Emeritus Professor, Institute of Education, University of Ibadan-Nigeria

The humanistic philosophy espoused by Ubuntu is something shared by all primary societies. Our race towards ‘modernisation’ and a competitive economy approach to life has led to the progressive shedding of our original humane values and we have come to a stage in which scientific-technical-economic progress has not fully translated into human wellbeing and happiness. This is one strong reason for the contemporary paradigm shift to ‘sustainable human development’, a renewed emphasis in building in humane consideration in charting the future of humanity

Humanistic Education would be a viable route to building a bright new world that places the human condition above everything else. Africa is at the crossroads between its strictly humane (Ubuntu) roots and a world that places undue emphasis on that which is strictly scientific, technical, financial and economic. To enable Africa to stand firmly on its feet, promote sustainable human development for its populations, and become an equal partner with other regions of the world in a world that should be governed by an inclusive knowledge-innovation economy, a humanistic approach to Education would be the starting point. The effort required would involve addressing seven major issues that have not been taken into serious consideration in over fifty years of post-colonial education reform in the region. These issues entail:

  1. going beyond Education for All (EFA) to Education Above All (EAA)
  2. regaining the Education that Africa lost at the time it lost its sovereignty and dignity with events preceding, during, and the aftermaths of colonialisation
  3. promoting a tripartite curriculum that nurtures the total-person skills that are responsive to the demands of socio-economic productive life of the current century
  4. closely integrating educational development programmes into developments in every other socio-economic sector
  5. educating for all talents, for genuine inclusive educational opportunities
  6. restoring social recognition for teachers and teaching


Asked to list the three most important priorities of his administration, the leader of a great power was reported to have said: ‘Education, Education, and Education’.  When an African leader was asked the same question, he was reported to have said: ‘The Economy, the Economy, and The Economy’. 

In one case, Education was rightly seen as the driver of human development, while in the other case, the Economy was seen as the be all and end all. The role of the human being in moving the mountains of economics and ensuring individual and societal sustainable development is recognised in one case but not considered in the other. Nations that have developed Education as first-order priority (the priority of priorities) have tended to nurture human potentials and talents for creativity and innovation for continued regeneration of society (which is what human progress is all about). On the other hand, prioritising the strictly economic goals of GDP without the strictly human considerations would lead to a dead-end situation in which there would be neither economy nor progress.

The ‘Education above All paradigm restates the well-known fact that developing the human being to develop all other aspects of life is the way to go. It is a re-emphasis on the need to place Education (in all nations) at the very epicentre of sustainable human development. In practical terms, placing Education above everything else would involve concerted action on (a) promoting the enduring humane values of traditional Africa in wider society, and (b) investing more meaningfully on Education by channelling appropriate level of funding to inputs and processes that have positive multiplier effects on the system: infrastructure, teachers, instructional materials, etc.


Traditional African societies had their educational systems, and whatever the form that Education took, it met the requirements of social cohesiveness and regeneration of society. Above all, traditional African education had a lot in common with Education everywhere else, in that it had a philosophical underpinning, a socio-cultural foundation, a psychological intent, an organisational set up, and societally determined outcomes.

The philosophical underpinnings of African traditional forms of Education are directly linked with the community’s worldview.  First, there is the belief in a supreme being, as well as in an after-life. Thus, the earth is considered a mere market place while the true home is heaven. Second, the ultimate goal of our stay on earth is the good life, and failure to lead the good life is punishable by our forebears, to who we all return at death. Related to this is the belief that Nature (the Earth) has to be respected, and the Earth shall swallow up anyone who fails to respect Nature. Life and death are inseparable: the two constitute a continuum. Therefore, children are brought into the world to lead the good life and at old age return to their ancestors clean. Traditional educational systems, for this reason, place a priority on preparing children for the good life: morality, adherence to societal norms, group solidarity, etc.

Each generation makes it a bounding duty to transmit its cultural heritage to the next one. This inter-generational transmission of cultural heritage is in fact the primary meaning of Education. In traditional African societies, Culture was the cornerstone of education, and like in all other societies, the educated person was also the cultured person.

Table I: Organisational Set-Up for Traditional African Education

Stage of Life

Educational Goal

Place of Education

Agencies of Education

  1. Childhood

Primary Socialisation

The Home

The Extended family

The Community


All Older Relations

Elders in the Neighbourhood

The Age Grade

Community Based Organisations

  1. Adolescence

Life Skills Acquisition

THE COMMUNITY (all places of work, recreation, religious observance, etc.)

The Initiation Ground


Community Elders

The Age Grades

The Guilds

Secret Societies

Games and Sports Clubs

  1. Adulthood

Social and Organisational Skills Development


Community rulers and elders

Community Special Service Groups

Special Interest Groupings

The Guilds

As table 1 shows, the educational system is mapped out to fall in line with the development stages of life. Thus, children receive primary socialisation; adolescents consolidate this and add on life skills, while adults consolidate these two, and add on organisational and social skills. In doing this, special needs are taken care of, as communal life did not allow for exclusion. Even the gender perspective was not neglected. Girls and women received education: a common core socialisation in the early years of life, and gender-role-appropriate life skills in adolescence and adulthood.

To say that education in African traditional societies is largely informal amounts to telling only a part of the story. Telling the whole story requires that we emphasise the fact that formal, non-formal and informal approaches to education are not dichotomous entities. The three approaches are most of the time inseparable, as there is informal (or incidental) in the process of formal learning. So much formal learning also comes into non-formal learning. The society sets the goals, its normal and organisational patterns determine the mode, and its expectations of a cultured person are the yardstick for the outcomes of education. In principle, this is (or should be) the case in all human societies. Thus, Africa’s philosophical worldview and cultural heritage expect the following traits in the educated (or cultured) person.

  • Spirituality (and leading the good life in order to be accepted in the life hereafter),
  • Full integration into the community, by imbibing its cultural norms.
  • Acquisition of the life skills necessary for earning a living and contributing to societal life
  • Social and organisational skills, for interpersonal relations

The teaching-to-test strategies of current education practices involve a mechanical rush through syllabuses and curricula. Learning through exposure to live experiences is limited, the community has been progressively moving away from the school, and schooled Africans tend to be alienated from their cultural roots. As a result, the possibility of Education contributing to the self-regeneration of society is severely limited.


It has often been argued that governments in developing countries cannot cope with the huge demands of the education sector because of the ‘competing needs of other sectors. True as that assertion might be, it has failed to take account of the key role of education in making every other sector possible. The assertion also fails to take account of the potentials of these other sectors for promoting and sustaining a nation’s educational endeavours, as seen from the following examples:

  • Health: half of the business here is prevention, which takes the form of non-formal education…in addition, medical and health personnel are trained (formally educated) before certification and survive in their careers by making the best of opportunities for continuous professional and lifelong learning…..above all, effective health services do contribute to effective education services, as healthy children learn better 
  • Agriculture: professionals in the field of agriculture have to be educated through the formal and non-formal educational system, while spreading the results of research and development through agricultural extension services is essentially an educational undertaking
  • Infrastructure: infrastructural development is undertaken by professionals educated through the educational system……the use of infrastructure requires public sensitization (a form of education), while good infrastructure (roads, school buildings, etc.) contributes to increasing access to education
  • Housing: the development of this sector also requires educated brainpower (products of the educational system), and good housing enhances the opportunities for meaningful learning, as the home becomes better able to support the school, and as the home becomes a more effective locale for learning
  • Water resources: these are also developed and maintained by educated brainpower, while good water contributes to the maintenance of good personal and environmental health, in addition to contributing to enhancing agricultural productivity and food security – factors that can enhance learning in children and adults
  • Environment: the threat to the global and local environment is essentially an education issue, as promoting environmental sustainability involves awareness raising, value orientation, and practical skills (for environmental preservation), and these are all well-known goals of education
  • Culture: Culture and Education are indeed two sides of the same coin, as the prime meaning of education is the transmission of culture. In fact, most of the reform efforts on educational reforms in Africa have centred around bringing culture forcefully back into education
  • Industries: These are often vaunted as one of the visible signs of development. Their development depends largely on the development of the human mind and human technical skills, acquired through the educational system. In addition, industries are not just static structures; they also have a strong human and social dimension in the context of which continuous learning (that is, industries functioning as ‘learning organisations’) is the only means of ensuring survival in a competitive economic environment. Above all, educational materials (books, laboratory materials, ICT, etc.) are products of industries and the quality of these products has a significant impact on the quality of education

The sad fact has been that ‘other sectors’ have tended to deprive education of resources because the world has not taken due account of the role of education (in its holistic and comprehensive sense) in ensuring the sustainability of every other sector of a modern economy. The education sector has also not sufficiently involved these ‘other sectors’ in developing its policies and programmes and has therefore been losing the opportunity of a reaching-out approach that could have ensured greater responsiveness of education to the demands of the world out there’.


Education, as promoted by most formal institutions, tends to be one-sided in that they emphasise the acquisition of hard, easy to quantify and measure skills. This is seen in the content and orientation of conventional subject disciplines and the demands made on students in the course of formal examinations and certification.

Emphasising the hard skills could lead to the development of cognitive intelligence, the conventional mark of the educated person. However, going from mere qualifications to the more worthwhile concept of ‘personal qualities’, requires the development of other ‘intelligences’. Emotional intelligence, inculcated through the soft skills, is needed to develop that which is human in us. In addition, Imaginative Intelligence (inculcated through go-getting skills) is needed to help the student think beyond the immediate, explore and apply ideas to create something new.

Table 2 below outlines the major components of these three intelligences. They constitute the humane skills that Education would have to develop in students who can help to create a more humane future in which the head would be acting in concert with the heart and the hands. For this to happen there has to be more bridge-building among various areas of knowledge. Teaching would have to be more responsive to learners’ needs, while learning has to become fun. Individual subject disciplines could remain, but the goal of teaching and learning them must shift from mere subject mastery to personality development and self-actualisation for contribution to societal wellbeing.

Table 2: A Tripartite Life Skills Set for A Total-Person Education




Cognitive Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence

Imaginative Intelligence

  • Self- Expression Skills

(Oral, written, etc.)

  • Character formation skills

(for strengthening the total person)

  • Creative thinking skills (thinking out of the box)
  • Logical Reasoning Skills

(for analysis and problem solving)

  • Intra-personal Skills

(for the individual to understand his/her personal strengths and weaknesses, as well as possibilities/potentialities)

  • Ideational fluency skills (proclivity in generating novel ideas)
  • Computational Skills

(for mathematical reasoning)

  • Inter-personal skills

(for understanding and ‘teaming’ with others)

  • Opportunity-seizing skills (perceptivity in making the best of opportunities)
  • Design/Manipulative Skills

(for purely technical reasoning and action)

  • Lifelong learning Skills

(knowledge-seeking skills)

  • Experiential learning skills (making the best use of the lessons of experience; ever working on new ideas)
  • Conceptual Skills

(for generating ideas and translating them into ‘action maps’)

  • Perseverance Skills

(for seeing ideas and projects through to fruition)

  • Idea-to-product (or ideas conversion) skills (Ease and passion for turning ideas into products and services skills, ability to apply head-hands-heart


As figure one below shows, there is a generic talent (common to all human intellectual expressions), while every human being tends to be specifically talented in specific areas. There are at the same time exceptional cases of multiple-talented individuals. Most education programmes tend to have a narrow focus in that they address the purely intellectual type of talent.

A future, more humane world, would promote inclusive education in the most comprehensive sense of the term. Persons of all ages in all locations, in all imaginable life conditions should have unfettered access to Education. What is more, persons exhibiting a wide variety of not-strictly-intellectual talents should not be excluded from Education. Every talent would have to be identified, nurtured and employed in the service of society, combining with all other talents to create and serve a more humane world.

Africa is in fact in dire need of an education policy re-thinking that caters for all talents. Leadership and community service talents that helped traditional society to weather through difficult times were not emphasized in what became known as ‘western education’. The same is true of talents that emphasize using the hands. All of these would have to be consciously promoted in formal and non-formal forms of Education in the future to nurture humane, socially-responsive citizens.

Fig. 1: A Variety of Human Talents that Education Should Address

Education for All implies that ‘All’ must benefit, and this should mean carrying all talents on board. The prevailing practice is of a restrictive curriculum that gives prominence to supposedly intellectual talents. What we have failed to recognise is that intellectual talents take a variety of forms, each of which deserves to be cultivated through Education. Our failure to recognise this fact is a major explanation for poor demand for formal education in some segments of society. This is particularly relevant to the ‘boy drop-out syndrome’ in some parts of Southern Nigeria. It is also relevant to the mass failure phenomenon in the overall examination-dominated education system.

These talents are manifested everywhere in Society, and as table three shows, every one of these talents is of special Importance to society and is of practical utility to nation building. The middle column of the table outlines the behavioural manifestations of each type of talents and these are all traits that most societies in Africa do appreciate. Column three shows that the talents do have some measure of social utility. Therefore, if they are not diligently promoted through Education, society would be losing out on various dimensions of development. On way of promoting inclusion by educating for all talents is to evolve education policies that lay emphasis on developing all possible varieties of talents through widening the scope of educational provisions. These would take such forms as

Table 3: Manifestations and Social Utility of the Various Talents




  1. Conceptual/Ideational
  • good at generating ideas
  • shines with abstract thinking
  • scientifically inclined
  • human progress has been driven largely by ideas
  1. Design/Construction
  • skilled in turning abstract constructs to concrete technical and social tools
  • enjoy refining and remoulding
  • inventions, designing and re-designing have always contributed to changing the world
  1. Manipulative
  • delight in handling of tools and gadgets
  • adept in using the hands
  • human hands have always helped in harnessing and transforming the works of nature
  1. Expressive
  • skilled in verbal communication
  • known for persuasive skills
  • public relations expertise
  • outstanding linguistic facility
  • language distinguishes Human kind from all other animals
  • language is our tool for logical thinking, social communication and problem-solving
  1. Socio-centric
  • out-going/extroverted
  • crowd-loving/crowd-pulling
  • never acting alone
  • Man and women are social beings
  • Team spirit the in-thing in today’s world of work
  1. Organisational
  • order-prone
  • always ensuring that things work according to plan/that things fit into a mould
  • order is said to be the first law in heaven
  • management often makes the difference in human affairs
  1. Contemplative
  • Introverted and engaged in deep and critical thinking
  • able to influence by thinking out of the box
  • out-of-the-box thinking is key to discoveries and inventions
  • Creativity helps competitiveness in today’s knowledge economy
  1. Quantitative
  • At home with figures, shapes and quantities
  • Communicates readily in graphic terms
  • Quantitative reasoning illuminates analytical thought and aids analysis and problem-solving
  1. Artistic
  • Enhanced sensibility to creative endeavours in all forms
  • ART-in all its forms-enliven the soft (human) side of human beings
  • ART-its enjoyment and appreciation-brings us closer to the beauty of nature

1.         Due emphasis to non-academic activities in schools (drama, physical activities, creative arts, music, manipulative activities, etc.). These do not necessarily constitute subjects on the school time-table; they are more frequently used as strategies for teaching and learning.

2.         Provision of mechanisms for identifying the special talents of every learner.

3.         Provision of ‘special teachers’ whose task is to cater for the unique talents of every learner.

4.         Provision of out -of-class learning activities centered around clubs and societies, where children can exercise their various talents.

5          Giving appropriate reinforcement to the exercise of special talents.

6.         Ensuring that every child engages in out -of-class learning activities, to ensure that no potential talent is denied opportunity for expression.

7.         Not encouraging early and narrow specialization in subject choice among students.


Creative teachers are usually also the commendable ones, in that they ensure quality learning in students, and education for all can only be realised in a condition of ‘all our people learning’. Quality learning is a lot more than the restrictive term of acquiring knowledge and information. It encompasses the more humanistic dimensions of life-coping and life-long/life-wide learning competences, as outlined in table 4. Cognitive learning is currently well-prized in schools. The schools of the future must however extend the scope of learning competences to include coping with the ever changing demands of life and the ability for continuous self-improvement.

 Table 4: Manifestations of Quality Learning

Cognitive Learning

Life-coping skills

Lifelong/Life-wide Learning Skills

  • Critical/Analytical/logical thinking-reasoning
  • communicative competence in language
  • broad general knowledge
  • conceptual  prowess
  • quantitative/graphical literacy

  • Intra-personal awareness
  • Inter-personal propensity
  • street/social sense
  • positive self-concept
  • ICT versatility
  • spirit of enquiry
  • propensity for knowledge-information search
  • capacity for self-directed learning
  • burning thirst for continuous self-improvement

Present-day over-reliance on cognitive learning merely addresses the issue of student success. What has not been given due attention is the fact that one can succeed in examinations and still remain an unsuccessful learner. Examination success is not always educational success, and one of the greatest challenges to educational systems is to develop assessment methodologies that bring examination success closer to educational success

The teacher of the future, who is expected to nurture the talents and values of humanistic education, would need a lot more than Intellectual knowledge and pedagogical skills. Teachers would have to be persons who can empathize with students, and to be successful in empathizing with learners, motivating them and bringing about the best in them and to enhance the teacher’s social acceptance, additional skills of the ‘soft’ type are required. These are:

  1. Love of learning and knowledge – an important trait for persons in the frontline of promoting learning, the knowledge profession
  2. Love of children – the work of every teacher centres on facilitating learner development; thus love of learning should be mainly for the interest of learners
  3. An eye (as well as an ear) for community signals – the ability to follow the evolution of society as a means to ensuring that school work derives from societal dictates as much as possible
  4. Grooming (appearance, clothing, speech, interpersonal relations etc.) – a means by which the teacher teaches by personal example
  5. Gender sensitivity – with particular emphasis on ability to remove obstacles to the full participation of girls in schooling
  6. Acceptance of differences (racial, ethnic, gender, religious, political/ideological, etc.) – implying the avoidance of prejudice and stereotyping
  7. Team play, as school work is team activity among teachers, while helping the child to grow involves team work with parents and communities
  8. Professionalism –familiarity with education policy, curricula, examination requirements, commitment to continued professional development, maintenance of high standards, etc.
  9. Role models for integrity, morality, work habits, etc.
  10. Key emotional intelligence competences – self-control, patience, temperance, empathy, etc.

The following true life story is very illustrative of societal perceptions of Teachers and Teaching. The effect of such perceptions on Education can best be imagined than described. The occasion is one in which a family has gone with its son (who happened to be a Teacher) to the prospective in-law family to ask for the hands of their daughter in marriage. A most revealing interaction takes place in the process, as presented in box one.


  • Suitor’s family spokesman: A-salama-leikun, my people. May I introduce my young man, Ahmadu Tijani. Stand and be seen, Tijani
  • Tijani (Standing): A-salama-leikun, my elders
  • Spokesman : As you are well aware, we have come to ask for the hands of your daughter, Amina, in marriage
  • Amina’s Father:  La-kuli-lai! Tijani has grown so big! Looks every inch like his grandfather. What does he do for a living?
  • Tijani (timidly) I teach at Government Secondary School, Azare.
  • Amina’s Father: Huuum! Well, you are from a good family. I’ll give you my daughter, but….LISTEN CAREFULLY

Promise me that you’ll look for a job!


The conversation illustrates a major looming threat to Teachers, Teaching and Education. It shows the extent to which some members of society see Teaching as unbefitting, a state of affairs with serious negative repercussions on Education. Restoring the glory of Teaching and social respect for teachers in Africa (to the level that existed in pre-colonial and colonial times), would require a lot more than improved salaries. Society has to imbibe the philosophy of @Education above All’ and its corollary that educators are needed to make Education happen.


This discussion, drawing from the author’s experience in promoting Education in Africa, has drawn attention to issues that have not received adequate attention in over fifty years of educational reform efforts in Africa. Education has always been with Africa as every human society engages in systematic trans-generational transmission of cultural heritage. Africa’s contact with a wider world has led to a near total neglect of conservation with an undue emphasis on transformation. The latter goal has been difficult to attain for two main reasons. First, transformation was not built on the solid foundation that traditional cultural values would have laid. Second, there have been shifting goal posts on the transformation plane, as modern life has been characterized by rapid changes.

The major challenge has been that of identifying the directions of reforms. Past efforts have emphasized widening access, enhancing relevance and quality and improving management, efficiency and funding. These desirable steps can yield the desired outcomes if the process can ensure sustainable human development. This can be done if humanistic values become the guiding philosophy and the directive principles of Education. This paper has outlined a framework for bringing the needed humanistic values to the forefront of future educational development in the African region. We hope to benefit from other regional perspectives to help in developing a global strategy in response to a global challenge.