Consumers and Producers of CIES Conference Themes: The Ubuntu Round                                                                                

Bjorn Nordtveit

Bjorn H. Nordtveit | Center for International Education, UMass, Editor, Comparative Education Review

The Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) has a history of themed conferences, albeit the first meetings were largely used for discussing ways to increase the teaching and study of comparative education, reflecting the initial goals of the Society. As William H. E. Johnson (1957, 16) noted in the first issue of the Comparative Education Review (CER):

Each year since 1954 a group of persons interested in the teaching of Comparative Education has gathered at New York University to discuss ways of extending the influence of this subject in our colleges and universities. At the third such meeting, in April 1956, it was decided to formalize our association, and so the Comparative Education Society was founded.

At the time, in the heydays of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, a key theme of comparative education consisted of the understanding of the Soviet education system. George Bereday stated, “The Sputnik has unleashed a veritable storm of comparisons of American education with foreign education systems” (1958, 1). In fact, Sputnik spurred a deep American educational reform to “catch up” with the Soviet Union, especially in the sciences: “The launching of Sputnik was a trumpet call to the U.S. educational system. Even if the public did not know much about rocketry, satellites, or space, they did understand a perceived blow to national pride” (Wissehr et al 2011, 368). C. C. Wolhuter (2008, 329), in his content analysis of the CER, noted, “The most salient country in articles published in the first 15 volumes of the Review was the erstwhile USSR.” As demonstrated by Wolhuter (2008, 329), focus shifted with geo-political interests, first to Greece “in the wake of the restoration of democracy,” and then to the USA, perhaps as an “inward orientation in the post-Vietnam years,” before turning to South Africa “in the post-1994 societal reconstruction project.” Whereas one cannot deduct that CIES conferences are reflecting themes of submissions to the organization’s Journal (the CER), it would nevertheless suggest similarities, i.e., in that many contributors to the CER also present their findings at CIES conferences, and that the contributors to the CER are hardly alone in being interested in these themes. The past and current focus on “developing” countries seems to be a lasting one (both at the CER and in CIES conferences), and perhaps is moving the field – and the comparativist – towards that of an academic practitioner,

…who has been equipped with a viable academic understanding of comparative education and who has used that orientation to further the meliorative function common to both international and comparative education in his or her subsequent international activities (Wilson 1994, 450).

Recent conference themes have reflected such academic practitioner interests. This year’s theme, “Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally” follows last year's “Revisioning Education for All” which had as its aim to “highlight cutting edge research on issues of equity and the right to education at all levels of learning” (Mundy 2014). And before that, in 2013, the theme was “Educational Quality: Global Imperative and Contested Visions;” in 2012, it was “The Worldwide Education Revolution;” in 2011, “Education is that which liberates" from the Sanskrit ‘Sa’ vidya’ ya’ vimuktaye;’” and in 2010, “Reimagining Education” (CIES 2015). Most of the themes, together with many related presentations, reflect concerns with the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, and in particular, the Education For All agenda. Also, with reference to Wilson above, they contain the idea of a meliorative function of the field: to reimagine and reconstruct education; to make it available for all; and to improve its quality.

This is hardly any news: the 1957 draft proposal of the aims of the Comparative Education Society (it later shifted its name to the CIES), noted in its sixth point, “To cooperate whenever possible with such organizations as UNESCO, International Institute of Education, Pan American Union, etc.” (Johnson 1957, 16). This cooperation has in fact moved towards integration, and CIES is now populated with members from local and international NGOs, as well as bilateral and international development agencies. Nowhere is this as visible as in the CIES conferences where the “academic” practitioners are mingling with the “full-time” practitioners and “experts” of the education development business. Reflecting this, the conference themes translate broad concerns within the “field” of comparative and international education. On a more pragmatic level, they are also attempting to attract people, since the yearly conference has become the key source of income for the Society. This year’s theme is moving us from 2011’s Sa’ vidya’ ya’ vimuktaye to 2015’s Ubuntu; from Sanskrit to a concept found in many Bantu languages.

What is Ubuntu? The roots of the term are similar as “Bantu,” denoting plurality of beings; community, and in Xhosa and Zulu references to the social conduct of a person (see Muwanga-Zake 2009). Leonhard Praeg (2008, 368) sets this in a historic frame:

Ubuntu – the unthought of individualism, constitutive cause of infinite ‘grace,’ compassion and, in a sense, sign of the non-political – is a function of the historical discourse on Africa, of the (post)colonial archive.

He further warns us against an “easy” translation of the concept:

To translate it simply as just an African version of a number of familiar philosophies (eg. communitarianism, socialism, humanism) is to collapse the difference. This tension is not resolved by declaring that ‘ubuntu lies somewhere in the middle’ because it’s the other way around: whatever ubuntu may come to mean will be the result of negotiating the tension between exaggerated and collapsed difference, between a global demand to be understood/familiar and a local demand to remain specific (ibid, 370).

Instead of translating it, Praeg suggests ways of circumventing its definition, and “not to ask what it is, but rather ‘What are the conditions of its possibility?’” (ibid, 370). However, the discussion remains difficult “within the hegemonic, Northern epistemic power matrix which determines which constructions can be challenged, subverted, de-legitimised, ignored while still remaining or perhaps becoming recognizable as philosophy” (ibid, 377).

This brings us back to CIES and its yearly conferences – and themes. First, one should consider whether these general themes about “reinventing,” “reimagining,” and “revisioning” education really matter, or if they just are products of CIES for CIES members. In other words, are the consumers and producers of the discourse the same? As noted above, CIES members are not a homogenous group – and in this sense I believe these themes matter. In looking at the titles of presentations for CIES 2015, which we can assume is reflecting many of the patters of knowledge production in the field (at least from a North American viewpoint), it is clear that presenters come from very diverse epistemological and political contexts, and that one must at least hope that the “mingling” with people during the conference, and the reading of conference information, must to a certain extent challenge – or – reaffirm conference participants’ belief, as well as bringing them to consider new perspectives.

Second, it is interesting to see the emergence of the concept of Ubuntu while so much of Northern politics and philosophy are claiming the rights, privileges and duties of the individual: “African societies emerged as limited by a ‘tribal’ or ‘primitive’ logic of interdependence at the precise moment when the Western self was reconstituted in liberal-democratic terms as autonomous bearer of rights” (Praeg 2008, 379). Also, the concept of Ubuntu throws in sharp relief the functions of Wilson’s (1994) academic practitioner, and questions his or her “international activities.” In particular, it questions whether Northern-produced epistemologies may pose challenges or ethical dilemmas for education and development theories “exported” to the global South by the comparativist “expert;” bearer of “modern social science [which] embeds the viewpoints, perspectives and problems of metropolitan society, while presenting itself as universal” (Connell 2007, vii-viii). In particular, it raises the issues of knowledge production in comparative and international education; and especially that of the academic practitioner. Using the discourse of critical and indigenous methodologies, the extended concept of Ubuntu warns against research that is being translated as “probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” (Tuhiwai Smith 2012, 1). Instead it exhorts “that the social sciences and humanities become sites for critical conversations about democracy, race gender, class, nation-states, globalization, freedom and community” and that it is “concerned with moral discourse, with the development of sacred textualities” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008, 4). A discourse of Ubuntu is welcome to this search for alternative epistemologies, of this “Southern theory” (Connell 2007), insomuch as it precedes the individualism that we usually celebrate, and accentuate our togetherness:

Africa’s particularity does not consist in what it represents (interdependence) but in the time when it gets to re-present our interdependence to a world that has given up on reconciling our originary interdependence with the exigencies of real politics; a time in which trust in the political efficacy of forgiveness cannot but appear miraculous. In absolute terms, there is nothing African about an ontology of interdependence. We recognise and celebrate ubuntu because, through it, we recognize in ourselves the originary interdependence that precedes every declaration of independence (Praeg 2008, 380).

In all likelihood, the Ubuntu conference round will “just” be the Ubuntu round; and next year we will again gather over a new theme, probably related to CIES’s upcoming celebration of its 60th birthday. We will again be “reinventing” and “re-conceptualizing” (comparative) education for many years to come. Perhaps this is the very function of CIES conferences and the related conference themes: a yearly challenge – or reminder – or reaffirmation – of ideas and thoughts circulating among comparativists and academic practitioners from around the world.

Note: the Comparative Education Review is currently launching a call for papers for a special issue related to the theme of the conference: “Rethinking knowledge production and circulation in Comparative and International Education: Southern Theory, Postcolonial Perspectives and Alternative Epistemologies.” The guest editors will be Keita Takayama, Arathi Sriprakash, and Raewyn Connell (see full call for papers in CER Vol. 59(1), February 2015).


Bereday, George Z. F. 1958, “Editorial.” Comparative Education Review, Vol. 2(1).

CIES, 2015. “Past Annual Conferences and Locations.” Downloaded on 01/27/2015 from:

Connell, Raewyn. 2007. Southern Theory: The global dynamics of knowledge in social science. Cambridge, US: Polity Press.

Denzin, Norman K, & Yvonna S. Lincoln. 2008. “Preface.” In Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies. Eds. Denzin, N; Y. Lincoln; & L. Tuhiwai Smith 2008. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Johnson, William H. E., 1957. “The Comparative Education Society.” Comparative Education Review, Vol. 1(1).

Mundy, Karen, 2014. “CIES Annual Conference.” Downloaded on 01/27/2015 from:

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, Vol. 30(4).

Praeg, Leonhard, 2008. “An Answer to the Question: What is [ubuntu]?” South African Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 27(4).

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies, Second Edition. London: Zed Books.

Wilson, David N. 1994. “Comparative and International Education: Fraternal or Siamese Twins? A Preliminary Genealogy of Our Twin Fields.” Comparative Education Review, Vol. 38(4).

Wissehr, Cathy, Jim Concannon, Lloyd H.Barrow, 2011. “Looking Back at the Sputnik Era and Its Impact on Science Education.” School Science and Mathematics, Vol. 111(7).

Wolhuter, C. C., 2008. “Review of the Review: Constructing the identity of comparative education.” Research in Comparative and International Education, Vol 3(4).