A historical accounting of African universities: Beyond Afropessimism

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dc.contributor.author Zeleza, Paul T
dc.date.accessioned 2015-12-10T05:36:31Z
dc.date.available 2015-12-10T05:36:31Z
dc.date.issued 2006
dc.identifier.citation Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe. "A historical accounting of African universities: Beyond Afropessimism." The Zeleza Post (2006). en_US
dc.identifier.uri http://erepo.usiu.ac.ke/11732/1683
dc.description.abstract Discourses about Africa continue to be infected by what we used to call in the 1980s and 1990s Afropessimism, the belief that Africa is irredeemably doomed to backwardness and chaos. Afropessimism embodies two tendencies – vilification of African experiences and valorization of Euro-American engagements with Africa, that Africa is incapable by itself of historical progress and that any progress evident there is the result of Euro-American interventions. Discourses of African higher education have not escaped this narrative. There are two widespread assumptions about university education in Africa: first that the Europeans introduced it, and second that it has declined since independence. Both are false. Higher education including universities long antedated the establishment of “western” style universities in the nineteenth century and the post-independence era was a period of unprecedented growth during which the bulk of contemporary Africa’s universities were established. As a historian profoundly committed to Africa’s development and social transformation, I believe history – a long historical perspective – is a powerful antidote to the fatalism often induced by the overwhelming flow of current events that Afropessimism turns into eternal trends. In this case, as an intellectual historian interested both in the history of ideas and of knowledge producing institutions, and one who is engaged in African and global debates about the future of higher education, the need for a proper understanding of Africa’s long and complicated history of tertiary education is imperative. I offer here brief reflections on the history and contemporary challenges of African universities. The origins of higher education in Africa including universities as communities of scholars and learning can be traced to three institutional traditions: first, the Alexandria Museum and Library, second, the early Christian monasteries, and third, the Islamic mosque universities. The Alexandria Museum and Library was established in the third century B.C. in Egypt. It grew to become the largest center of learning in the ancient world. The complex is estimated to have housed more than 200,000 volumes, and supported up to 5,000 scholars and students. Clearly, this was a large research institution, and many of the leading Egyptian and other African as well as Greek, Roman, and Jewish scholars of the ancient world studied or worked there at some point in their lives. The library gradually declined as buildings were destroyed by fire, its holdings looted in times of warfare, and scholars left due to political instability in the twilight years of the Roman empire. Alexandria left a rich legacy of scholarship covering a wide range of fields from mathematics and the sciences to philosophy and religion. It was also in Egypt, one of the earliest centers of Christianity in the world, that monasteries first developed in the third century A.D. Tens of thousands of Christians gathered in the monasteries in the desert not only to escape the exactions of Roman rule, but also for a life devoted to spiritual contemplation. The monasteries and the monastic orders that regulated them provided important spaces for reflection, writing, and learning. The idea and institution of monasteries spread to other parts of Africa,
dc.language.iso en en_US
dc.title A historical accounting of African universities: Beyond Afropessimism en_US
dc.type Article en_US

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