African philosophy and the notion of Ubuntu

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In this chapter I provide a review of some of the literature on which I shall draw to support the arguments I advance in the study. Perhaps I should preface this introduction with brief remarks on conceptions and purposes of a literature review. In her recently published book Conducting Research Literature Reviews, Arlene Fink (2014:3) argues that “a research literature review is a systematic, explicit, and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work produced by researchers, scholars, and practitioners”. For Fink (2014:77), by definition, a literature review should be “based on an analysis of the original studies”, given that “original studies allow the reviewer to report”. The reason for this is that “a research review bases its conclusions on the original work of scholars and researchers. Focusing on high quality original research rather than on interpretations of the findings is the only guarantee you have that the results of the review will be under your supervision and accurate” (Fink, 2014:3).
In the same vein, in his book Doing a Literature Review: Releasing Social Science Research Imagination, Hart (2002:13) defines a literature review as “the selection of available documents (both published and unpublished) on the topic, which contain information, ideas, data and evidence written from a particular standpoint to fulfil certain aims or express certain views on the nature of the topic and how it is to be investigated, and the effective evaluation of these documents in relation to the research being proposed”. Hart (2002:27) contends that the purposes of a literature review are, among others:

  • To assist the researcher to distinguish what has been done from what needs to be done;
  • To discover important variables relevant to the topic; To synthesise and gain a new perspective;
  • To identify relationships between ideas and practice;
  • To establish the context of the topic or problem; To rationalise the significance of the problem;
  • To enhance the researcher’s acquisition of the subject vocabulary; To enable the researcher to understand the structure of the subject;
  • To assist the researcher to identify the main methodologies and research techniques that should been used; and
  • To place the research in a historical context and to highlight familiarity with state-of-the-art developments in the chosen field of study.

Rudolph (2009:2) adds another, equally important purpose of a literature review, and that is, “it provides a framework for relating new findings to previous findings in the discussion section of a dissertation. Without establishing the state of the previous research, it is impossible to establish how the new research advances the previous research”. Coming back to Hart (2002:27-28), it is his view that the above purposes of a literature review should not be seen as ranked in order of importance. This is because no other purpose is of greater significance than others. Instead, they are all equally important. Hart (2002:28) argues that at the very basic level “a thesis that duplicates what has already been done is of very little use and is a waste of resources”. Knowing who is doing what, and where they are doing it enables the researcher to evaluate the relevance of their research. But how long should a literature review be? For Berg (2001: 275), “the basic rule of thumb in writing literature reviews is to keep them long enough to cover the area, but short enough to remain interesting”.
This chapter is organised in five sections. In section one I briefly review the literature in philosophy of education that has influenced my views in the past 30 or so years and has a (in)direct bearing on this study. These include, but are not limited to the work of Richard Stanley Peters and his associates at the Institute of Education, University of London – Paul Hirst, John White, Patricia White, Graham Haydon, Richard Pring and R. F. Dearden. At the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Johannesburg, where I studied for my Master’s degree in the mid-1980s the work of Wally Morrow and Penny Enslin influenced me immensely. A common feature that these scholars have is that they are both critical and analytically philosophical in their engagement with educational issues. My close association and workingwith some of relations with Morrow and Enslin in the late 1980s at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and with Hirst, Haydon, John and Patricia White in the late 1990s at the Institute of Education (IoE), University of London afforded my the opportunity to acquire and internalise the skills of critical and philosophical analysis of educational issues as well. The Wednesday afternoon philosophy of education seminars at the IoE afforded me an invaluable opportunity to participate and interact in high level sessions and discussions with other philosophy of education scholars such as, for instance, Richard Pring from Cambridge University, Eamonn Callan from Stanford University, and to learn how they present their arguments and defend their positions. In section two I review the literature in political philosophy. This review is necessary because political philosophy also encompasse the notions liberalism, which is the one of the foci of this study. Reviewing the literature on political philosophy will allow me to touch on ‘political representation’ and ‘the role of women’ in the traditional African polity. In section three I review the literature in African Philosophy and Ubuntu. In section four I explore the literature on education. South Africa is a liberal democracy that is heavily steeped in African traditions and cultures. Can the two be reconciled or amalgamated? In the final section I provide some concluding remarks. I now turn to selected literature on philosophy of education.

Philosophy of Education

As indicated above the work of R. S. Peters on philosophy of education is among those that left a lasting influence on my ability to engage in philosophical analysis of educational issues. It is no coincidence that Peters’ work continues to have an enduring and powerful influence on contemporary philosophers of education. Some have credited Peters with establishing “a secure role for philosophy of education in the professional preparation of critical and reflective practising teachers” (Carr, 1994). While others have credited him with founding the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PESGB) and its official journal, the Journal of Philosophy of Education, which he edited for many years (Cooper, 1986). Peters (1980:2) believed that philosophy of education “draws on such established branches of philosophy and brings them together in ways which are relevant to educational issues. In this respect it is very much like political philosophy”. He argued that in tackling “issues such as the rights of parents and children, punishment in schools, the freedom of the child, and the authority of the teacher, it is possible to draw on and develop work done by philosophers on ‘rights’, ‘punishment’, ‘freedom’, and ‘authority’” (Peters, 1980:2). Peters was convinced that “philosophical work in other fields such as political philosophy, ethics, and the philosophy of mind had to be applied appropriately to educational issues, not in a mechanical way, but in a way that acknowledged the unique qualities of the educational context” (Katz, 2010:98).
Peters’ inaugural lecture, “Education as initiation”, which he delivered at the Institute of Education, University of London on 9th December 1963, as well as his seminal book Ethics and Education (1966) are the most sought after sources for philosophising about education. In subsequent publications, he raised critical philosophical questions on ‘the concept of education’; ‘the aims of education’; ‘conceptions of knowledge (epistemology)’, and ‘whether some forms of knowledge are more worthwhile teaching than others’ (Peters, 2010, 1981, 1980, 1973)? He argued that ‘education as initiation’ “consists in initiating others into activities, modes of conduct and thought which have standards written into them by reference to which it is possible to act, think, and feel with varying degrees of skill, relevance and taste” (Peters, 1973:102). Most importantly, he challenged educators’ taken-for-granted assumptions about the perceived goodness of education and ‘notions of knowledge’. He was concerned that “in exploring the concept of education, a territory is being entered where there are few signposts” (Peters, 2010:1). For instance, philosophically, there are disputes between rival proposals about what the ‘aims of education’ are. Some say that the aim of education is to prepare children for their future occupations; others say that the aim of education is growth; still some say that the aim of education is the transmission of culture; while others say that the aim of education is to preserve the status quo in society, or to contribute to a better society in the future (Morrow, 1989). These disparate views are not unusual. The word ‘aim’ “belongs to the same family of concepts as does ‘purpose’; so also do ‘intention’ and ‘motive’. They are all conceptually connected with actions and activities; but there are subtle differences between them in the ways in which they are so connected” (Peters, 1981:12).
Peters’ deepest worry was that the educational philosophy which was taught in the context of professional preparation “had been little more an uncritical survey of the doctrines of great past educators (Plato, Rousseau, Arnold, Dewey) – and that professionals in both training and practice were ill-equipped with the analytical tools necessary for the critical appraisal of those modern educational theories and policy initiatives with which they were required to come to grips” (Carr, 1998:181). This observation has lately been made by Egan (2001; 1992). Egan argues that the dominant concept of education in most Western countries draws on Durkheim’s socialisation; Plato’s academic idea; and Rousseau’s developmental idea. However, when the three ideas are merged they yield a radically incoherent concept of education that is characterised by conceptual discordance. For instance, Durkheim’s main goal was to socialise learners and homogenise them; to make them alike in important ways. Plato’s Socratic pedagogy aimed to make students sceptical of prevailing norms and values: to develop a questioning mind-set. While Rousseau’s approach emphasised attention to individual differences, to individuals’ stages of development, learning styles and forms of motivation.
Peters’ philosophical insights have encouraged me to develop a philosophically questioning mind-set about the veracity of South Africa’s education policy. I have debated educational issues in South Africa in articles in which I shallenge some of the taken-for-granted policy assumptions. For instance, in the article titled “The illusion of ‘Education for All’ in South Africa”, which appears in Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, (2014b), volume 116, I rebut the rhetoric about the country’s capacity to attain the Millenium Development Goals in education. In the article titled “South Africa’s education has promises to keep but miles to go”, which appears in Phi Delta Kappan, (2013d), volume 94, number 6, I highlight some of the challenges of access to education with respect to some of the most rural and disadvantaged communities in South Africa. In the article titled The challenges of university teaching in the era of managerialism”, which appears in Africa Education Review, (2008), volume 5, number 2, I grapple with the critical value of higher education at the time when higher education has become shackled to marketisation, neo-liberal values and state-sponsored conceptions of knowing. In the article titled, “Why Students leave: the problem of high university dropout rates”, which appears in HSRC Review, (2007), volume 5, number 3, I report on a study I conducted for the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) on student pathways and university dropout; in a co-authored article with Kingston Nyamapfene titled, “Problems of learning among first year students in South African universities”, which appears in South African Journal of Higher Education, (1995) volume 9, number 1, we reported on the study we conducted on the impact of student under-preparedness for university teaching and learning.
My own initiation into philosophy of education at Wits University was predicated on the requirement to read, among others, Plato’s (1985) book entitled, The Republic. This was premised on the assumption that the logical structure of Plato’s educational proposals is not only essential for novice philosophers of education, but that it would equip novice philosophers of education with the requisite philosophical skills to be able to deal with the challenges they might face in the world of educational practice. The Republic presents a logical and coherent pedagogical package admired by most philosophers of education. This is because Plato’s educational proposals follow “from a combination of value-judgements and assumptions about human nature”. They seem perfectly exemplary in structure because Plato had “a worked-out theory of knowledge, a worked-out ethical theory and a worked-out theory of human nature” (Peters, 1981:4). As Peters (1981:5) points out, for Plato, “the problem of education is to produce people in whom reason is properly developed, who care about the objects of the theoretical life, who are not side-tracked by subjectivism, who know fully what they want, and who have the strength of character to carry it through”. Plato referred to such a calibre of people as ‘philosopher-kings’. In The Republic he posits that only those who possess the knowledge of ideas are qualified to make authoritative public statements about notions of the good life and to influence society’s conceptions of education and governance. Plato (1985:263) was convinced that the ideal, well-ordered and disciplined society in true Spartan tradition would “never grow into a reality or see the light of day…till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands”.
Hare (1982) notes that on this premise if the good life is to be lived, society’s institutions would have to be structured in such a way as to further the education of philosopher-kings. We should be a little introspective though not to presume that Plato was conferring unfettered wisdom and unregulated power on ‘philosopher-kings’. Because that is a recipe for all sorts of vices that can be attributed to bad governance authoritarianism, lack of accountability, disregard for the rule of law, corruption, a sense entitlement and political impunity. I think Miller (2003:13) is spot-on in his observation that “political philosophy does not involve endowing philosophers with a special kind of knowledge not available to other human beings”. The reason for this is that philosophers “think and reason in much the same way as everyone else, but they do so more critically and more systematically. They take less for granted: they ask whether our beliefs are consistent with one another, whether they are supported by evidence”. I will come back to Miller in more detail in the section on political philosophy below where I touch on some of his publications on the discipline.
One of the most important lessons I have learned as I developed a deeper grasp of philosophy of education is to avoid reading any philosophical piece hastily and refrain from making premature inferences. In “Was Plato nearly right about education?” Peters was sceptical of Plato’s central assumptions about education. He wanted to show that even the seemingly flawless and generally appealing educational proposals such as Plato’s will have some kind of flaws when their philosophical premises are tossed around and recast, along the lines of Karl Popper’s ‘principle of falsification’.2 Peters (1981:12-13) noted that Plato was fascinated by Geometry’s capacity for certainty. There is no room for normal human bias and fallibility in Geometry. Instead Geometry provides “the basic understanding of the structure of the world”, as well as “some kind of certainty about moral issues”. But this is exactly where Peters found a flaw in some aspects of Plato’s educational proposals, especially with respect to moral issues. Moral issues are not mathematical theorems. They do not follow a linear predetermined trajectory. For instance, a mathematical formula such as: ‘if x then y’ cannot fully explain why someone acted in a particular way and not the other. This is because such a formula cannot offer a deeper understanding of things like ‘values’, ‘emotions’, ‘feelings’ or ‘aspirations’. And yet these are central to how people live their lives and make important choices and decisions every day. Peters (1981:13) made a case for the “stress on criticism and on humility, on the possibility of error, and on the co-operative nature of reason”, things that are not reducible, as it were, to Geometrical specificity or precision. He argued that “the political institutions in which reason is immanent must be fostered”. He insisted that “it is democracy, not meritocracy, which is the articulation of reason in its social form”, because “democracy at the very least involves ‘parlement’ or discussion in the making of public decisions”.


1.1 Background to the study
1.2 Problem Statement
1.3 Research questions
1.4 Aim of the study
1.5 Justification of the study
1.6 Research methods
1.7 Consideration of research ethics
1.8 Chapter outline
1.9 Conclusion
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Philosophy of education
2.3 Political philosophy
2.4 African philosophy and the notion of Ubuntu
2.5 Conceptions of education in South Africa
2.6 Conclusion
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Research design
3.3 Research approach
3.4 Conclusion
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Basic principles of liberalism
4.3 Contestations around liberalism in South Africa
4.4 The Marxist-Leninist challenge of liberalism in South Africa
4.5 Conclusion
5.1 Introduction: demarcation of ubuntu
5.2 Criticism of Ubuntu
5.3 Ubuntu as a moral theory and public policy
5.4 Ubuntu as an educational value in South Africa
5.5 Conclusion
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Conceptualising tradition and modernity
6.3 Traditional African societies and authoritarianism
6.4 Conceptualising the notion of authoritarianism
6.5 The social and political fabric of traditional African societies
6.6. The notion of representation
6.7 Conclusion
7.1 Introduction
7.2 Liberal education
7.3 African traditional education
7.4 A philosophy of education for an African liberal democracy
7.5 Conclusion
8.1 Introduction
8.2 Key arguments and emergent trends
8.3 Proposals for classroom practice
8.4 Areas for further research
8.5 Conclusion


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