The 4th quarter 2020 Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide was dedicated to education. Over the course of the thirteen weeks the studies covered a wide range of educational topics, almost all of which, given their context, appropriately centered around church and spirituality. In this essay, I wish to cast the education net a bit wider to highlight its most important role: liberty. Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India, expands on the notion that education is a precursor to freedom. She argues that “Education is a liberating force, and in our age it is also a democratizing force, cutting across the barriers of caste and class, smoothing out inequalities imposed by birth and other circumstances.”
This liberating force manifests, by necessity, as the unlocking of dormant potential within an individual, a reckoning arrived at mainly through the educational process. The individual thus liberated can turn his or her attention outward to the freedom needs of their community. This is a predictable sequence that has frequently been validated in oppressed communities throughout history. The case of colonial Africa is a poignant reminder of education’s liberating role.
Formal European colonial rule in Africa commenced after the signing of the 1885 Berlin Treaty, which ushered in the infamous Scramble for Africa (1884-1914). Colonial rule, intended to regulate European colonization and African trade, lasted “only” about 80 years, but the ill effects of this coordinated European grab are still with us. The treaty laid down, in a matter-of-fact way, that no European claims to any parts of Africa would be recognized if the claimant did not physically occupy the area. Before this treaty, which was signed by all the major colonial behemoths – Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Portugal – a European nation could claim “ownership” to an African land mass by merely building a small fort or castle on a strip of coastal area.
After the treaty, European nations would, in short order, militarize their invasions as proof of conquest. They would not content themselves with occupying small coastal areas, as was their previous practice, but would push deeper into the continent to claim their spoil. At the height of this pillage, every African country, Ethiopia and Liberia excepted, came under one European rule or another. And in every one of the occupied countries, the native economies, politics, culture, and later, education, would be restructured to serve the interests of their “mother countries.”
In the end, when a privileged few lord over the many, they make “mistakes.” And a key mistake made in the colonial African situation was the decision by administrators and overlords to extend education, patterned after the colonizing powers’ practices at home, to the locals. Soon a promising few from the emerging educated class would be groomed to “assist” the colonialists in the day-to-day management of the colonies. And as is concomitant with education, many, when given a little draught, yearned for more. And thus confirms Alexander Pope’s maxim: “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring. There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” So, many would stream to Britain, France, Belgium and other European capitals and the United States, to further their education.
Out of this crop emerged Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Obafemi Awolowo, Hastings Banda, Jomo Kenyatta and many others. They would champion the independence, first of their individual countries – Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria, Malawi and Kenya – and later assist other African countries to break their colonial shackles. This produced the African independence tsunami of the late 1950s and 1960s. And ultimately the total ridding of European colonial hegemony on the continent. While there were other contributing factors to decolonization in Africa, it is unimaginable that such speedy progress would have materialized without educated leadership.
The transformative power of education is hardly a matter of dispute. And yet, in certain religious circles, primarily among fundamentalists and ardent conservatives, there is an unhealthy suspicion, if not denigration, of higher learning. I recall one of my college professors who never tired of pointing out that Ellen White (EGW) had only a third-grade education, but God used her more powerfully than a hundred Ph. D holders. Translation? God does not need educated people to accomplish his goals. This same teacher frequently referenced an early EGW statement which suggested that it is a mistake to evangelize the “higher classes” (a euphemism for the highly educated). The full quote: “Our success will be in reaching common minds. Those who have talent and position are so exalted above the simplicity of the work, and so well satisfied with themselves, that they feel no need of the truth” – Testimonies 3:39 .
Years later, when I had no opportunity to brandish it in my professor’s face and seek a rebuttal, I came across another more nuanced EGW pronouncement written almost 20 years after the one quoted above: Mistakes have been made in not seeking to reach ministers and the higher classes with the truth. ... We have had altogether too much talk about coming down to the common mind. God wants men of talent and good minds, who can weigh arguments, men who will dig for the truth as for hid treasures. These men will be able to reach, not only the common, but the better classes. Such men will ever be students of the Bible, fully alive to the sacredness of the responsibilities resting upon them” – Testimonies 5:580-81 .
It is as though we committed to a certain kind of education in our beginnings. A little learning. Just enough to get by. But then the enterprise took off. Too well, some argue, because now the church operates fine accredited colleges and universities across the globe, each committed to varying degrees of academic excellence, making it difficult to perpetuate parochialism. That might explain why a frustrated General Conference President would anoint Weimar Institute as possessing the blueprint for Adventist education. Not Andrews or Loma Linda University but a small unaccredited college owned and operated by conservative Adventists, unaffiliated with the church. Liberal Arts Adventist college and university campuses are sometimes viewed by ardent conservatives as infused with the devil himself, since these institutions teach unorthodox material and don’t allow unverifiable proprietary knowledge to go unchallenged.
Some of our church leaders seem to simultaneously espouse two irreconcilable positions. First, a tepid but necessary pro-education stance in which they profess an amorphous belief in education. This is the stance by which our vast educational enterprise is predicated. But there is a second strand: an equally forceful anti-intellectual bias by some leaders who, ironically having availed themselves of the same academic training, cast aspersions on, or even repudiate the necessity of higher education.
But why? A simple reason some religious leaders are weary of higher education is the fear that educated believers tend to think more critically and then question received dogma when things don’t add up. Otherwise why attempt to disparage that which one has seen fit to attain? We have data spanning centuries in human history that affirm this reality, in both secular and religious realms, that the benefits of education far outweigh being without.
For those who remain suspicious of and question the value of advanced education in the faith community, I offer Paul’s example. He was not one of the twelve and lacked the privilege of Jesus’ companionship during his three and a half years of ministry. Paul didn’t even know Jesus. But after his Damascus encounter, Paul would become the chief expositor of what it means to be a Christian. The New Testament would be hollow indeed without Paul. Thirteen of its 27 books were written by or attributed to him. Paul was the first to write about the Jesus story, well before the gospel writings credited to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.
Without Paul, Christianity might have remained a largely Jewish sect, and likely would have withered on the vine in much the same way many Jewish sects of the era died. His notion of “justification by faith alone” stands as probably the most significant contribution to Christian thought of all time. It is not a stretch to wonder if there would even be a Christian Church, at least in the form we have now, without Paul. He not only expanded Christianity to include the marginalized gentiles, but also held his own among the elite philosophers at Mars Hill. Stack up the collective influence on Christianity of all 12 apostles, and they will still not measure up to Paul.
And what’s the difference?
Paul had more. The other apostles? Hardly any.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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