Scientific Illiteracy and the Education System in Africa
By Takudzwa Mazwienduna in Cornelius Press
The typical African classroom has a devout Christian or Muslim teacher who gives disclaimers when the subject matter contradicts his or her private beliefs. Religious studies are usually an extension of Sunday school and student assemblies are like religious sermons; even in government schools! It is very rare to come across a biology class that teaches evolution to be a fact or a physics class that doesn’t ridicule the big bang despite using it in the context of the subject matter. As a result, African students are indifferent about science except a few who get interested and become Ben Carson — like scientists.
Research from the University of Cape Town (2014) has revealed that scientific literacy is the lowest in Africa. This stems from the dishonesty which the subject is handled with in most schools. The scientific method is also not embraced with the teaching methodology widely practiced throughout the continent. Students are taught what to think and not how to. The average African student crams inorder to pass an examination instead of studying for it. The foundation for scientific education is generally flawed and this is the main reason.
Another striking hinderance to scientific literacy in Africa is the disregard for fact checking , both in social and academic circles. Populist sentiments continue to inspire a lot of Africans given their history of oppression from imperialists. These populist movements come with falsehoods that compromise knowledge, especially regarding science. The average African who has come across evolution for instance brushes it off as a racist concept fabricated by Europeans to classify them as less evolved beings (which is not true). Even reputable academics in Africa confuse Social Darwinism with the theory of evolution … it is the default misconception you get when you bring the subject up. Most black empowerment fanatics also brush off science claiming African cultural heritage had better scientific breakthroughs. They brush off crucial scientific breakthroughs like Sir Isaac Newton and how his work led to the industrial revolution simply because he was white. Tell an ignorant self conscious African about Newton’s Principia and they will come up with counter-pseudo narratives to discredit the character of Sir Isaac Newton. You will hear rants like, “How about Imhotep? They knew about all that gravity stuff in ancient Egypt! Newton just stole old black ideas and put his name on it!” You will probably be labeled a self loathing white supremacy apologist for acknowledging Sir Isaac Newton’s contributions to modern science.
Lack of scientific research and innovation also adds to the list. This is mainly a resource problem. Most African countries are really poor and they cannot prioritize their restricted budget on scientific research and facilities. There is no general interest in science because of this. The few labs you find in school or university have limited resources and have the sole purpose of demonstrating a few old experiments for students to watch and memorize to pass examinations.
Efforts have been made to reform the education system in Africa inorder to improve this unfortunate reality. Almost in all the cases this has happened , hardcore resistance came from the religious community. A lot of Christian sects like the Mt Zion church in Zambia and Zimbabwe for instance encouraged congregants to take their children out of school for instance when the US embassy under the Obama administration donated science books and materials into schools. The progressive former minister of primary and education in Zimbabwe Lazarus Dokora faced a lot of resistance when he advocated to reform the curriculum. Opposition leaders even declared that he inform the parliament if he is a Christian.
There are however a few success stories with regards to reforms in the African education system. South Africa has successfully banned religion in school and facilitated for a progressive secular learning environment. Various groups of progressive people have been volunteering to start radio programs in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ghana aiding the public understanding of science. A lot more should however be done if Africa is to harness its potential for scientific innovation and progress.