Al Mariam’s Commentaries / February 24, 2023
When Education Minster Berhanu Nega made the admission before the entire world that 97 percent of Ethiopian students had failed the national school leaving exam, he took one small step for himself and one giant leap for “liberating education” in Ethiopia. The truth shall set us all free and we can now begin to overhaul the educational system in earnest
While this commentary stands on its own merits, I strongly recommend reading Part I, “Message to Ethiopian Intellectuals: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste!”; Part II, “Message to (Diaspora) Ethiopian Intellectuals: Save/Support Ethiopian Youth/Education!” and Part III, “Disruptive Innovation Can Fix Failing Ethiopian Education.”
Those who may have wondered over the years about “what makes me tick” and why I am so passionate about education and learning will find a “personal confession” herein that is revealing if not particularly interesting.
Am I on a wild goose chase looking for Ethiopian intellectuals to help me rescue our youth from the rubble of Educational Failure in Ethiopia?
Am I delusional in my quest to recruit Ethiopian intellectuals for Mission Education S.O.E.Y. (Save Our Ethiopian Youth)?
Am I wasting my time looking for something that does not exist like a unicorn, mermaids, Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny?
The bitter truth is that I must publicly and grudgingly admit I am indeed delusional in my search for Ethiopian (diaspora) intellectuals to create a force that will become the tip of the spear in the war on educational deficiency and bankruptcy.
I use the metaphor of “war” rhetorically and advisedly to signify the existence of a national emergency of the highest order in which every Ethiopian man, woman, child and institution must participate and do their part; and come together with the fierce urgency of action NOW to deal with the catastrophic failure of education in Ethiopia.
There is no question Ethiopian education is in deep, deep trouble!
When 97 percent (ninety-seven percent) of Ethiopian students fail the national school leaving exam, it is the absolute moral duty, obligation and burden of Ethiopian intellectuals to wage a massive intellectual rescue mission.
“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”
The meaning of a totally catastrophic educational tragedy need not be explained.
This is the time — Ethiopia’s Darkest Hour — for all good and patriotic Ethiopian intellectuals to come to the aid of their country.
If there is ever a right time to wear black to express deep sorrow and loss, national educational failure of 97 percent is the right cause to wear black!
On March 1, 1896, one hundred twenty-seven years to the week, Ethiopia faced its greatest existential threat in its millennia-long history. All of Africa was on the colonial carving table at the Berlin Conference. Ethiopia not only escaped the colonial carving knife, but she was able to vanquish a modern European colonial army in just a few hours.
Ethiopia faced its second greatest existential threat when the fascist colonial power invaded Ethiopia in October 1935. Ethiopia victoriously drove out the beastly invader in May 1941.
H.I.M. Haile Selassie’s central strategy for the modernization of Ethiopia after WWW II was education. He was an “active promoter and patron of modern education and supported this role by regularly visiting schools, handing certificates and prizes, sending students abroad, and stressing the importance of education to development in many of his speeches.”
H.I.M. believed, “The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth.”
In 2023, Ethiopia faces an existential threat of apocalyptic proportions, infinitely more threatening than any danger it has ever faced.
Ethiopia’s hope has been shattered, dashed, smashed and demolished!
Our Ethiopian children have failed!
WE – Ethiopia’s teachers, school administrators, parents, intellectuals, faith leaders, politicians, party leader, business people… — have failed our children.
Yes, we have met the enemy!
Not on the battlefield of Adwa, the Ogaden Desert or at the monastery of Debre Libanos.
We have met the enemy in Addis Ababa, Harar, Semera, Gonder, Mekelle, Jimma, Sodo, Bale, Dembi Dollo, Jijigga, Gambella, Hawassa and everywhere else from north to south and from east to west.
The enemy is us!
I embarked – announced – on an odyssey to find Ethiopian intellectuals in my June 22, 2010 in commentary, “Where Have the Ethiopian Intellectuals Gone?”
Assuming there must be a few somewhere, I exhorted:
Ethiopian intellectuals to exchange their armchairs for the public benches and leave their comfort zones of passivity and silence to become advocates of peaceful change and democracy in their homeland.
My search ultimately proved to be as unsuccessful as Diogenes’ who walked the streets of ancient Athens in broad daylight sticking a lamp in the faces of his fellow Athenians telling them he is looking for an honest man.
Like Diogenes, I “walked” the hallowed grounds and ivory towers of Western academia, searched the cloistered spaces of the arts and scientific professions and even traversed the lawless frontiers of cyberspace with torchlight in hand looking for honest Ethiopian intellectuals ready, willing and able to engage in a struggle to keep Ethiopia free, independent, united and prosperous.
I would have had a much better chance of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack or sighting a California Condor than finding an Ethiopian intellectual willing, able and ready to engage in public discussions of solutions to Ethiopia’s diverse problems.
Give the deafening silence, numbed apathy and depraved indifference of Ethiopian “intellectuals” after Ethiopian Education Minster Dr. Berhanu Nega delivered the heartbreaking news of catastrophic failure of students in the national exam, I concluded my expectation of Ethiopian intellectuals coming to the rescue of Ethiopia’s youth drowning in a sea of educational failure is patently pointless and rather laughable.
Now I have come to realize that I should be looking for a few good hummingbirds who could be the tip of the spear in the war on educational failure in Ethiopia.
How can a metaphor about the smallest bird in the world possibly explain the historic and catastrophic educational failure in Ethiopia?
The short answer is, “A small group of dedicated, thoughtful and creative people can change the world, and often are the ones who change the world.” So, it shall be with education in Ethiopia!
The long answer has to do with the fact that I am incorrigibly quixotic at heart. More on that later.
“Quixotism” is a “condition” I acquired after reading “Don Quixote”, in my view the finest novel ever written, in high school.
Don Quixote, the hero of the novel, sets off on a journey with his mind filled with romantic ideals about truth, justice, fairness and service to his nation as a self-appointed knight errant. In his journey, Don Quixote duels with imaginary foes and villains, including windmills he believes to be evil giants and friars he believes to be enchanters.
Wandering throughout the land on a mission to right wrongs, Don Quixote meets innkeepers, goat-herders, soldiers, priests, escaped convicts, scorned lovers, enchanters, wind mills and such, but never knights-errant.
In my quixotic quest over the past 13 years, I have seen and met fuming Ethiopian activists, pseudo intellectuals with forked tongues, con men who have monetized Ethiopia’s misery for personal gain, YouTube clickbait vultures, demagogues who use ethnicity and religion to promote the deadly politics of sectarianism and communalism, human rights advocates who are clueless about rights and obligations, empty barrel nitwit-ters, Chicken Little shepherds of madding mob herds and armies of the functionally illiterate who seek intellectual respectability by appending academic acronyms to their names.
An old Jewish saying teaches that “A nation’s treasure is its scholars (intellectuals).”
If that saying is true, I am afraid Ethiopia’s treasury of scholars is completely drained and it is time to declare intellectual bankruptcy.
Undaunted by reality, the foolish Don Quixote set off on a journey to pursue an impossible dream; to right unrightable wrongs and to reach the unreachable star. That was his quest.
Undaunted by the nerve-racking and conscience-shocking fact of 97% failure rate of Ethiopian students in the national schools leaving exam, I, the modern day foolish Ethiopian Don Quixote, am on a crusade — MISSION EDUCATION S.O.E.Y. — to right the unrightable wrong inflicted on Ethiopia’s youth in the education system.
My impossible quest: To Save Our Ethiopian Youth from the hellfire and damnation of academic failure!
When I first started preaching fire and brimstone against TPLF corruption and tyranny in Ethiopia in April 2006, I borrowed Gandhi’s words and made it my motto: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Africa is poor because its children, and especially its daughters, are uneducated
Many reasons can be listed for Africa’s abysmal and abject poverty and misery.
My friend George Ayittey says, “Africa is poor because she is not free” and under the thumbs of vampiric dictators.
I say Africa is poor because its children, and especially its daughters, are uneducated and left in the perpetual darkness of poverty. I shall defer that argument for another time.
In my view, freedom comes from freeing one’s mind with sound, well-rounded education.
Education to me is not merely a set of curricular instructions provided in schools and universities where students are treated as “containers to be filled by the teacher.”
My view of education aligns with Paolo Freire’s who argues for “liberating education” or “problem-posing education” based on “dialogue between teacher and student” using the tools of critical thinking such as logic, problem-posing analysis, reflective skepticism, multi-perspectivity and systemic thinking. Liberating education has the power to free the mind of the individual and unleash the collective consciousness of society.
Maximilien Robespierre, one of the principal architects of the French Revolution said, “The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.”
Steven Biko, the young South African freedom fighter murdered by white apartheid police made the profound observation, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
If the oppressor controlled the minds of the oppressed, he also controls the body, soul, spirit and entire being of the oppressed.
South African Bishop Desmond Tutu pointed out how Europeans controlled the minds of Africans by forcing them to close their eyes. “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
When Africans opened their eyes, “they ain’t got a prayer left.” They had given up not only their lands but also their bodies, minds and souls. They were doomed to colonial bondage and slavery.
The European colonial masters kept Africans in perpetual ignorance and gave minimal education to those Africans who could serve implement their designs of white supremacy disguised as a “civilizing mission” and morally justify their cruelty as necessary for the “salvation of the souls of African savages” in the next world.
The law of unintended consequences prevailed.
The Christian mission-educated young Africans in the colonies and the few educated in Western universities eventually led the struggle for freedom and independence from colonial rule in Africa.
Among these nationalist leaders were Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Kwame Nkrumah (Gold Coast, now Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanganyika, now Tanzania), Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal), Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria), and Félix Houphouët-Boigny (Côte d’Ivoire).
When Education Minster Berhanu Nega made the admission before the entire world that 97 percent of Ethiopian students had failed the national school leaving exam and shamed all Ethiopians, he took one small step for himself and one giant leap for “liberating education” in Ethiopia. The truth shall set us all free and we can now begin to overhaul the educational system in earnest.
Is education the pathway to individual and collective freedom?
Is freedom a matter of mind over matter?
An Ethiopian saying rendered in Tigrinya teaches “ዘይተምሃረ፥ ዘይተምሓረ!”, loosely translated as “one who is not educated is not liberated.”
If only the TPLF had learned the wisdom of this profound pithy saying. They thought power came out of the barrel of the gun instead of the educated mind. They lost out to those who used their brains instead of their brawns.
Education is the bedrock foundation of knowledge, although one can debate the definition of “education” and “knowledge” until the cows come home.
Suffice it to say “knowledge is power.”
Europe was able to colonize Africa, except Ethiopia, because it used its knowledge of geography, military strategy and tactics and political ingenuity to divide and impose direct and indirect rule on African societies.
The West, in large measure, has used “knowledge” to bring humanity information, communications and medical technologies, the automobile and space ships and so many other things.
The West has also used “knowledge” and brought humanity the atomic and hydrogen bombs and the ability to wage biological warfare wiping out the human race from the face of the planet.
It is worthwhile to reflect on the Scriptural metaphor of the “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and the human condition.
But there is something more important than knowledge. Imagination (not wishful thinking, blind faith)!
Albert Einstein in an interview said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
He also reputedly said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
Imagination (the mental ability to form an image of something not present/exist) + rational thinking (search for truth the intellect can grasp directly/based on evidence) = Creativity.
My guiding definition of creativity is expressed in George Bernard Shaw’s maxim: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”.
I dream of things that never were and ask: “Why not come up with creative solutions to Ethiopia’s urgent and persistent problems?”
Why not, indeed?
As I observed in December 11, 2017 commentary:
I believe freedom lost for one generation can be regained for succeeding generations. Freedom does not come from the barrel of a gun, it comes from a well-informed and educated citizenry. It is the moral duty of the free to stand up and fight for the unfree.
A personal “confession” about education: Only for those interested in knowing about my educational journey and why I am determined to make a difference in Ethiopian educational achievement
I have spent my entire life in education. Over one-half century in the United States.
I have been privileged to have extraordinary educational opportunities throughout my life.
I began in “qes school” (church school) at age of three or four. A local “debtera” (a member of the unordained clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church reputed to have “special knowledge”) was hired to teach me an a few others to read and write and learn stylized forms of Amharic/Ge’ez literary forms.
I attended one of the better schools in the country, some might say an elite private school.
I was also an autodidact (self-taught), and as a child had the family means to acquire “education” outside the classroom.
As a teenager, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself with some of the classics of Western philosophy and literature.
I was particularly attracted to some of the seminal works of nineteenth century European literature and philosophy.
I immersed myself in post-WW II “vanguard” American literature and had access to many of the popular and “New Journalism” literary magazines of the 1960s.
My high schoolmates remember me as a “nerd,” so to speak.
They remember me most for carrying a paperback novel and Webster’s Pocket Dictionary (which I had memorized) in my back pockets everywhere I went, including to the movies.
I also read contemporary Amharic literature.
By age 16 or so, I was publishing op-eds in popular English magazines published in Addis Ababa.
Along the way, I had more than familiarized myself with the Ethiopian Civil and Criminal Codes (still have the same copies from well over one-half century ago) and Criminal and Civil Procedure. I could cite the Codes “chapter and verse”, as it were. I learned much of it tagging along with my father in various courts.
My father taught me to value education above all else. He would often remind me wealth, land and bank accounts could be lost in a flash but if I have sound education I can live anywhere in the world with dignity and self-confidence. I never forgot that advice.
By the time I came to the US in 1970, I must have collected at least a thousand books on history, poetry, plays, politics, law, philosophy and science.
Books were time machines for me.
The library in my imagination was the starship USS Enterprise in Star Trek. I could set out to the “final frontier where I can explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations and to boldly go where no Ethiopian man or woman has gone before.”
In books, I could ask many questions. I asked myself strange questions. “What does it mean to be human on planet earth?”
Truth be told, witnessing human suffering and stupidity every day, I struggle to comprehend what being human is or means.
Could Kafka have been right? To be human is to be on trial perpetually for unknown crimes and suffer punishments?
Yet, I am doomed to care for humanity and the human condition. Could that be what being human means?
Does (liberal) education make for a better human?
I have discussed the fate of my book collection in my May 8, 2022 commemorative commentary on Abrehot (Enlightenment) Library in Ethiopia.
I grew up thirsty for knowledge. For that reason, perhaps, I was considered somewhat eccentric (“weird”), the odd man out, among some of my school friends.
I was teased for what my friends considered to be my silly affectation and fetish of all things American.
Indeed, growing up in Ethiopia, I liked all things American and mystically connected to the American counterculture movement of the 1960s. The iconoclastic rebelliousness of American youth deeply appealed to me.
I avidly followed the intellectual debates among the American literati on civil rights and the Vietnam War in the various literary magazines and publications. Stranger yet, I followed American auto racing enthusiastically.
I indulged in American popular music, as did all my friends. Unlike my friends, I developed a deep appreciation of classical music which was part of a weekly “music appreciation” class in high school.
I watched American movies and especially enjoyed Hollywood Westerns. I cheered as the US Cavalry tore into Indian villages and set them on fire. I was clueless about the suffering of Native Americans.
Some of my friends’ taunted me for being an “Americophile.” They would poke fun calling me, “American by force.”
That rarely bothered me. I came to realize early on life is essentially a matter of mind over matter. I knew what I wanted in my mind and it did not matter to me what anybody else said.
I have spent my entire adult life in education, 52 years in American higher education as a perennial student/professor/administrator.
I came to America for one purpose only. Education.
My specific plan was to get a doctorate in political science and return to Ethiopia.
I decided to study political science after reading a book on the US Constitution at the US Information Service Library in Addis Ababa. They used to tell me that library was part of the US “propaganda machine.” I did not care. The time I spent in that library changed my life.
After earning my doctorate in the US, I thought I could become a university professor at Haile Selassie University (Addis Ababa University) like my hapless uncle. (I am told my uncle publicly challenged (military regime) junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam and soon found himself in exile. He never returned to Ethiopia.)
Anyway, I thought I could find a position in government if not in academia.
How true the words of Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes of mice and men/ Go often awry,/ And leave us nothing but grief and pain,/For promised joy.”
The Derg put an end to my best laid plans.
I was left with nothing but grief and pain for myself and for Ethiopia.
So many young people my age, including my best friends who did not have the means to leave Ethiopia, perished in the Derg’s Red Terror campaign of indiscriminate violence. May they all rest in peace!
I stayed in school in America and became a professional student. I earned four academic degrees from four different American universities in a span of eighteen years.
I thank the American Civil Rights Movement and especially the African Americans who paid the ultimate price for my educational opportunities.
When the centuries-long locked gates of educational opportunity opened for African Americans in the late 1960s, I happened to be at the right place at the right time.
History testifies that in the American South, draconian anti-literacy laws were passed making it a crime to teach slaves to read and write.
Plantation owners believed literate slaves would disobey their masters, conspire and escape to freedom.
They believed educating the slave was tantamount to giving him a “get out of slavery card.” Education for the slave was the “aboveground railroad” to freedom.
I was the fortunate beneficiary of opportunities opened up for the great grandchildren of slaves.
Truth be told, my family has benefitted greatly from educational opportunities in the US, including access to the most exclusive higher educational institutions in America.
I am forever grateful to America and those who fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Civil Rights Movement for making America the land of boundless educational opportunity for me and my family.
My educational journey in America was not without its challenges.
I faced the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and plain old racism.
The trick I used to fight back was to maintain the highest expectations for myself and to never forget what my forefathers did at the Battle of Adwa and between 1936-41. Racism could not break me!
I worked as a school janitor and hotel dishwasher to support myself. I worked in the campus library.
I walked miles every day to get to school because I could not afford to purchase a car.
I rode a bicycle in feet of snow to get around.
I was humbled and experienced life as I had never known it. It was a fall from privilege.
My guiding principle has always been, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I just kept on going.
My educational pursuits have been unusual in many ways.
Some may find it odd to learn that I had devised a plan to meet Bertrand Russell, one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century. I had read Russell in high school and admired him immensely. I thought I shared something very special with him.
Much to my deep dismay, he passed away 4 months before I arrived in London in June 1970 on my way to America.
Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy” has few rivals in terms of its breadth, depth and sheer eloquence of prose on the development of Western philosophy.
Russel’s autobiography had enormous influence on my thinking.
“All men [and women] created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” proclaims the American Declaration of Independence.
To me, the pursuit of happiness (for over one half century) has been the pursuit of knowledge not only on our pale blue dot of a planet but also in “space: the final frontier where one can explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations and to boldly go where no man or woman has gone before.”
For good or bad, I am the product of the Western philosophy of education.
But my thinking over the years has been tempered with Franz Fanon’s pedagogy on the psychic violence of colonialism on the African mind and Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
I favor liberal education for all the reasons set forth in Fareed Zakaria’s book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education.”
Simply stated, liberal education “teaches you how to think.” I should like to believe I am a recipient of sound liberal education.
But Ethiopia has its own pedagogical practices that “involve various collaborative and independent learning strategies and promote critical thinking skills.”
Ethiopians should always look for homegrown solutions first and build upon their rich indigenous knowledge traditions.
In undergraduate school, I had planned on majoring in political science. But after taking my first introductory course I began to have doubts.
My first introductory course in philosophy was a game changer for me.
The philosophy professor was an easy-going older fellow who was particularly intrigued by my familiarity with basic philosophical terms and concepts. Could it be because he thought I had just “gotten off the boat” from Africa?
He was curiously intrigued by me. Other professors were too but this particular professor would often ask me in quizzical curiosity in and outside of class when and where I learned one thing or another.
I would bashfully and with guilty conscience tell him I learned it from one book or another.
One section of that philosophy course had a tremendous impact on me.
In the section on ancient philosophy, the professor was teaching us about the “Socratic method,” a participatory form of learning in which the teacher teaches by asking questions.
He said something to the effect that the only way to find the truth is by asking questions, not by listening to the dictates of those in authority or because it is written in a book. He told the class Socrates was killed because he taught the young people of Athens to question everything, including the gods, and poisoning their minds.
I was puzzled and shocked by his remarks because that meant professors are not the final word on knowledge.
I thought of professors as demi-god fountains of knowledge. My job was to studiously regurgitate what they have taught me on exams. Questioning the professor was unthinkable to me.
I vaguely recall my conversations with that philosophy professor during office hours after one-half century. Those conversations forever changed the way I looked at the world.
And what he told me, dimly remembered through the fog of time across one-half century and to the extent memory serves me, were along the following lines.
Learning is not about knowledge, for knowledge always changes with new facts and discoveries. Learning is not about reading books and passing exams.
Learning, he said, is about always asking questions, the right questions. He taught there is no certainty in the universe, only probabilities. He taught when we master the art of asking questions, the right questions, then we become critical thinkers, which means we get to ask more questions from diverse perspectives. The core lesson: “Life is an endless process of asking questions, not the search for answers.”
I learned mastering the art of asking the right questions in pursuit of intellectual curiosity is the gateway to learning. I learned from that professor questions are often pregnant with their own answers if I pay close attention. He told me never to fear expressing my opinion regardless of how unpopular it might make me. I just have to make sure my opinions are informed with facts and evidence and transparently reasoned. I should never accept anything because someone, including the professor, said it. Question authority. Don’t be afraid to be the odd man out (I knew that already), a particularly useful advice for a forlorn foreign student. Be scrupulously honest and truthful in relating with others. If your truth offends others, it is not your problem. Speak the truth and always be ready to change your mind when presented with new facts. Defend your convictions with reason, but also be reasonable and open-minded for there are different solutions to the same problem.
It was in that introductory philosophy course that I heard for the first time Socrates’ maxim, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Did that mean life is an endless process of asking questions about oneself, one’s society, one’s world, the universe?
I still wonder and ask myself not what is the meaning of life but what does it mean to be human on planet earth.
Truth be told, witnessing human suffering and stupidity every day, I struggle to comprehend what being human is or means.
Yet, I am doomed to care for humanity and the human condition. Could that be what being human means?
Does education make for a better human?
Contrary to the view “Man is born sinful”, Man is born ignorant (not knowing). The unexamined life keeps Man in his natural state of ignorance.
Life is a daily struggle against one’s own ignorance and an acknowledgement of the finitude of human understanding and infinitude of human stupidity.
Decades later, I came face to face with the Socratic method in law school. Sometimes called “cold calling,” the professor would randomly ask (more like cross-examine) a student on reading materials or legal issues. It could be intimidating for some but I enjoyed the “battle of wits” by audaciously challenging the professor on obscure details. I was also much older than my classmates in law school.
As a lawyer, I found out the driving engine of the law is the art/science of asking questions. Lawyers use fancy names to describe it: investigation, interrogation, witness interview, direct and cross-examination, forensic analysis, ballistics, inquiry, legal research etc. Essentially, it all about asking the right questions to get justice by means of discovering the truth, the legal truth, the strangest truth of all.
Only when I started practicing law did I find out justice is rarely found in the controlled laboratory of the courtroom.
In the courtroom, the truth is sliced and diced, broiled, roasted, seared, stewed and grilled using the “right questions.” In the courtroom, truth is called “admissible evidence.”
Justice is the fugitive ghost that escapes the courtroom when the lawyers and judges are not asking questions and quibbling over admissible evidence.
Guiding my intellectual curiosity with questions has served me well in “examining” life.
I am proud of my Western education which I pursued assiduously in a matrix of questions. I believe Western education has enabled me to become an autonomous rational moral agent in the Kantian sense, that is a passionate and intense seeker of moral truths and speaker/practitioner of truth to power.
That is why my website almariam.com for years has proudly displayed the tagline, “Speak truth to power.”
My education has also helped me answer Socrates’ challenge, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
To me, the the examination of life is the process of asking questions and thinking about things that matter: truth, justice, integrity, benevolence, dignity, excellence, courage and striving for a virtuous life.
Since 2005, I have been speaking truth loudly to power about things that matter to me every week, unconcerned if anyone in or out of power is is listening!
As an educator in higher education and as a practicing lawyer, I have been much influenced by the analytic philosophy of Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gottlob Frege.
Analytic philosophy is generally concerned with conceptual and linguistic clarity by braking complex problems into simpler empirical and logical ones. It investigates “truth” in the ideal formal language of symbolic logic rendered in logical propositions that correspond to reality. It rejects the use of “ordinary language” to access “truth” because it is ambiguous, vague, contradictory and misleading. Language structured on the model of symbolic logic is believed to be the most rigorous approach to ascertaining meaning or meaninglessness (“sense and nonsense”) of statements about the world.
Simply stated, analytic philosophy is broadly concerned with the study of language and the logical analysis of concepts.
It could be argued analytic philosophy is at the foundation of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is essentially “machine language” (software/programming language) that can perceive, learn, reason and solve problems in much the same way as the human mind using the formal language of symbolic logic, instead of natural (ordinary) language.
I have found analytic philosophy to be a powerful “methodology” in understanding and approaching complex legal problems and issues.
Language (advice, analysis and arguments) is the stock in trade of the lawyer. In Anglo-American jurisprudence (science of law) and the practice of law, we use technical jargon and linguistic expressions that are unintelligible to most lay people. Students go to “law school” to learn legal language at great cost and practice it often to great personal financial benefit.
To the ordinary person, the language of the law (“legalese”) is mumbo-jumbo or hocus-pocus. It makes little common sense, and indeed is nonsense. The words and phrases of the common law (precedent), statutes and constitutional language must be interpreted and given meaning in different circumstances.
The law is also based on logic with its own rules of reasoning that are unintelligible (and appear ridiculous) to most lay persons.
In Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, Mr. Bumble, in response to accusation he bears more legal responsibility as a husband, under the legal principle a wife acts under the direction of her husband, for his wife’s destruction of certain trinkets declares,
If the law supposes that the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.
The masses believe the law is a ass- a idiot; and blind to experience of human ignorance, suffering and stupidity.
The common law (precedent/judge made law), for most people, does not make common sense.
Meticulous attention to the details of words and phrases and application of different (often contradictory) rules of legal reasoning are the heart, mind and soul of the law.
Admittedly, analytic philosophy in theory and application could prove cognitively challenging.
Russell once wrote, “It should be one of the functions of a teacher to open vistas before his pupils, showing them the possibility of activities that will be as delightful as they are useful.”
I interpreted that to mean the teacher should stoke the curiosity and intellect of his/her students, arm them with critical thinking skills and unleash and set them loose to interrogate the world, indeed the universe.
In my youth and undergraduate years, my intellectual “role models” were great authors, literary characters, ferocious American trial lawyers and civil rights activists and motion picture actors in the Western genre. Unfortunately, I did not have any Ethiopian “role models.”
My chosen role models represented certain values and virtues in my mind: truth, honor, dignity, loyalty, courage, integrity, fairness, altruism, respect and compassion for the down and out (“There go I but for the grace of God.”), standing up for the underdog, speaking truth to power however powerful, avoiding harm to others, quixotic commitment to what is right, never holding a grudge (“Forgive them for they know not what they do.”) and so on.
Russell was an extraordinary intellectual who used philosophy for social activism, particularly in advancing the cause of pacifism and against militarism. He once said, “Either man will abolish war, or war will abolish man.” He was referring to nuclear war. He urged schools to teach about the horrors of humans killing other humans rather than glorifying war as a patriotic virtue.
My passionate commitment to nonviolence and dialogue to resolve political disputes is partly influenced by Russell’s philosophical activism in the cause of pacifism. Others include Martin King, Mohandas Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and the Quakers (The Friends) whom I joined in opposition to the Vietnam War.
I have, to some extent, succeeded in stoking the curiosity and imagination of my students over the past four decades. I am gratified and grateful to my students from decades ago who have sent me communication telling me how I have positively influenced their thinking, as many of my professors have influenced mine.
I find it ironic that my philosophy of education should align with Russell’s, a man least known for his piety. While we are on opposite poles on questions of divine teaching, we are on the same page on secular education.
The 10 commandments Russell promulgated as a teacher appeal to me not only in theory but also as guidelines for living an authentic life.
That is why I declared in my May 13, 2019 commentary, “Save the Children: Starve the Bad and Feed the Good Wolf in Ethiopia,” my generation should set the standards of virtue for Ethiopia’s youth.
We should be teaching the younger generation the moral values and virtues of peace, justice, fairness, equality, courage, humility, reconciliation, forgiveness, truthfulness, respect, cooperation, unity and so on.
Of course, these are virtues easier said than done. I struggle with them every day.
The California department of Education proclaims, “The first five years are especially crucial for a child’s physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserts:
The early years of a child’s life are very important for later health and development. The right care for children, starting before birth and continuing through childhood, ensures that the child’s brain grows well and reaches its full potential. Exposure to stress and trauma can have long-term negative consequences for the child’s brain, whereas talking, reading, and playing can stimulate brain growth.
What percentage of our Ethiopian children get the resources and support they need in the first five years of their lives?
What percentage of our Ethiopian children are born to mothers who got proper prenatal care?
We are fighting an uphill battle to save our Ethiopian children!
But can we save our children when we cannot save ourselves?
Can we save our children when we ourselves are lost in a wilderness of tribal and identity politics, drowning in a quagmire of communalism and sinking deep in a quicksand of sectarianism?
But who can save us from ourselves?
Our intellectually bankrupt intelligentsia trapped in herd mentality and groupthink?
Heaven save us all!
Eating the Ethiopian educational elephant before the educational elephant eats us!
The late South African Bishop Desmond Tutu in a documentary organized around two profound questions (“What’s wrong with the world?” and “What can we do about it?”), observed: “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”
That is the response of African traditional wisdom to Western analytic philosophy.
There is only one way to eat the educational failure elephant in Ethiopia: a bite at a time.
It is unrealistic to expect structural reform in Ethiopian education in one fell swoop.
Ethiopian education has been dying on the vine for at least two generations.
The Derg believed indoctrination of children in socialist ideology was “education” and sent out school children to proselytize socialism in the name of mass literacy.
For the TPLF, education was amassing bogus diplomas and degrees from sham internet universities and unaccredited, self-styled, make-believe colleges and universities operated by unscrupulous local merchants of ignorance.
The few educated Ethiopians left the country for the grass was indeed greener on the other side.
In 2010 Foreign Policy reported, “there are more Ethiopian physicians practicing in Chicago today than in all of Ethiopia, a country of 80 million and Africa’s second-most populous country.”
Ethiopia is burning its candle at both ends.
Brain drain of Ethiopia’s brightest and best to the West and educational failure left over for the rest.
One should have a realistic timeline for meaningful change to take place.
Rome was not built in a day but was destroyed in a few.
Ethiopia’s education problems did not happen in a few days. They took decades to develop. It could take decades to rebuild.
Having said that, I am confident we can transform Ethiopian education in less than a decade for I am the foolish old Ethiopian man who is unafraid to move mountains.
The ancient Chinese fable about “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains”
The foolish old man and his family lived in a village between two large mountains where it was difficult to fetch water. Each day they would walk around the mountains for hours to fetch water from a pond.
One day it dawned on the foolish old man there had to be a better way. He decided to dig away the mountains so his family could access the pond directly.
All along, there was a wise old man watching and laughing. He approached the foolish old man and asked, “What foolish thing are you doing? Do you not know that it is impossible to dig away these mountains?”
The foolish old man replied, “That is no problem. When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons, and then their sons and grandsons, and so on. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. We will clear them away!”
The foolish old man kept on digging every day, unshaken in his conviction.
Inspired by the foolish old man, the people of the village joined the dig. Word got around and people from surrounding towns and cities came to join.
They dug from dawn to dusk with picks and shovels but the mountains showed no sign of getting smaller. The people were frustrated as they made little progress.
They wondered how long it would take to remove the mountains.
All along, God was watching. He was moved by the toil and hard work of the people and sent down two angels, who carried away the mountains on their backs.
Today, two big mountains stand in the way of accessing the pond of prosperity in Ethiopia.
The first mountain is a failing educational system where 97% of Ethiopian students cannot pass the national school leaving exam through hard work and diligence.
The second mountain is a failing educational system infested by the politics of ethnic identity, sectarianism and communalism.
We can remove these two mountains if all STAKEHOLDERS – students, teachers, parents, school administrators, local and federal governments, faith institution, business leaders and civil society organizations – put their shoulders to the wheel and their noses to the grindstone and build a successful educational system.
The moral of the story is that Ethiopians must not be intimidated by the mountainous size of the educational and other problems they face every day.
We must work on them every day little by little, one by one, project by project, school by school, university by university, village by village, town by town, city by city….
I believe God stands in the shadow watching us toil to save our youth. We too will touch God’s heart and He will send us angles to carry away the mountains of educational failure, ethnic hatred and division and religious bigotry and deliver us to the Promised Land of Ethiopian Prosperity.
One day, we will wake up and see the sun rising over the horizon in the cradle of mankind and shine over all Africa.
Failure must not be looked at as a terminal disease.
Failure can be a good thing.
Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb and so many other things critical to modern life, asked how it felt to have failed one thousand times before inventing the light bulb said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
I would argue 97 percent of our students did not fail the national school leaving exam, they just did not do as well as the 3 percent who passed. The solution is to figure out, indeed talk to the 3 percenters who passed and replicate their success nationally.
But let us not forget, a thousand-mile journey begins with the first step.
As I think of my own privilege over one half century ago, I also think of the deprivation of our children today, the 97% who failed the national exam.
That fact fell on me like a ton of bricks unexpectedly. It worries me to no end.
It worries me so much, I have cancelled my retirement to launch a crusade, a campaign to transform the 97% educational failure rate into a 97% success rate.
For as long as I can remember, I have been told fighting for democracy, human rights, the rule of law, etc. in Ethiopia is a losing cause.
I have been told to my face Ethiopia is a lost cause and I should stop wasting my time. I told them to get lost.
When I started fighting the TPLF with my pen (keyboard) in 2005, they laughed at me and said to my face, “You are a damned fool to believe the TPLF could be removed from power in a nonviolent movement.”
When I “rained” my weekly commentaries, the TPLF leaders and their supporters said I was just a “crazy professor” wasting my time and “troubling deaf heaven with my bootless cries.”
When I stood up to the Superpowers aiding terrorists sworn to destroy Ethiopia, they said, “What can a flea do to a mean junkyard dog?”
Perhaps I was born to a losing struggle but my destiny is to turn a losing struggle into an enduring victory.
My credo is: Losing causes are the only ones worth fighting for, and quitters can never be winners.
When European colonists invaded Ethiopia 127 years to the week, they believed Ethiopia was a lost cause.
The TPLF monetized, merchandised and balkanized Ethiopia believing Ethiopia was a lost cause.
The Superpowers ganged up on Ethiopia believing it to be a lost cause of ethnic division and communal strife.
I knew better. Ethiopia is a work in progress, a labor of love.
Ethiopia today has a democratically elected government for the first time in its history.
Ethiopia is building its infrastructure and shall soon become self-sufficient in food production with bountiful wheat harvests and energy self-sufficient with its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam turning on more turbines.
As I wrote in my May 26, 2013 poem “Ethiopia Shall Rise!”:
Ethiopia Africa’s hope and destiny
Shall rise and its tyrants shall fall
Their lies, cruelty and corruption
Buried with them in the steel coffin of history
For “justice will rise in Ethiopia like the sun, with abundance of peace forever.”
Ethiopia shall rise by the sinews of her youth
Up-rise on the wings of her persevering children
Ethiopia shall rise and rise
Her youth will up-rise
Rise Ethiopia, up-rise
I know the do-nothing couch potato Ethiopian intellectuals trapped in their herd mentality and group think will look at me, shake their heads and snort, “There really is no fool like an old fool.”
My answer, “Watch the old fool at work and learn!”
Medemer MISSION EDUCATION S.O.E.Y.: My possible Ethiopian Dream
I am an unrepentant dreamer.
My greatest dream is to see Ethiopia at peace and her enemies in pieces.
But am I chasing an impossible dreams by committing to reverse the 97% national exam failure rate in Ethiopia to a 97% pass rate in the not-too-distant future?
I have short and long answers to that question.
The short answers metaphorically stated are as follows:
I love going on a fool’s errand. I like wasting my time trying to move a mountain of educational failure and reach the unreachable star.
It is true, “There is no fool like an old fool.” Only a fool will tilt his lance at the Evil Giant of Educational Failure in Ethiopia. I plead no contest!
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The truth is an old dog, who has failed a thousand times, can teach young dogs, “Failure is the springboard of success.”
A fool is never afraid to be wrong, but a smart fool quickly learns from his mistakes and will not repeat them.
Someone has to stand up and call a spade a spade and immediately turn around and use the spade to build something new.
Albert Camus observed, “He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.”
I do not despair over the catastrophic educational failure in Ethiopia. That makes me an old fool full of hope for Ethiopia’s young people.
In the opening sentences of this commentary, I mentioned my Quixotic quest.
That was not merely a literary trope.
For I, like the Man of La Mancha, am on a Quest, a pursuit of a possible dream locked inside an Impossible Dream.
In March 2007, I wrote a commentary about “The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire.”
It was a fable about a blazing fire in the forest and frightened animals running to safety.
It was a morality tale of an Ethiopia the TPLF has set on fire by stoking the fires of ethnic hatred and division, sectarianism, regionalism, etc. I argued only Ethiopia’s young firefighters can possibly save the Ethiopia House from the conflagration.
I never imagined the young people themselves will be burned to ashes in a conflagration of educational failure sixteen years later.
The Hummingbird story goes like this:
As the forest was engulfed in fire, a hummingbird was running back and forth grabbing droplets of water in her tiny beak to put out the fire.
“Hummingbird, what in the world are you doing?” asked the lions, elephants and tigers standing around and boasting about what they could do if they wanted to put out the fire .
“Oh, I am just carrying water from the river to put out the fire,” replied the hummingbird casually, as she continued to fly back and forth to the river scooping up droplets of water.
The whole animal colony burst out in laughter.
“Hummingbird, do you know how foolish you look trying to put out this great fire with the tiny droplets of water you carry in your beak,” the animals inquired.
The hummingbird continued to shuttle droplets of water from the river, unfazed by the laughter and ridicule.
“You may think I am foolish, but I am doing all that I can do,” replied the hummingbird.
“But hummingbird, surely you must know that your droplets of water will do nothing to put out this fire. Why are you wasting your time?” replied the puzzled animals.
“I am doing all that I can do. And may be if we all did what we could do, instead of standing around and talking about what should, could or needs to be done, then perhaps, we may be able to put out the forest fire!” advised the tiny hummingbird as she flew back and forth to carry more droplets of water from the river.
The big animals were not persuaded. “You can gather a thousand hummingbirds like yourself, and even all of you wouldn’t be able to put out this fire,” the animals derided the gutsy hummingbird.
The hummingbird briefly hovered to explain herself to the large animals: “You see, this forest is my home. This is where I was born. This is where grandpa and great grandma hummingbird were born. This forest has been good to all of the animals who made their homes in it. Our ancestors did a lot to make this forest a good home for all us; and many died fighting to save this forest from many previous firestarters.”
The hummingbird continued, “Surely, you know none of the previous firestarters succeed in destroying our forest home because our ancestors were strong firefighters. They fought the fire with everything they had. And I am fighting this fire with everything I got, even though you may think I am foolish for trying to carry droplets of water in my beak,” concluded the hummingbird as she flew back once more to the river.
I am the tiny hummingbird doing all I can to put out the educational fire that has consumed our Ethiopian children.
You have the choice of laughing at the hummingbird, like the animals of the forest, or join the hummingbird on a mission.
Medemer EDUCATION MISSION S.O.E.Y.
A million hummingbirds can put out the educational fire destroying our children and rebuild a magnificent edifice of knowledge in Africa.
That is the Medemer Way!
When I began my advocacy on behalf of Ethiopia in 2006, I said my aim is not to change Ethiopia but to change the hearts and minds of the young people who will change Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s young people today stand in mortal danger!
The US Marines are always “looking for a few good men.”
I am looking for a few good, dedicated, patriotic Ethiopian hummingbirds to join me in a Medemer Mission Education S.O.E.Y. in fighting the fires of educational failure in Ethiopia.
Sign up for the Ethiopian Hummingbird Education Army!
It takes a village to raise an Ethiopian child but it takes a nation of hummingbird firefighters to rescue and save our children from educational firealure (failure).
To be continued…