The Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda and Education in Ethiopia
October 6, 2007

The struggle of a few enlightened individuals from Ethiopia who studied closely the ancient civilization of the Kush people, how it declined, and the need for Ethiopian Renaissance, it appears that it is bearing fruit and gaining momentum as Ethiopia welcomes and enters what is now dubbed the Ethiopian New Millennium. In his speech at the Millennium celebrations on September 12, 2007, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister has called for Ethiopian Renaissance. Even though the current Ethiopian government’s track record on human rights is in serious questions, the fact that the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda is being taken up officially by the highest level of the Ethiopian government may be an indication that the importance of this agenda is being understood well. Seen against its standing constitution that was written only about a decade ago that allowed the legitimate quest for political decentralization to go up to disintegration, picking up the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda by the Ethiopian government shows a fundamental shift from the political propensity it has shown in the recent past.

What may be more important is the fact that those who are calling for the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda cut across the spectrum of political grouping of Ethiopia. What remain to be seen are a common understanding of the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda by all those who are calling for it and working for it irrespective of differences of political opinions. With concerted efforts by all concerned parties, along with the momentum of reported current economic growth in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda is bound to make a difference in the political, economic, and security situation of the country and the region.

At the same time, the educational system in Ethiopia is going to be the main foundation of the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda. Some of the proponents of this agenda have already identified past educational practices of Ethiopia as one of the sources of disconnection between the present day Ethiopian intellectuals and ancient Ethiopian civilization.

Before the introduction of classroom education in Ethiopia, which is itself a product of Europe’s Renaissance that was started several centuries ago, Ethiopia’s education system followed cultural practices at such places as Galma, Gadam, and so on. Orally transmitted knowledge from parents to children have helped transfer ancient knowledge through the generations that we can say that we have two camps of intellectuals in Ethiopia. These are those who went to formal classroom education over the last several decades and those that have gained the knowledge through oral education.

What makes the contrast between the two groups is the fact that those who got formal education or were exposed to formal education put Ethiopia and the people through tumultuous political journey in the last several decades whereas those who have not gained such education may not have caused a fraction of the turmoil of the former group among the general populace.

It is true that the formally educated group has learned how to read and write. However, there is more to education than learning and writing. Learning, understanding, and accepting are important concepts in becoming knowledgeable. The formally educated group has learned about democracy, but it is very questionable whether this group understands the concept of democracy well let alone accepts it. The other group, on the other hand, seems to not only understand democracy well but accepts it and lives by it. A case in point is the Gada system which is marginally studied by Ethiopian intellectuals although it is noted to be “one of the most complex systems of social organization ever devised by the human imagination.” Yet, there is a section of the Oromo society that uses this system as a way of life without having to go to formal schools.

Even though the concept of science can be borrowed from anywhere and be taught in Ethiopia’s schools, it is also important to scientifically interpret local knowledge as well as make it the source of new or newly found science. The Ethiopian education curriculum of the past may not have been prepared for such a spectrum of scientific thoughts. The Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda will serve well its purpose if it could find its way into the class rooms of Ethiopia’s educational institutions and materials.

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