Purpose beyond poverty
Purpose beyond poverty

Purpose beyond poverty

Ghana commenced its 2022 National Education Week celebration on Monday, October 10, 2022, with events centred around the theme of “Re-assessing Educational Policies for Effective Service Delivery and National Transformation.”

Major stakeholders in our education sector attended to find ways of making education more effective.


Salient in this year’s theme and prominent in our education discourse is the telos of educating a citizen: What does formal education seek to achieve both for the student and the nation?

Ghana’s Education Minister, Dr Yaw Osei Adutwum, touched on the purpose of education at the just ended 77th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) when he spoke on the state of Ghana’s education.

He indicts Ghana’s educational system for being exam-focused with students eventually forgetting what they have studied.

Dr Adutwum also indicts Ghana’s educational system for taming students.

“I go to schools upon schools and I speak with the students and when I finish, I ask them … any questions for me? No hand goes up. A hand is yet to go up in all my counters in Ghanaian classrooms.”

The tamed Ghanaian student is too afraid to ask her education minister questions.

He further indicts Ghana’s education for producing uncritical thinkers. Because the Ghanaian student studies for exams, he only studies what the right answers to potential questions are and does very little, if at all, of critically engaging the material and internalising it.

Ghana’s education, Dr Adutwum told his New York audience, is not a game changer. “You can’t memorise your way out of poverty …” he asserts and invites African schools “to take a look at what [he] call[s] an assertive curriculum. A curriculum that empowers the African child to ask questions and challenge the status quo respectfully within the African cultural context” so that the continent “can critically think and innovate out of poverty.”

The minister’s view represents the dominant view in Africa, and probably in the world, of the purposes of Western formal education: a means out of poverty and a ticket towards material abundance.

Means out of poverty

Formal education is widely understood to be the means of producing agents of developments. Our schools, colleges and universities are expected to arm students with the skills to advance agricultural, economic and infrastructural growth.

A successful curriculum, thus, churns out qualified engineers, farmers, economists, and any kind of skill profession relevant to national development. Where an educational system unsuccessfully turns out products who fail to proffer solutions to poverty and add to abundance, such an education is a failure.

Such an understanding of formal education makes sense for a poor continent: food, clean water, decent housing, basic medical needs are beyond the reach of the average person. The continent’s poverty is an indictment on its education.

It is this prevalent understanding of the telos of education that likely informed Dr Ahmed Jinapor Abdulai, the deputy director of the Ghana Tertiary Education Commission (GTEC), to remark recently that “institutions seeking re-accreditation of their programmes must demonstrate evidence of employment of graduates of such programmes informed by tracer studies before such programmes will be accredited.”

Ancient telos of education

Western formal education has not always had wealth creation and material gains as its purpose. The ancient masters, starting from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle and reaching out to Thomas Aquinas and onwards perceived formal education as the cultivation of the cardinal virtues.

These cardinal virtues for Plato are justice, self-control, courage, piety and wisdom. The Hellenistic philosophers such as Plato had less confidence in material wealth as a sufficient path to human well-being and human flourishing.

In fact, these thinkers doubted whether material things qua material things were necessary condition for human well-being and happiness.

As we understandably redirect our educational system to fit and create industries that would pick us out of poverty, we should do well to reconsider what the purposes of formal education were, of, which, Plato’s Republic stated: “Education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately.” [Republic at 518-d3-7].

Probably, when we also focus on these ancient virtues that education was expected to inculcate in students, we may find ourselves living in abundance and happiness as well.

And finally, one should agree with Dr. Adutwum that education should forge critical students “to ask questions and challenge the status quo respectfully within the African cultural context.”


But just as equally important, arguably more important, Ghanaian education should forge critical students to challenge the status quo respectfully outside our cultural context. The ancient Master of Education tried to get their students to think outside their cultures.


The writer is a lawyer/doctoral fellow at Fordham Law School, N.Y., USA. E-mail: [email protected]

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