Most of the education focus in Africa has been on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), around universal access to primary education, and the majority of African countries are on track to meet the MDG target - 31 will meet the target, while 21 will not.
But as the MDG’s deadline comes to an end later this year, the post-2015 world will need some radical re-thinking of education and of lifelong learning, and some countries are already taking the first steps.
In Finland, for example, a new education reform programme is proposing scrapping subjects like math, history and biology, and replacing them with broader, inter-disciplinary ‘topics’. Instead of an hour of geography in the morning and an hour of English in the afternoon, for example, students will now study the European Union as a topic, integrating history, geography, economics and languages.
The Finns say the multi-disciplinary approach has been informed by the changing demands of the 21st century Information Age, but a broad-based education was the norm before the Industrial Revolution, when much fewer people had a formal education.
Polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gottfried Liebniz and Thomas Young excelled in diverse fields unlike the singular track of academia today.
Da Vinci, for example, is considered perhaps one of the most diversely talented people in history, the archetype “Renaissance Man”, he was was a painter, sculptor, architect, mathematician, geologist, botanist and anatomist.
“Golden Age of Islam”
But before the Renaissance was the “Golden Age of Islam” centred in north Africa, which produced many eminent, multi-talented scholars in various fields; Islamic universities taught tafsir (Koranic interpretation), al hadith (the prophetic tradition), manitq (logics), bayan (rhetoric), kalam (theology), fiqh (jurisprudence) tassawuf (Islamic mystics), as well as mathematics, geography and astronomy to students.
The most prominent scholar of the era is probably Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Tunisian widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest scholars to come out of North Africa. He was a sociologist, historiographer, economist and political scientist, and his face adorns the Tunisian 10 dinar bill.
In the 15th century there was Ahmad Baba al Massufi, regarded as Timbukutu’s most eminent scholar. The author of over 40 books and various works ranging from biographies to political commentaries, he was a jurist, writer, and a cultural leader of what was then known as Western Sudan, and his grammar of Arabic is still used in parts of West Africa.
Cheikh Anta Diop
In the modern era, there have been people like Senegalese polymath Cheikh Anta Diop, a historian, anthropologist, physicist and politician, best known for his controversial 1951 dissertation that argued ancient Egyptians were Africans (which was rejected three times by the University of Paris, Sorbonne).
Diop was proficient in rationalism, dialectics, modern scientific techniques and prehistoric archeology, and claimed to be the “only African” of his generation trained as an Egyptologist.
You might not know the name, but Bisi Ezerohia is one of the most celebrated engineers in the racing world. Born in Nigeria, with a stratospheric IQ he began attending college aged just 15 and later moved to the US, culminating in degrees in applied sciences, chemical engineering and engineering management.
After a decade in pharmaceutical research, Ezerohia applied his chemical engineering background to develop the fastest Honda engine in the world, and has gone on to create the first naturally aspirated Honda to break the 150-mph barrier in the quarter-mile as well as become the first to do so in only nine seconds while still using petrol.
Polymaths are rare in today’s world, laments this article in More Intelligent Life. Since the industrial revolution, the nature of intellectual achievement has changed profoundly, with greater specialisation being the mark of highly educated people – in other words, knowing more and more about less and less.
And academics don’t like “broad-minded” people invading their turf, particularly if they’ve spent years to earn tenure.
But the really ground-breaking innovations come from having a fresh eye, and fortunately, the digital age allows a convergence of disciplines that was difficult to achieve before.
Don’t do Google’s job
Schools should teach what young people need in their lives, and this must entail connecting the dots - rather than recalling them. What use is it memorising avalanches of facts when Google is at your fingertips all day? What is needed is a more meaningful, integrated approach that is useful in the real world.
Perhaps it’s time for African schools and governments to do away with “subjects” and go back to the way African children used to learn in the pre-colonial era, through everyday life and apprenticeships.
If I had to choose between my son getting an A in a maths exam he had crammed for the night before, and sitting under a mango tree thinking all day about life, I’d choose the tree any day.