The ethos is religious, but it's not antiscience

December 23, 2005

Africa's Christian universities are a far cry from fundamentalist US ones, says Kevin Ward

Education has long been associated with religion in Africa. The term "reader" has often been used to describe both those who go to school and adherents of Islam and Christianity, "religions of the Book". In many parts of colonial Africa, Christian churches established the basic primary and secondary school system. Colonial governments provided the finance and inspection but did not attempt to set up an alternative state system.

In the 1960s, however, newly independent African states worried that religious rivalry and sectarianism might undermine their effort to establish national cohesion, so they took over direct control of schools.

Nevertheless, religious communities often retained a voice in the schools they had founded. A secular national schools system remains the norm throughout sub-Saharan Africa, though in some crisis-ridden states there have been pleas for churches to take back the schools that the government can no longer even pretend to fund or run effectively.

Tertiary education developed differently. Colonial governments were the major, often the sole, providers of universities. By the 1980s, rapid population growth and the multiplication of secondary schools created an overwhelming popular pressure to expand tertiary education in many parts of Africa. Unfortunately, states were being urged, if not compelled, by the international neoliberal ideology and coercive structural adjustment schemes to withdraw from many activities. In this environment, the provision of universal primary education was given priority over university education for the few.

University education was still considered essential for national development. But how was it to be afforded? State universities tried to increase capacity by withdrawing student grants, introducing fees and widening access. Many of these schemes reduced the quality of the education without really addressing the problem. Greatly increased student numbers meant oversized classes taught by lecturers who might be moonlighting to supplement their meagre wages.

As more and more states lost credibility, religious institutions began to step in. At first, marginal Protestant groups such as the Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostals opened what they called universities, especially in countries with liberal economies such as Kenya. There was less desire to follow this path in states such as Tanzania, where traditions of state direction of the economy remained vibrant.

Ministries of education everywhere were reluctant to renounce their monopoly of university education and initially refused to recognise the degrees of the religiously based universities. But as the pressures mounted, governments began to look with more favour on private enterprise in higher education. By the 1990s, interdenominational Evangelicals, traditional Protestants, Roman Catholics and Muslims were implementing ambitious plans to create universities. This was followed by a plethora of local community colleges, and institutions based on commercial rather than religious commitment. Recent contributors to university education are the new charismatic churches, such as the Benson Idahosa University in Nigeria.

One by one, governments have been forced to accept the inevitability of religious involvement in university education, if only because they are realistic about their own inability to satisfy demand.

The West, in the light of the academy's struggle to free itself from ecclesiastical control and dogmatism, is likely to greet such developments in Africa with scepticism. Despite the prevalence of mission statements in the British academy, any sign that learning might somehow be implicated with evangelism or missionary zeal can produce grave doubts and fears.

African sensibilities may be rather different. In Africa, religion has historically been the midwife of modernity rather than its opponent. There is no obvious contradiction between piety and learning; nor is religion seen as inhabiting a private sphere separate from the public world of education. Religious universities are confident in their claim to imprint a religious ethos on university life.

All students at Uganda Christian University are expected to do some core courses in the Bible and/or the foundations of the Christian faith. Islamic universities will usually have courses in Arabic and Islamic faith and practice. Students will be expected to abide by a fairly strict code of discipline. But with numbers growing so rapidly and with most students living off campus, it is doubtful whether it is possible to enforce such standards in a punitive way. Staff are more likely to be affected. Recently Uganda Christian University tried to insist that all staff (even non-academic employees) be married in church. However, this is difficult to enforce systematically because of the large number of part-time teachers hired from other institutions of higher education.

Many Christian universities began life as seminaries for clergy. But now most of their courses are geared to training for secular employment. The traditional strong religious involvement in education is expressed in the number of departments of education in the new universities. But the most popular courses tend to be in fields such as law, information technology and business studies. Although few "religious" universities have the resources to establish departments of science that require expensive technology, quite a number have faculties of social science. However, universities' rhetoric of public service may at times be at odds with the hard-nosed entrepreneurial instincts of many students, which may well help to explain the growing attraction of institutions founded by the new wave of African charismatic/Pentecostal churches, which are strongly business-oriented in their approach to life.

Apart from the fact that the newer religious universities are less likely to offer the traditional humanities and science curricula, there is little sense of a radically "anti-Enlightenment" approach to education. Amos Kasibante, the chaplain at Leicester University, used to work at Uganda's Makerere University. He says the Christian Union was more likely to be filled with science than humanities students, but he adds that even for scientists "the Bible is seen mostly as a source of moral truth and spiritual guidance" rather than as a document to direct the science curriculum.

An earlier generation might have experienced in the secular universities a positivist scientific outlook among burgeoning African academics, somewhat hostile to Christianity as a foreign religion. But this is not very evident in state campuses nowadays, where students are as likely to be deeply religious as at the newer "religious" universities. Kasibante thinks that fundamentalist condemnations of evolution, including the creationist theories of the American religious Right, have not yet gained any hold in African circles. This is not to say that they will not. But it is dangerous to read the attitudes of the American Christian Right into African Christianity.

Kevin Ward is senior lecturer in African religious studies in the department of theology and religious studies at Leeds University.

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