Professor Lahra Smith, Associate Professor in the African Studies Program, is conducting a research on civic education at high schools in Kenya and Ethiopia. Having returned from her research trips to Kenya in Spring 2015, Professor Smith sat down with The Caravel to discuss her research and her views on civic education in the two African countries.
Can you tell us what civic education is? What does it aim for?
I see it as more than just what the government wants people to know about their country. I am really interested in what different actors—government, NGOs, and local communities—think people need to know as citizens of their country, especially after a major reform of the constitution. In this sense, I use the term “citizen education” instead of “civic education.”
On that subject, I‘m interested in how the transmission of new political values and knowledge happens along with such a major change in the legal framework of people’s political life. There are complexities in bringing up very controversial political topics—such as women’s rights and the role of religion in politics are in Kenya—and translating them into terms that ordinary people can understand and discuss. Kenya and Ethiopia have recently gone through major constitutional reforms, so these two countries particularly excited me.
What are some elements of citizenship that Kenyan and Ethiopian education emphasize?
This is what my research is about, so I can’t give you a definite answer for now. However, I do notice that textbooks emphasize rules and procedure. It is easier to just tell students what is legal and illegal than teaching them about more fundamental values. For example, it’s simpler and less controversial to just say domestic violence is illegal than to explain why women and men ought to have equal rights and responsibilities not only in families but at work and in courts as well.
How do different ethnic, gender, religious, and regional identities affect people’s learning about civic education?
It’s very interesting to see the interplay of these identities. In much of rural Africa, communities are often quite homogenous, but urban populations are increasingly heterogenous. Students in cities not only include both genders but also come from all different ethnic and religious backgrounds. It’s therefore much harder to teach certain rights and values, because people from different backgrounds think in very different ways.
In some cases, teachers may teach the constitutional rights of equality, while they themselves don’t necessarily behave in line with their own teaching. And students often learn much more from these informal, behavioral cues than from formal lessons.
It is also not always the case that religion hinders progressive changes. Religious identity can certainly reinforce ethnic divisions, while in another case uniting people against discrimination. In this complex setting, teachers do need to have the ability and courage to teach within the ethnic and cultural diversity of students.
Why would it be important for people interested in Kenya and Ethiopia to know about these countries’ citizen education?
Even after these countries drafted their own constitutions that delineate equality and human rights, there still exists a big gap between formal laws and actual practices, such as the practice of child marriage in some parts of Africa. Citizen education is what fills this gap. When formal institutions change more rapidly than social values and traditions, it allows people to discuss, debate, and become aware of their citizenship.