Ubuntu as a platform for humanist education: an introduction                                                                                

Ali A. Abdi, Department Head | University of British Columbia

The role of education in people’s well-being has been touted in contemporary literature for some time. Perhaps more than any other prospect or at least as much, the positive relationship between learning programs and social development, explained in this short piece, as the observable and selectively measurable advancement of an individual or a group in their socio-cultural, economic, political, technological and emotional satisfaction and overall well-being, seems to have been normalized without much doubts or debates. While people, from educational researchers, policy analysts to politicians, would more or less, agree with this simple (if sometimes dangerously simplistic) statement, a more inclusive and pragmatic perspective on the issues might want us to qualify such conclusion and most of its attached assumptions. As I am suggesting below, perhaps we can start seriously thinking about the important and universally viable contributions of the African humanist philosophy of Ubuntu and its humanizing educational attributes. Ubuntu basically refuses to de-humanize anyone, be they local, foreigner or unknown, and its educational aims are based on the unconditional humanization of the onto-epistemological locations and relational aspects of all learning programs. I will say more about this, but before I do so, it may be essential (it is actually) to preface it with the current problems of dominant educational programs and how these are not effecting the promise of social development for especially those that need it the most.

For starters, the simple, inquisitive counter-point, whose education are we talking about, and shouldn’t we subject such statements (that is, education leading to social development) to the specificities of social and cultural realities that could analytically and certainly critically disturb the problematiques of assumed straight line relationships between education and social well-being. In my reading, the main concern should be the way dominant systems of education, which are, by and large, based on colonial instructional hegemonies that define both learning and development from a Eurocentric modernist paradigms of progress, normalize western concepts, theories and practices of explaining and doing the world, and de-normalize everything that is extra-European (Said, 1993; Amin, 2011a). Such assumptions, when they are institutionally empowered, literally de-ontologize and by extension, de-epistemologize the natural learning perspectives of people who are subjected to socio-cultural de-contextualizations, and then fed with non-self-affirming doses of education that take them away from their being, their surroundings and aspirations. Such mechanistic, de-ontological education also attempts to de-socialize people, always attempting to render them into fundamentally individual creatures that use their instructions, not to enrich their communities but to compete with everyone else for modernity-constructed regimes of underdevelopment, development, prosperity and poverty.

To understand the failure of this education as an emancipatory human project, one can simply look at the current condition of the world, especially the so-called developing world, specifically the colonized countries of that world, and realize so much historical, cultural and epistemological deformities that do not do much good for those it was supposed (basically in rhetorical terms) to liberate from difficult life situations. To be sure, how could one have thought, in the first place, that a colonizing education was a humanizing, developing education? That of course, didn’t happen and will not happen. In the African context specifically and surely elsewhere, the data clearly shows the expansion of maldevelopment (Amin, 2011b), or as the late Claude Ake (1996) called, the presence of the rhetoric of development and the absence of useful practical development. Needless to add that with modernity having served as the pivotal project for the triumph of the problematic version of Eurocentric worldview (Amin, 2011a), its currently dominant political, economic and technological hegemonic structures have culminated in contemporary realities of neoliberal globalization where in Wedel’s terms, a new shadow modernist elite rules the world (Wedel, 2009).

In our urgent quest for humanist education, it is important to familiarize ourselves with the humanist African philosophy of Ubuntu, which, while terminologically coming from Southern Africa, is very common to all parts of especially Sub-Saharan Africa, and is foundationally based on the fulfillment of one’s own humanity conditional on, and only meaningful when we fully recognize the humanity of others; concisely Ubuntu is based on this simple maxim: “I am because you are”. While Contrarily in European colonialism, Africa itself was extensively otherized, not only conceptually but practically in binaristic terms as well, where Africans were not only different, but inferior to the extent where they deserved to be colonized, exploited and in Frantz Fanon’s terms, taken out of their being and frozen into an alien psyche that induced in them a desire to detach from their real selves and communities (Fanon, 1967; see also Césaire, 1972; Memmi, 1991). Again, against this dehumanizing ideology is the humanizing base of Ubuntu where in Desmond Tutu’s terms, “a person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” In analyzing this clash of African life philosophy of Ubuntu with the competitive, highly individualizing, zero sum oriented European culture, I have described Ubuntu as perhaps partially responsible for the conquest of Africa by colonial powers (Abdi, 2013). In so doing, I wasn’t disavowing the unique, fine humanist constructions of Ubuntu, I was just pointing out how its noble dimensions could not have survived a situation where others were determined to construct Africans as not worthy of appreciation and respect.

By moving our educational contexts and qualities from the hegemony of modernist colonialism on which it is still based (with no viable altering of that in so-called postcolonial countries), and shifting it to a new global context of the Ubuntu Philosophy of Education, we can certainly do so much better for humanity’s viable well-being and inter-subjective co-survivabilities. Indeed, the idea as well as the possible practice of humanist Ubuntu education shouldn’t be complicated or even extraneous with respect to our current discussions of international education and social development. By and large, the work of international education scholars, especially those who are associated with the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) is about learning programs and projects that pertain to the so-called developing world, mainly though not exclusively, Africa, Asia and Latin America. While one could raise the concern of whether humanist Ubuntu education is basically of the African context and may not be totally applicable elsewhere, I submit it is viable and adaptable to almost every context of our world including Europe and European North America.   

The new humanist Ubuntu education should speak about new possibilities of social well-being that counterweigh the dominant schemes of conventional development which, as was pointed out above, were basically nominal development promises masquerading as real projects that, in real terms, couldn’t positively transform the lives of people. At its core, humanist Ubuntu education aims to re-historicize and re-culture usurped histories and perforce rescinded cultures, thus recreating emergent spaces and possibilities of ontological redemption and inter-subjective as well as inter-group epistemological realignments that do not cancel out the learning histories, needs and expectations of non-European populations. It realizes the primordial, not-to-be severed attachments between learners and their experiences where, as Dewey (1963), Nyerere (1968) and Rodney (1982) noted, learners must see something of themselves in the structure as well as the relevance and contents of their schooling. This humanist education also heeds the call of the man who has been called the conscience of our world, the late Nelson Mandela, who saw the potential of education for national (world) development, but only if it fulfills the conditions of inclusion and equity.

Humanist Ubuntu education is therefore, based on a philosophy and practice of prioritized horizontal human dignity, it hears the yearning of the singularly oppressed and the multiply excluded, it re-voices the de-voiced, and gives back, in Bablo Neruda’s terms, the key to the door that was shut. It also decolonizes the mind, thus rescinding the enduring expanses of what the Aboriginal Canadian scholar, Marie Battiste (1998) calls cognitive imperialism which, by lowering the self-esteem of the colonized, can almost annihilate their self-efficacy to achieve in their contexts and realize their life objectives. Indeed, instead of dictating to others, humanist Ubuntu education establishes and sustains dialogue among peoples and civilizations, thus seeking some consensus to live by in the converging possibilities of ideas, knowledge and achievement. Certainly, it conscientizes (Freire, 2000 [1970]) the de-conscientized who, by newly reading their world critically, can gain, anew, liberated subjectivities and re-affirmed identities that do not sustain the current dominant neoliberal order, but in the spirit as well as the practice of the humanist philosophy of Ubuntu, unconditionally see and accept the full humanity of the other and all.  


Abdi, Ali A. (2013). Decolonizing educational and social development platforms in Africa. Journal of African and Asian Studies, Vol. 12, 64-82.

Ake, Claude (1996). Democracy and development in Africa. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Amin, Samir (2011a). Eurocentricism. Trenton, NJ: Monthly Review Press.

Amin, Samir (2011b). Maldevelopment: Anatomy of a global failure. Pambazuka Press. 

Battiste, Marie (1998). Enabling the autumn seed: Toward decolonized approach to Aboriginal knowledge, language and education. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 22(1), 16-27.

Césaire, Aimé (1972). Discourse on colonialism. Trenton, NJ: Monthly Review Press.

Dewey, John (1963). Experience and education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fanon. Frantz (1967). Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Press.

Freire, Paulo (2000 [1970]). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Memmi, Albert (1991). The colonizer and the colonized. Boston: Beacon Press.

Nyerere, Julius (1968). Freedom and socialism: Speeches and writing, 1965-67. London: Oxford University Press.

Rodney, Walter (1982). How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.

Said, Edward (1993). Culture and imperialism. New York: Vintage.

Wedel, Janine (2009). Shadow elite: How the world's new power brokers undermine democracy, government, and the free market. New York: Basic Books.