Ubuntu as requisite: Why emerging scholars must imagine humanism as the impetus for educational research

 Mariusz Galczynski | Lecturer, McGill University | Student Representative, CIES Board of Directors                                                   

For scholars, researchers, and practitioners alike, academic conferences provide the opportunity to engage in dialogue, exchange ideas, and connect with others who share similar interests—in collective deliberation over pressing issues and enduring questions. The prospects of these conferences are even brighter, of course, when they are international in scope, bringing together delegates from around the world to partake in a global conversation. And for those of us entrenched in comparative education, conferences like the annual meetings of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) actually concretize the “global” aspect that is fundamental to our work within the field.

In the not-too-distant past, while attending one such conference relevant to our comparativist discourse community, I sat in the audience of a panel presentation on international large-scale assessments (ILSAs) and their effects on education policy. As this topic is primary to my own research agenda, which scrutinizes how policymakers’ and media misinterpretations of ILSA results spillover to diminish the occupational status of teachers in the United States and Canada, I was interested to learn whether similar phenomena took place in other parts of the world. Each of the presenters confirmed as much by highlighting how the achievement of students on ILSAs in their respective countries led to subsequent policy reactions. During the question period at the end, then, I asked the presenters if they had any ideas about how to communicate our understanding of ILSAs to policymakers and other education stakeholders, so that we could begin to reverse certain unjust effects of cross-national comparison which our research seemed to consistently reaffirm. But before any of the presenters could answer—and my impression was that they did have something to say in response—the well-established professor who was chairing the session interjected, “I’m afraid that your question is too practical for the purposes of our discussion here today.”

When President-Elect N'Dri T. Assié-Lumumba invited me to respond to the CIES 2015 conference theme on behalf of emerging scholars, I decided it would be appropriate to share the above anecdote from one of my early experiences in academia. This is because her theme, “Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally,” serves to remind all of us that our conference represents our collective ethos as researchers and practitioners, in commitment to exploring “an imagined future where education is a moral enterprise that develops and shapes minds to embrace humanism” (CIES, 2014). Indeed, moral purpose is central to construct of education, so much so that educational research really only acquires value in its (potential for) application. Yet, as my anecdote intends to illustrate, I am not sure that emerging scholars are those who need much reminding of this.

Rather, I would argue that emerging scholars—or at least those whom I have met, spoken with, studied with, collaborated with, and represented through my roles as part of the CIES Board of Directors and New Scholars Committee—interpret the concept of Ubuntu as requisite for education and for educational research, whether or not they have deliberately said as much. Consider here that I am speaking on behalf of my colleagues who—irrespective of age, gender, citizenship, institution, or previous life experience—chose to enter academia, and more specifically the realm of education, at a time of ever-increasing tuition, debt, and competition and ever-dwindling funding, salary, and security. So what is their motivation for doing so? Let us imagine Ubuntu, or the belief that “humanity is a quality we owe to each other” (Eze, 2010, p. 191), as the impetus.

Emerging scholars in education understand that the purpose of their scholarship must be to affect change: whether for children or adults, in formal or informal learning settings, on a micro or macro level. They acknowledge the reality that education systems have historically reproduced structures of inequality through the interplay of the politics of difference. They recognize that the validation of diverse worldviews and indigenous epistemologies is essential for educational systems to become truly inclusive and for society to become truly just. They perceive that competition is designed to help us advance towards a greater good, in the operationalization of our varied talents and redefinition of achievement. They envision humanity and nature as an interconnected, interdependent ecosystem. And they are conscious of their personhood as a social construction through other people. In other words—and as the CIES 2015 conference theme articulates—they have internalized the elements inherent in Ubuntu.                                              

Returning to the subject of international assessment, I would like to take a moment to contemplate what it would be like to conduct comparative research through the lens of Ubuntu. Rather than simply asking how the results of students from different countries compare, I would need to ask how they compare in reflection of both the international and intranational disparities in resource distribution among schools and students. Before publishing results in the form of league tables which rank countries, I may think twice about how such infographics have been taken up by policymakers without the skills to interpret them meaningfully. Prior to running analysis of my data, perhaps I would take a moment to reflect over the individual teachers and their individual students who sacrificed instructional time to participate in these assessments. If I did all these things, I think I would soon see how Ubuntu “opens up possibilities for more nuanced understandings of assessment theory and practice” (Beets & le Grange, 2005, p. 1200).

Then again, I would venture that my scholarly work has been imbued with Ubuntu all along—because it cannot be separated from my experiences as a classroom teacher. And I feel this is similarly true of all the emerging scholars I know, whose positionality to their research interests is shaped by their life experiences. As such, we all give credence to humanism because it is the value of human beings that gives purpose to our work. Regardless of our research questions, theoretical frameworks, or methods of inquiry, we are determined for our outcomes to promote human agency, both individually and collectively. Ultimately, Ubuntu serves as our research paradigm.

As J.W.F. Muwanga-Zake (2009) explains, Ubuntu:

“implies empowering participants in research (i.e., as social responsibility), and emphasises unity or consensus in decision-making, and the processes that lead to decisions. Essentially, Ubuntu as a research philosophy gives the research process a human face, as opposed to some top-down imposed research processes, and advocates collaboration with the participants and community humanely, with respect to their spirituality, values, needs, norms, and mores. Therefore, Ubuntu ameliorates tensions in research discourse and brings the researcher to the level of the participants.” (p. 418)

Thanks to the theme of the next annual meeting of CIES, we will all be able to invoke Ubuntu as we strive to improve the validity and usefulness of our scholarly work. Moreover, we will become unable to imagine meaningful educational research without Ubuntu. Indubitably, “the 2015 conference offers an opportunity to reflect on and contribute to the exciting possibilities of an Ubuntu-inspired education, embodying a philosophical, pedagogical and curricula framework that is emancipatory, cultured, transformative, localized and empowering for all humanity and the globe” (CIES, 2014). And thus I’m afraid that no question will be deemed too practical for the purposes of our discussion. 


Beets, P., & le Grange, L. (2005). “Africanising” assessment practices: Does the notion of Ubuntu hold any promise? South African Journal of Higher Education, 19, 1197–1207.

Comparative and International Education Society (CIES). (2014). CIES 2015 Annual conference call for proposals [Press release]. Retrieved from http://cies2015.org/call-for-proposals.html

Eze, M.O. (2010). Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Muwanga-Zake, J.W.F. (2009). Building bridges across knowledge systems: Ubuntu and participative research paradigms in Bantu communities. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 30(4), 413–426.