Today, a colleague and I went to hear Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, current President of Liberia, speak at the University of Minnesota. Ms. Johnson Sirleaf has the distinction of being not only the first democratically elected leader of Liberia, but the first woman president in Africa.
Liberia is unique in that is was colonized by re-patriated free slaves from the US in the middle of the 19th century. They even named the capital "Monrovia" after US President James Monroe. Unfortunately, from the little that I've read, this didn't go so well. They basically treated the indigenous Africans as they had been treated in the United States, creating a bifurcated state of elitists and peasants (sound familiar?) Ironically, they named the place "Liberia" (Land of the Free) while simulatenously enslaving the local population. In a story known well throughout Africa, in 1980, the government was overthrown by a military coup, which later lead to two civil wars - one in 1989 and one most recently in 2003 (as perpetrated by Charles Taylor - who was recently captured- and is awaiting trial for war crimes in The Hague.)
President Johnson Sirleaf has had an interesting life, twice emprisoned in the 1980's for speaking out against the dictatorship. She's a smooth speaker and polished politician, giving kudos to the many Liberians in the audience who came to show their support. She outlined many of the strides her country has made since she took office - raising revenue almost threefold, reducing external debt, and investing in education. To hear it in its entirety, click here. Overall, it was as I expected - smooth, but without much revelation.
When she mentioned great strides in education, pointing to a new initiative to provide scholarships for 5000 rural girls to attend, I got to thinking. Why not provide FREE education, for all? Why mess around with scholarship money, which may or may not be used for school?
Then I remembered, Malawi has recently declared free elementary education for all. Malawi is about on par with Liberia in terms of desperation (Malawi not having been through a civil war, however, and Liberia not having as large an AIDs rate as Malawi). Both receive large amounts of development aid.
In theory, free elementary education sounds great. In practice, however, from what I understand, it hasn't turned out too well. Malawians have flocked to schools, only to find underprepared teachers (or NO teachers, as the government didn't think to incrementally fund teacher training along with its free education initiative), no supplies and no place to sit. Now, how effective is that "free" education?
Which also got me wondering, how come the US has free education? How come it works here? Certainly it's not really "free" - we do pay taxes for it - but how is it that poor students whose parents pay less in say, property taxes, get just as much chance for a good education as those who live in richer neighborhoods? (or, perhaps even this is up for debate?).
I am not a educational scholar. I am not well versed in the history and evolution of the US education system. What I do know is that the rural US was once dotted with one room schoolhouses, providing education for any that could walk there. My dad went to one, through eighth grade. He's got a B.S. in Ag Science and has been farming successfully for over 40 years.
So, in my mind, it always boils down to the same question: Why did it work here, in America, when it hasn't worked for much of Africa (or SE Asia?)
What seperates us from them?
At the end of the day, if we are honest with ourselves, I believe it is shockingly - SHOCKINGLY - little.
It's that thought that leads my life's work, and my increasingly gratefulness to have been born in America.