own purposes; and it must equip them with the ability to translate their decisions into reality.”[11]

I fully agree with this position. If then, that education’s goal is to have such people in such a society, the institutions responsible for delivering such education and supporting systems have a huge responsibility. It will not be enough to provide only certifications after graduation. This should not be the goal. In fact, Nyerere says that such a desire (to only obtain certificates) is

“merely another aspect of the disease of the acquisitive society—the accumulation of goods for the sake of accumulating them. The accumulation of knowledge or, worse still, the accumulation of pieces of paper which represent a kind of legal tender for such knowledge, has nothing to do with development.”[12]

Thus, a good education is beyond certificates issued on graduation day. A good education should produce people and systems that can address society’s problems to improve peoples’ lives. In other words, we can measure the quality of our education by assessing how its application makes our life better. For example, quality health services, decent public transportation, improved housing, better urban planning, decreased infant mortality rates, and better maternal health services may serve as a good example. Further examples should be seen from those with powers on how they respect human rights and value peoples’ lives and how the public can hold them accountable.

 However, perhaps those in power are not educated and liberated enough to understand education’s role in solving Africa’s lasting problems. One can argue that they fear that educated citizenry will threaten their existence and continued grasp of power. Should that be the case, which is the case based on the amount of investment we put in our children’s and adolescent’s education, then one has nothing but hope for a divine intervention to address diseases, poverty, ignorance, and other problems synonymous with Africa. If history teaches us anything, that intervention may not come any time soon because it did not come in the past fifty years or so of African independence. However, there is a right and the most reliable way to address these “African problems.” African countries must adequately invest in human resources, especially in school children and university students, set appropriate structures to retain them, and establish workable systems in which their skills will translate into tangible, visible, and verifiable results.

[1] United Nations General Assembly, ‘Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly on 3rd December 2018: International Day of Education’ (United Nations, 2018), p. 1 <> [accessed 8th February 2021].

[2] United Nations General Assembly, p. 2.

[3] United Nations General Assembly, p. 2.

[4] UNESCO, ‘International Day of Education’ (UNESCO), p. 1 <> [accessed 8th February 2021].

[5] Julius K. Nyerere, ‘The Role of an African University’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 9.1 (1971), 107–14 <>.

[6] Yusuf Kassam, ‘Julius Kambarage Nyerere’, Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, Vol. XXIV.1/2 (1994), 247–59 (p. 247).

[7] Yusuf Kassam, p. 247.

[8] Julius Nyerere, Education for Self-Reliance. Freedom and Socialism (Dar es Salaam: Oxford University Press., 1968), pp. 27–28.

[9] Julius Nyerere, Education for Self-Reliance. Freedom and Socialism, p. 1.

[10] Julius Nyerere, Education for Self-Reliance. Freedom and Socialism, p. 1.

[11] Julius Nyerere, ‘Adult Education and Development’, in Adult Learning: A Design for Action, ed. by Hall B and Kidd J R (London: Pergamon Press), p. 28.

[12] Julius Nyerere, ‘Adult Education and Development’, p. 29.


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