Concluding Reflections on Ubuntu as a Multipolar Perspective on Education                                                                                

Tukumbi Lumumba-Kasongo | Department of Political Science and Department of International Studies, Wells College and Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University

The theme “Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally” is firstly an intellectual concept that implies conceptualizing, projecting and making scenarios about a different education system and practices in the world. Secondly, this conceptualization has to be framed within a given global historical and political context.

I have captured a few items, thoughts and ideas from various authors’ responses about this theme I intend to complement the discourse engendered through this theme with a reflective analytical perspective from a multipolarity approach. This approach is an important dimension of thinking on Ubuntu philosophy. My claims and arguments are contextualized within the intellectual framework of historical-structuralism.

Concerning the evolution of a teleological contemporary world, it should be noted that in the past 600 years or so the world system (its model of nation-state, international political economy, and financial, economic, military, social and political organizations) has evolved toward unipolarity. The grand plan of European colonialism (imperialism charter), and that of transatlantic slavery before it, was to attempt to unify the world within the common European civilization under the surveillance and the direction of the European model of nation-state. Colonialism was a form of missionary religion intended to convert pagans or others into a European civilization perceived as “universally humanistic.” The unilinearity of this purposeful work was to pursue the mission of promoting unipolarity. Unipolarity in world politics implies the domination of a single power or a coalition or coexistence of several powers guided by one shared major purpose. Formal education did not escape in its philosophy from the dictum of this dimension of the dominant social paradigm. In a well-known cited textbook of the French elementary school curriculum in Africa, les Gaullois, one of the ethnic groups in France, were described as “nos ancêtres Gaullois (our ancestors Gauls).” This is how a colonized African child should have linked herself/himself with the Metropolitan France from a tubula rasa perspective.

However, since the end of the Cold War politics and its dualistic worldviews and policies, the demands for a multipolar world, though timidly, have been re-emerging. Earlier, various forms of resistances to colonialism formed the first foundation towards these demands. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies, local- and regional-based struggles, which are redefining themselves or requesting some autonomy, specific sovereignty and control over their geography and cultures, have intensified. This is occurring in both developing and industrialized worlds.

The paradox is that these requests and struggles are taking place when the liberal globalism and its institutions are declaring partial success in global economic integration through the functioning of digital economy, free market and power of communication technology revolution. But it should be noted that these requests and demands do not mean simplistic separatism or autarkism from the world system.

The main question is: what is it to be human in a global system, both in its economic form (capitalism) and its political form (political development) in which human is technically reduced to labor and wages, and in the world of the nation-state where human is also reduced to limited legalistic rights within a given political territoriality? In a world where many nation-states, especially those located in the Global South are failing, for many reasons as results of civil wars, the rise of ‘autocratic multipartyism,’ the political unrest and underdevelopment, to protect even the fragmentary notion of citizenry, how can the discourse on new humanity be effectively thought of, examined and be taken seriously? Education is an appropriate avenue where the contradictions of the world system and its inadequacy to address effectively and harmoniously social and human issues, can be located and debated.

The African concept captured in the Southern African term of Ubuntu in traditions and philosophies of diverse and variant forms and as articulated by all the respondents to the conference theme, include some of these attributes: “I am because you are,” “community life,” “friendship,” “ethics of social justice,” “open-ness,” “collective solidarity,” “common human bond between us,” new understanding of socio-economic and political relations,” “struggle against poverty in schools,” “ethical and humanist goals of the great religions of the world,” “Tagore’s relational inclusive theory of education,” “a multiplicity of worldviews,” “new partnerships between nations without monopoly” and “placement of the human condition above everything else.” Within Ubuntu these attributes are not abstract. They are not intellectualistic. They shape social relations within communities rooted on the concept of “Uto” or “Onto” (meaning human being in many languages spoken in central Africa). They are derived from practical and functioning worldviews or ways of life. Ubuntu in Africa has also its equivalences in other cultures. The concept of Ubuntu is not exclusively African.

Thus, it is necessary to take into the account the contexts in which these attributes have developed and how they might be projected into policy frameworks. In this commentary I have attempted to address them at the level of critical thinking, research, and policy making for the benefit of all—meaning ATO

However, the contexts in which Ubuntu is critically examined, recovered and reclaimed in Africa are colonial, political decolonization, and post-colonialism with their immense contradictions as reflected in the rate of poverty, levels of social injustices, magnitude of unemployment and gender inequality, despite some improvements in some countries. Furthermore, for several decades Africa has been suffering from the effects of appropriating irrelevant or inapplicable development paradigms conceived and defined mostly by the interests of the global North in the name of unified liberal globalization.

It should be clarified that Ubuntu is a critical notion that challenges the African systems of governance and their policies. It should be noted also that the post-colonial African nation-states in general have not been able to conceptualize and formulate policies and device practices from Ubuntu perspectives. This is due partially to the fact that most of the African nation-states have not sufficiently been decolonized and thus, have not acquired political skills and ideological visions to define clearly their national priorities and their positions in relations to those of their people and their needs. In many aspects, these states are mimics or caricatures par excellent of the colonial states, which could not have any agenda about development. This is why most of them are structurally and historically neo-colonial states. They have approached progress mainly from materialism, militarism and territorial security perspectives. Thus, Ubuntu is a profound corrective philosophy which should embody elements of methodologies, approaches and policy framework. Its origin is into explaining collective self without rejecting self-being. Some of the interpretations of this origin are elaborated in the works of, for instance, Placide Tempel’s Bantu philosophy; V. Y. Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge; Vincent Mulago’s Théologie Africaine et Problèmes Connexes; John Mbiti’s African Religions & Philosophy; Guy Martin’s African Political Thought.

A Brief Historical Context

Since the 16th century, the dominant formal education systems in the world have been developed from the perspective of what Chinmeizu called “the West and the Rest of Us.” And with this education, despite its unification purposes, Africa entered into another process of underdevelopment and de-historization. However, this was not the experience of all the peoples and nations of the world. Japan, for instance, progressed out of its fused education system with the Western education. In most parts of the world, Eurocentric philosophy of ‘universalism’ was perceived and used as the foundation of measuring progress or assessing normatively what is good or bad, what is acceptable or not acceptable. The effectiveness or appropriateness of the functioning of the received education system, for instance, has depended very much on the capacity of creativity and adaptability of a given people and the nature of their state.

The major issue is that this ‘universalism’ was truncated because it was based on colonialist politics of domination, exploitation and alienation. Colonialism by its ethos could not promote sustainable development policy and education for all as targetted by the post-colonial political regimes. These capabilities are cognitive and thus, they could not be produced outside of conscious systems of exploitation. Political decolonization was needed in order to formulate relevant education policies. However, in many cases, political decolonization was either stopped or did not develop well. Today Ubuntu is claimed through a new decolonization movement, which includes: indigenous knowledge acquisition, decolonization of the mind, historization of what is being learnt (curriculum), interconnectedness, and a critique of ‘anthropocentricism.’

Intellectual and educational movements toward the search for multipolarity in education have been associated with state’s education reforms, political decolonization, dependency school of thought, third world forum, social, political and indigenous movements. These movements, some more forceful or more active than others, have been calling for the search of alternative ways of doing social sciences, of analyzing the world’s events, in and around us. They have been questioning the existing dynamics of the dominant paradigms and their policy base because of slowness of social progress in some countries, especially those of the Global South. In the past 4 decades or so, especially with the political decolonization movements in Africa and Asia, for instance, methodologies and theories within the dominant social paradigms (DSP) have been slowly being interrogated. For instance, the view of social science as imperialism with its epistemology of received knowledge has been recognized as part of the problem in many developing countries.

Arguments and Claims

Multipolarity is a concept that measures the distribution of power concentrated in several poles of power. As compared to unipolar modernization, multipolarity is part of the protest paradigm. In social sciences, for instance, it requires the combination of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary methodologies and critical theory, and at the political level it requires multilateralism at every level of state-societal relations, including horizontal social relations. Thus, these methodologies should become systematically and consistently part of teaching and conducting research. Obviously, the world is not a simple or simplistic item composed of either geography or culture only. All the borders of the world must be brought into dialogue if we were to learn more about humans.

The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, regardless of its origins, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, embodies the mission of emancipating humans by universalizing and elevating the constitutive values of humanism.

What does the essence of being human mean in comparative and international society and its scholarship and its policy base? How can citizens of the world with their specificities, particularities and diversities connect among themselves without alienating one another in a complex world of the states and their caprices of political determinism?

Education is in the center of any social progress. But the questions of education for whom and what kind of education should produce what kind of progress, should be conceived. For instance, education should address the issues of sustainable development in its holistic manner.

I argue that education whether it is formal, non-formal or informal is the foundation of individual and societal progress, the source of intelligence, socialization, knowledge and traditions. In principle, it teaches the people and generations how to know about themselves, their capacities, their limitations, their constraints, and their potential. Education should teach us how to be humans and how to function within an ecosystem in which humans are an integrative part. Thus, Comparative and International Education Society is an organization, which takes education beyond the single imperatives of a state-centrism. To be human means to recognize the qualities of humanity in us and in others. Comparative and international education takes us beyond an understanding of citizenry and boundaries of a nation-state and its imperatives. Thus, comparative education philosophy is antithetical to ethnocentrism, sexism, racism and primary patriotism.

In the history of the contemporary world, neither society nor an individual has been able to progress without creating a utopianism of some kinds. The origins of this utopianism and its content have always been a subject of intellectual and political debates among the groups depending of people’s social and economic locations in world politics. The discourse on utopianism has to come from the debates about where people of different social origins, various cultures and political traditions and with variety of levels of economic development should meet. We are in an era of globalism, democracy and declining unipolarity. The forces contributing to this decline have been associated with multipolarity. Ubuntu is one of these forces. Ubuntu is part of the efforts in the search for new paradigms to explain Africa in the world and the world in Africa, and imagine a new one world.

Western education, despite the fact it was imposed on the colonized people, became accepted during the colonial period partially because people discovered some of its positive values in the context of the capitalist world: it brings new knowledge, it creates social status, and it improves people’s living conditions. Ubuntu as whole can also be appropriated because it is about the humanity. It embodies elements of peace, development, and interconnectedness.


The messages of Ubuntu find references and inspirations in Central and South America, Asia, the Middleast, Australia, New Zealand, in southern part of Europe and in poor suburban spaces of big European cities where people are struggling against the oppressive conditions, that neo-austerity programs related to economic reforms, have produced.

The major problem is how to create its agency? How do you make Ubuntu a nation-state ideology or a philosophy upon which policies can be formulated for the benefits of all? Thus, existing forms of governance make a difference in trying to reply to this question. Democratic education and education for development and peace should continue to be part of the discourse in order to find consensus about humanist progress. This is possible if citizens of the world take their rights seriously in peacefully and democratically challenging undemocratic practices of the nation-states and multinationals, which monopolize most resources. Democratizing educational curriculum in schools is a path toward creating dialogue between the teachers and students. Ubuntu is inspirational philosophy upon which new model of education for all can be rooted. Utopianism is still relevant if we believe in building a society based on social justice, gender equality and freedoms. Thus, Ubuntu is a new utopianism in the post-colonial era.

It does not claim any superiority to any other way of thinking or doing but collective collaboration and cooperation. Multipolarity puts an emphasis on regional and sub-regional identities and interests. Decentralization of power and its equal distribution at the national and regional levels might create spaces for allowing more dialogues among peoples and nation-states. Education has to take into account the local and regional conditions and needs. Education reforms in many countries addressed some of these issues but without framing the discourse within a bigger picture. A single approach to education has been intellectually myopic. A multipolar perspective of governance and living calls for a multiplicity of voices and equal distribution of power at all the societal levels.

Education has to take into account the local and regional conditions and needs. Some education reforms addressed some of these issues but most of them lacked a big picture. They should have questioned and should question in the future fundamentally the nature of society-state relations.


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