Issues stifling critical thinking in African HE


This commentary has been triggered by Wachira Kigotho’s article titled, ‘Why the tradition of imparting critical thinking is waning’, published in University World News.

The article provided an overview of the findings of a McCowan et al (2022) qualitative study on enablers of pedagogical change in eight universities in Kenya, Ghana and Botswana.

The study identified drivers of initiatives; shared vision; resourcing and incentives and reflection and transformative learning opportunities as the major factors affecting pedagogical interventions.

The transferability of these findings to African higher education is limited but they appear consistent with extant literature on critical thinking. The study has, thus, vital contributions to our understanding of pedagogical transformations generally and the integration of critical thinking specifically.

However, conditions that transcend institutional contexts or realities (university functions and academic culture) also affect the integration of critical thinking into education. This commentary sustains the discussion on this significant topic in higher education by highlighting core macro-level conditions that contribute to the lack of successful integration of critical thinking in African universities. It aims to offer alternative explanations to the same questions raised in the article, namely, why does critical thinking appear to be lacking in universities in Africa?

To start with, successfully integrating critical thinking into teaching and learning at higher education level is a global challenge. The societal relevance and significance of higher education globally has always been questioned.

Incompatibility between labour market needs and graduates’ capabilities is oftentimes propagated by media, employers and international organisations. A book published in August 2022 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, titled, Does Higher Education Teach Students to Think Critically? indicated that only 45% of the studied students were found to be proficient in critical thinking, whereas one in five demonstrated only “emerging talent”.

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The book drew on data collected mainly from the United States but also from Chile, Finland, Italy, Mexico and the UK. Although the extent varies across countries and higher education, the literature generally seem to indicate the lack of effective integration of critical thinking globally. Why does this happen?

Taking African higher education as a case in point, this commentary aspires to contribute toward answering this question. The objective is to sustain the discussion on this significant topic in African higher education which could finally deepen and extend our understanding of critical thinking and the totality of conditions affecting it.

Some assumptions are made to set the relevant context for understanding my lines of arguments. One, I understand the varied nature of African higher education; effort is made to focus on generic conditions that transcend institutional and national peculiarities. The isomorphic nature of universities also supports this approach.

Two, higher education functions respond to prevailing sociocultural, political and economical contexts.

Three, the history of Africa impinges directly on how university education is organised.

Consequently, conditions at global, national, institutional, departmental and individual (faculty and students) levels jointly contribute to the lack of effective critical thinking integration in teaching, learning and assessment in Africa.

However, economic (funding, infrastructure, resources, class size, and salary) and philosophical (faculty and student viewpoints about society, knowledge, teaching, learning, assessment, and critical thinking) aspects are not discussed here for they are fairly discussed in extant literature, and because of space constraints.

The other core categories of conditions affecting the integration of critical thinking into African higher education are briefly highlighted below. It has to be made clear that there are universities, departments, and-or academics who are keen on meaningfully integrating critical thinking.

Four, the lack of a universal definition for critical thinking is part of the problem. For its comprehensiveness, its grounding on years of research and teaching related to critical thinking, and its fruitfulness in triggering and driving a huge number of studies worldwide, this commentary considers the 2008 insight provided by the major leaders in the international critical movement, Richard Paul and Linda Elder.

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Accordingly, critical thinking is the application of intellectual standards (clarity, accuracy, relevance, logicalness, breadth, precision, significance, completeness, fairness, depth) to the elements of thought/reasoning (purposes, questions, viewpoints, information, inferences, concepts, implications, assumptions) for the purpose of developing intellectual traits (humility, autonomy, integrity, courage, perseverance, confidence in reason, empathy, and fair mindedness). Against the backdrop of this conception of critical thinking, the core categories of conditions affecting critical thinking integration in African higher education are briefly highlighted below.

Colonial legacy

European colonisation of the African continent was accompanied by the introduction of Western education in the colonies. The purpose of education was to serve the professional needs and ideological demands of the colonisers.

Academic and leadership positions were filled mainly by Europeans or by Africans who were specially trained and entrusted to effectively serve colonial interests. This type of education not only squashed the possibility of critical reflections and other forms of scholarly engagements but also cannibalised African knowledge systems.

The culture of sheer obedience and submission to colonial masters and the reigning ideology crossed African generations and became part of academic culture even after the official or political abolishment of colonialism.

Post-colonial stress disorder

Following the political independence of African states, power was transferred from Western colonisers to African strongmen called then ‘revolutionaries’. White or coloniser supremacy and oppression were, unfortunately, scaled up and sustained by the powerful black men.

In the name of protecting their revolutions, they strengthened, throughout their tenure, the master-slave mentality created during colonisation.

Higher education institutions were required to serve the new power structures, to generate and promote ideology thought to contribute to state formation.

Although some element of it was allowed so long as it was explicitly targeted at the former colonisers, critical scholarly reflections were considered as systematic efforts to miscarry the revolutions.

Student-faculty relationships were thus characterised by domination and dictation, where faculty became the new oppressors and omni-knowers and students as the oppressed and the banks (in Freire’s usage of the terms).

The modus operandi of teaching, the lecture method, was found to be ultra-effective to sustain domineering power.

Academics, themselves, thus became a “serious threat to decolonial critical, creative, innovative and original thinking” in African universities, as explained by Artwell Nhemachena and Munyaradzi Mawere in the 2022 article, ‘Academics with Clay Feet? Anthropological perspectives on academic freedom in twenty-first century African universities’.

Those who decided to remain critical thinkers risked demotion, persecution and-or prosecution. Overall, critical thinking was found to be and still is a risky engagement in many countries.

Modernisation discourses

Modernisation discourses and theories promote stage-wise approaches to progress or development where some societies are dubbed traditional whereas others [are termed] modern.

The modern-traditional ‘saga’ is not value-free. To ensure modernity and progress, the so-called traditional societies, including those in Africa, are, thus, required to follow the footsteps of their modern colleagues – Europe and North America.

Such modern countries are considered to have modern institutions which instil in people modern values which elicit modern behaviour which contributes to progress. Universities in the West are, thus, considered modern and world-class.

This mentality seems to get currency in the developing world, where education policies and strategies are copied from the West and applied in African contexts without proper contextualisation.

This is vivid in universities where academics consider Western knowledge systems as superior and, hence, they entirely rely on them for their teaching and research.

Academics turn themselves into insatiable consumers and promoters of Western knowledge systems. Teaching is all about transferring this knowledge with little criticality added to it.

Even university administration and leadership require their faculty to publish in Western outlets and to build collaborations with Western institutions. All these seem to partly contribute to the lack of effective integration of critical thinking in higher education in Africa.

Sociocultural conditions

The sociocultural and religious fabrics of Africa are varied. However, the significance given to social groups and culture, religious values as well as seniority and gender seem cross-cutting issues. By affinity, necessity or history, people generally tend to conform to group think, some even call this ethnocentrism.

Critically challenging seniors and professors is generally considered disrespectful or mean. Women tend to remain silent in public discourses, including in classrooms. All these might be considered relevant and fulfilling but they do not seem to support and encourage critical reflections in teaching and learning.

Political or ideological conditions

Although there does not appear to be a universal definition for critical thinking, it is often associated with putting to the test the relevance, adequacy and integrity of ideas and-or data.

In several countries, it is risky to engage in a critical examination of national policies, strategies and service delivery generally.

The political power structures in undemocratic countries persecute and prosecute critical thinkers. Some countries travel extra miles to censor academic publishing and international collaborations faculty are building.

In fact, one of the major reasons African scholars leave their countries in numbers for the West is the lack of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. There is a decoupling between what constitutions and university governance documents say about freedom and their actual practice.

Paradigm shift

Attributing the lack of critical thinking in teaching and learning in African higher education solely to the views and practices of academics and students seems reductionist and unfair.

Critical examinations of the totality of ‘environments’ within which universities operate and to which they aspire to contribute is needed for a rigorous understanding. The political, sociocultural and economical contexts need to be interrogated along with historical precedents.

The decolonisation efforts and discourses in academia need to consider these levels of analysis. The challenge with decolonial efforts is their reliance on scattered faculty efforts which are neither scalable nor sustainable.

A paradigm shift (in Kuhnian usage of the term) is needed before we witness successful integration of critical thinking in African universities. Intentional or strategic integration of critical thinking in university governance documents, teaching and learning, student assessment, faculty review and professional development is one way to that end.

University teaching and learning centres or pedagogical units could spearhead such efforts. Critical to all these and other initiatives is guaranteeing institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

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