Critical Dimensions of Personal and Social Transformation in Liberia


By Tarnue Johnson



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 21, 2005

For most of us most of the time, a royal road to the unconscious is less valuable to the motivation researcher than is the dirt road to consciousness.
--Weiner, 1986---


This article concludes that the path to national reconstruction in Liberia lies in critical consciousness and participatory democracy. In this context this study is a logical extension of my earlier work. Thus, the article conforms the essential maxim that through open systems of thought, which embrace self-reflective criticism, human beings can become better and improved actors on the historical stage in terms of the quality of their insights and actions. Because human beings are not just rational animals but emotional animals as well, the article calls for the formation of a cultural synthesis, which extols the practical value of personal and social transformation while at the same time modifying aspects of our culture and cognitive paradigms so that they appeal to the principles of participatory democracy and dominance free discourse in the vital arenas of socio-politics and associational life.

This essay is a critical account about some of the underlying features of the development of cognitive structures and social change in Liberia. The article highlights several domains of cognitive functioning, structural transformation and their endogenous implications from a cross-cultural perspective. The basic framework I have adopted entails one of an emphasis on the critical and vital role of culture and traditional social structures and patterns in our understanding of human development in its totality and cognition in context (see van de vijver and Poortinga, 2002). I view a comparative understanding of the adaptive capabilities of traditional social patterns and their limitations as a prelude to modernization and post-formal reasoning (see Mangan, 1978). Indeed, Ruth Paradise (2002) reminds us that in the study of human development, cultural particularities must not be divorced from the social, historical, economic and political contexts within which they are manifested. Micheal Cole (1990) puts forward a framework which models the cultural mediation of universal environmental features and biological inheritance.

In a recently completed work, I concluded that what lies at the heart of social oppression and underdevelopment in Liberia are specific psychosocial and hegemonic assumptions, which must be eliminated in order to occasion societal advancement (Johnson, forthcoming). It is obvious that these psychosocial and hegemonic assumptions regarding the role of power and its awareness are intertwined with concrete developmental imperatives. I would also view this current study as a narrative in comparative analysis by which I have sought to construct a heuristic framework for fostering dialectical perspectives as inalienable features of the architecture of critical consciousness and communicative competence (see Basseches, 1985). What this presupposes is an affirmation of the expansion of open systems of thought through appropriate institutional and educational processes. After more than 150 years of national existence, the vision by Liberia’s founding fathers of building a black civilization on the West Coast of Africa based on orders and western paradigms of thought conterminous with social change and institutional sustainability remains elusive and nothing but a pipe dream.

This failure has substantiated the need for the proliferation of deeper and comparative analyses in modes of cognition, institutional processes and the totality of human development. Thus, Liberia’s political and social dilemmas demand that the social analyst must critically deconstruct established psycho-cultural norms, social practices and institutional patterns that took shaped and have persisted before and since the beginning of state formation in the middle of the 19th century. It is possible that such undertaking would inevitably lead to new ways of knowing and dialectical meaning perspectives in terms of more holistic, integrative and permeable perspectives that inform our aspirations and discourses for social change (see Mezirow, 1985; 2000). These are some of the pertinent issues and cognitive- developmental concerns that have preoccupied and seized my attention in this article as they are in need of some answers. I will provide some clues to the aforementioned concerns in this article on the basis of existing empirical and theoretical data that have accumulated over the years in the developmental and social science literature.

Background to Liberia

The republic of Liberia is located on the west coast of Africa. The country fronts the Atlantic Ocean for some 350 miles on the southwest and is bordered on the northwest by Sierra Leone, on the north by Guinea, and on the east by Cote d’voire. The administrative division of the modern Liberian state has evolved over more than 150 years of existence from dispersed indigenous communities, coastal settlement/hinterland regions, through counties/provinces, to ten counties with six territorial entities in the mid-1980s. Such divisions answer crucial questions about Liberia’s history since its beginnings in the 1820s and its heritage prior to the 1820s. (see Dunn and Holsoe, 1985).

Liberia’s origins as a disparate cluster of human communities in the West African sub-region dates back to antiquity, thanks to the limited evidence provided by archaeological findings and oral traditions (Dunn and Holsoe, 1985). Anthropologists believe that Liberia’s first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, and ancestors of the Gola and Kissi peoples, both of whom form part of the Mel language group. These first inhabitants of the forest belt were presumably a part of a much larger group of Niger-Congo speaking people that tend to populate much of West Africa to this day (ibid). Another source cites that the earliest known history of Liberia dates back to sometime after A.D. 1000 with the arrival of Kwa speakers and those who spoke West Atlantic or the ancestor of modern Gola and Kissi. These groups who sparsely populated the interior of present-day Liberia and Sierra Leone before the seventeenth century practiced hunting and food gathering (see d’Azevedo 1962; 1971).

The Gola and Kissi peoples were joined by the Kruan people (the Kuwaa, Bassa, Kran, and Dei ethnic groups) who were migrating from the north and east, and later, around the 15th century, by people of the Mende language group. Among this group were the Gio, Mano, Loma, Bandi, Mendi, and Kpelle (Tuttle, 2003). The main reasons responsible for migration from the savannah to the forest belt were associated with the collapse of the Mali Empire, and great population increases in the savannah. Migrant groups were also drawn to the coast because of the arrival of the Portuguese. In 1461, Seamen from Portugal began to call on the coast of West Africa, and this led to regular voyages and trade with the local inhabitants. In the wake of the arrival of Europeans, a new era of trade developed. The European traders bought gold, ivory, slaves, Malaguetta pepper etc., in exchange for iron tools, glass, and clothes.

Ex-slaves from the United States founded the modern republic known as Liberia in 1821. In 1820, the American Colonization Society (ACS) launched its first ship, the Elizabeth, which sailed with more than 80 African American emigrants. By 1827, slave states in North America took increased interest in getting rid of their free African-American populations (Cassell, 1983). This led to the organization of colonization societies in various states. These societies organized themselves independently of the ACS and founded their own colonies in Liberia for transplanting free African-American slaves. African-American emigrants were emancipated and recruited to join the colonization project only if they agreed to emigrate to Africa. The Maryland state colonization society established its colony in Cape Palmas, Liberia. Virginia and Mississippi also established Liberian colonies for former slaves and free blacks (ibid).

Between 1822 and 1867, 18,958 Blacks of various categories including African Americans and West Indians were repatriated to Liberia to settle the new country (see Frankel, 1964; see also Sawyer, 2003). Beginning in 1816, Robert Finley, an American Presbyterian Clergyman, and the ACS began to address the problem posed by the existence of free blacks and manumitted slaves in “an America half-slave and half-free.” (Dunn and Holsoe, 1985,p.4). Many of the first arrivals died of tropical diseases to which they lacked immunity, and the group retreated to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

In 1821 more settlers arrived on the west coast and founded a town at Mesurado Bay. Supported by the ACS and the American Military, in 1824 the settlers named their first settlement Monrovia, after U.S. President James Monroe, and the colony was named Liberia, from the Latin word liber, meaning free. The early optimism that characterized the circumstances of the nation’s founding led Hilary Teage, one of its founding fathers to declare that Liberia would become the “focus where the rays of light emanating from other lands shall meet.” (see Burrowes, 1998, p.31). During the same time that Teage made these remarks in 1845, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president and one of the country’s founding fathers, echoed similar sentiments. (pp.36-37).

Research methodology and sources

This article is informed by a variety of sources, which include secondary, primary and original sources. The secondary research incorporates crucial aspects of the literature on cross-cultural cognitive psychology (Paradise, 2002; Cole,1990; van de vijver and Poortinga, 2002), as well as post formal reasoning (see Labouvie-Vief; Kitchener, 1983; Kramer, 1983; Brookfield, 1987). An extended interview concerning traditional versus modern culture in Liberia was held with four key informants in preparation for this article (see Glaser,1992). This purposive sample included four individuals (two males and two females) who had lived and schooled in both rural and urban Liberia before migrating to the United States. The results of the interviews and secondary research were intended to shed some light on three primary but interrelated research questions:

1) What is the role of culture in understanding human development and cognition in the Liberian context?
2) Can human development be devoiced from the social and historical context in which they are manifested?
3) What is the role of dialectical thinking in promoting personal and social change?

Contemporary social and institutional challenges

Despite the early optimism shared by the country’s founding fathers, Liberia today can be justifiably characterized as a failed state. There have been persistent conflicts in the last fourteen years, which have seen the total dissipation of the country’s infrastructure and social fabric. By 1989, longstanding historical contradictions associated with the particularities of national evolution had come to a head in an atmosphere of increasing military repression and deepening economic crisis. Opportunistic social and political forces in society sought to take advantage of an increasing chaotic situation to make political inroads.

Thus, on December 25, 1989, the country was plunged into civil war that has lasted for 14 years. The National Patriotic Front rebels who invaded the country in 1989 were under the command of a former Director General of the General Services Agency in Liberia, Mr. Charles Taylor. As most despots around the world, Mr. Taylor sought to lay claim to the fact that he was a change agent and an embodiment of a higher aspiration. That he had come to heal the wounds and reunite a fragmented and disgruntled country. But the facts on the ground were to pint a different picture. Instead of positive change, what the country would witnessed within the span of fourteen years was indeed a more destructive phase in its national existence, thanks in no small measure to Charles Taylor’s attempts to entrench a reckless regime of tyranny and political despotism (see Sawyer, 2003).

There is no doubt that the civil war in Liberia has exacted tremendous toll in terms of its catastrophic and deleterious effects on all aspects of Liberian society. As more than 250,000 people have been reported killed, the economic, social and institutional fabrics of society have also suffered considerably. But there are now new signs of hope and national renewal as the peace agreement, which was signed almost two years ago in Accra, Ghana, seems to be holding. There is now an interim administration, which is preparing the nation toward free and fair elections in October of this year. The international community through the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has also become involved to the delight of Liberians and Friends of Liberia alike.

However, I am suggesting in this article as I have suggested elsewhere (Johnson, 2002; 2003) that all these efforts would go in vein if Liberians were not prepared to accept and internalized a change process. The process of social and institutional change in Liberia must be anchored in transformative and restorative processes of human development. This requires the improvement of education and cognition through out the life span. It also demands the building of participatory structures and orientations in organizational systems to galvanize the impulses for ideal speech situations (see Johnson, 2004) and democratic social change. Change in Liberia especially at the institutional and civic level encapsulates the recognition that cognitive processes are often mediated by socially constructed and collective cultural norms and psychosocial assumptions (see Mezirow, 1981; 2000). This is the prelude to dialectical thinking and critical consciousness in adulthood--the actualization of which this article is essentially devoted to.

Post- formal operations and critical consciousness

The notion of transformation in consciousness through conscious motivation and action is embedded both in a contested subjectivity of agency (Clark and Wilson, 1991) and the situativity of cognition. Along these lines, several psychologists have extended Piaget’s notions of formal operations as the terminal point of young adult development (Brookfield, 2000). This stage has been referred to as post-formal operations (ibid). It generally implies a transcending of close systems of thought or propositional operations, which are essentially underguided by what I would refer to as Piagetian hypothetico-deductive reasoning (see Mangan, 1978). Sinnot has elaborated two central components to post formal operations; the use of self-referential logic and the ability to order several systems of truth or formal operations (Brookfield, 2000). Self-referential logic suggests an awareness of the incompleteness of all knowledge and the subjectivity of logic (ibid). It is closer to practical intelligence, practical knowledge and what others have called expertise (ibid).

Post formal operational thought represents third order operations, which are operations, performed on formal operations. Commons et al (as cited in Kramer, 1983,p.97) referred to third order operations as meta-systematic operations. Post formal operations share the “assumptions of interdependence of variables and change as basic to reality” (ibid, p.91). Kramer (ibid) has intimated that the most appropriate distinction between formal and post formal operational thought is their differential focus on change versus stability and dependence of variables versus interdependence of variables. There are several distinguishing characteristics and challenges of adulthood. For example, commitment and responsibility in adulthood may bring a return to pragmatic necessities (Labouvie-Vief, 1980). This gives rise to a new form of “contradictive cognition” in which contradiction becomes “accepted as part and parcel of adult life” (Clayton as cited in Labouvie-Vief p.153).

This interpretation might suggests that the pure logic of the adolescent may not be an equilibrated mode of thinking, but rather a preparatory mode of post formal thought as suggested by Piaget (ibid):

“With the advent of formal intelligence, thinking takes wings, and it is not surprising that at first this unexpected power is both used and abused…each new mental ability starts off by incorporating the world in a process of egocentric assimilation. Only later does it attain equilibrium through a compensating accommodation to reality…Adolescent egocentricity by a belief in the omnipotence of reflection, as though the world should submit itself to idealistic schemes rather than to systems of reality. It is the metaphysical age par excellence; the self is strong enough to reconstruct the universe and big enough to incorporate it.

Then, just as the sensorimotor egocentricity of early childhood is progressively reduced by the organization of schemata of action and as the young child’s egocentric thinking is replaced with the equilibrium of concrete operations, so the metaphysical egocentricity of the adolescent is gradually lessened as a reconciliation between formal thought and reality is effected. Equilibrium is attained when the adolescent understands that the proper function of reflection is not to contradict but to predict and interpret experience.”

It is save to point out that like Labouvie-Vief (1980), Basseches (1986) has endeavored to demonstrate that post formal thought has greater equilibrating power than the closed system of formal operational logic. This happens especially in cases when people are presented with contradictory events that do not conform to the universalistic tendencies and general laws of a closed system. Okun et al (1978, p.318) have paraphrased Riegel’s interpretation of the dialectic view of human development:

“The dialectic view of development is holistic, dealing with short-term situational changes, long-term developmental changes, and their interaction. The basic tenet of Riegel’s theoretical orientation is that development is the result of synchronization of progressions along four interdependent, but unique, dimensions: (1) inner-biological, (2) individual-psychological, (3) socio-cultural, and (4) outer-physical. A corollary notion is that the individual has a reciprocal relationship with his world, that is, as the individual acts to change his world, he changes it in ways that ultimately change him.”

One of the most distinguishing features of post-formal operational thought is adults’ ability to think contextually by adopting permeable meaning perspectives (Mezirow, 1985b). Mezirow (p.27) has indicated, “as we age, we can become more attentive to context and more critically reflective of meanings taken for granted that at an earlier age we perceive as context-independence.” Basseches (1986) has declared that dialectical analysis is a vital phenomenon in the cognitive development of young adults. Dialectical thinking is crucial for exploring the boundary conditions of a formal analysis (ibid). Dialectical reasoning is viewed as a particular form of critical thinking (Brookfield, 1987). In an interview with the Whitman Institute (1994, p.2), Stephen Brookfield views critical thinking as a lifelong and open-ending process that involves both cognition and emotions:

“Yes, I see it as an adult learning process that describes the way we make sense out of how we live our lives and how we interpret things that happen to us. Without what I would call a critical thinking disposition, it is tough to survive as an adult in this culture and in many others. I think the major point of difference between my approach to it and probably the majority approach is that most people working in the field, I would say, see themselves as philosophers or logicians—they interpret critical thinking in a highly cognitive way in terms of argument analysis, models of reasoning, and so on. I think that’s part of what critical thinking is but I see it also as very personally grounded in experience with a very strong emotional component to it…”

Dialectical thinkers engage in “ a continual process of making judgments about aspects of their lives, identifying the general rules implicit in these judgments, modifying the original rules, and so on.” (Brookfield, 1987, p.13). This is a continual process of change, evolution and development. Dialectical thinking searches for contradictions by going beyond the boundary conditions of formal thought as a stimulus to development and change (see Deshler as cited in Brookfield, ibid).

Some of the general characteristics of dialectical thinking have been cited in Basseches (1986, p.41):

1) Dialectical thinking is thinking which looks for and recognizes instances of dialectic- developmental transformation occurring via constitutive and interactive relationships.

2) Dialectical thinking is philosophically rooted in a family of world-outlooks in which knowledge and existence are viewed as essentially dialectical processes in which change, wholeness, and internal relations are emphasized.

3) Dialectical analyses have a power to deal with relationships and transformations beyond the boundary conditions of a formal analysis, while still making use of the power of the formal analysis within those boundaries.

4) Dialectical approaches are more permeable than formalistic approaches by the perspectives of other people who may define a problem in fundamentally different ways.

Dialectical thinking is parallel to epistemic cognition in terms of Kitchener’s (1983) three level model of cognitive processing. This model has three levels: cognition, metacognition and epistemic cognition. Epistemic cognition is the level at which individuals consider the limits and certainty of knowledge, as well as criteria of knowing. Kitcheners further declares that epistemic cognitive monitoring develops in late adolescent and adult years. Dialectical thinking, which is also the ability to order several systems of formal operations, seems to fit within this framework of contextualized logic (ibid), which to my mind is necessary for specific modes of behaviors of adults in concrete institutional and social settings. For, behavior in institutions itself is an outcome of the process of meaning making, at least at the epistemic level.

Thus, dialectical thinking is the stage in cognitive development where perspective transformation or transformation theory wants to take the learner (Mezirow, 1985b; 1999; 2000). It may also be characterized by critical consciousness, which involves a process by which “the subject moves from an unexamined way of thinking to a more examined and critically reflective way and hence a more dependable way of interpreting meaning.” (Mezirow, 1999, p.3). Thus, Mezirow (1985b,p.22) has made this cogent observation regarding the meaning of perspective transformation, as a feature of personal development in adulthood:

“Perspective transformation refers to the process of becoming critically aware of how and why the structure of our psychocultural assumptions has come to constrain the way in which we perceive our world, of reconstituting that structure in a way that allows us to be more inclusive and discriminating in our integration of experience and to act on these new understandings.”

The rites of passage, power and personal transformation

This section seeks to elaborate on the secular and spiritual dimensions of traditional systems and methods of socialization in Liberia. The main purpose in undertaking this exercise is to explicate the inherent strengths and weaknesses of traditional systems as a way of making a case for the expansion of modernization and dialectical thought. The traditional methods of socialization and training in Liberia are carried out in secret societies known otherwise as the bush schools in the local vernacular. These secret societies are the main locus of authority relations and sources of cognitive and structural adaptations. Thus, they connote both power relations and traditional forms of adaptive mechanisms in pre-modern and traditional society. Thus, every male or female over the span of many centuries has been in principle initiated into the appropriate secret society or school at puberty in a substantial part of the West African sub-region including Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone (Ellis, 1997).

Traditionally, the bush schools have been prevalent in the northern and western sections of Liberia. A non-initiated person in these societies could not be considered as a mature person regardless of their age (ibid). Charles-Arnold Van Gennep has stated that all societies use ceremonial rituals to mark significant transitions in the social status of individuals (see Nave 2003). He has further informed us that rites of passage is an essential ingredient in the rejuvenation of the community for it preserves social stability and increases group solidarity in the society (ibid). The use of symbolic representations to reinforce social status often plays a significant role in rites of passages (ibid).

There are no detailed accounts of the curriculum of the bush schools according to some claims (Cole, 1999). Youngsters spend 3 or 4 years organized by town elders who are leaders in the secret societies that control a variety of esoteric information. This highly secret esoteric information cannot on pain of death, be communicated to non-initiates. In this traditional system knowledge or information is a source of power and secrecy is an important factor in daily life. Young and old participants learn to farm, build houses, track animals, shoot birds and carry out a variety of adult economic functions. They are also taught the important lore of the group communicated in stories, myths, and riddles (ibid.p.658). Traditionalists often point to these “virtues” of the Poro and Sande system to ward off critics who may have strong reservations regarding the merits of female circumcision, which may form a part of particularly Sande rituals. One of the key informants I spoke to had this to say [this view was also shared by another informant]:

Q: What in your view are the pros and cons of the traditional system of schooling in Liberia?

A: I think the Poro and Sande are better in that they put a lot of emphasis on respect for the elders. That to me is the most important thing- respect for the elders and for the well being of the community at large. There is a great deal of awareness in terms of the dangers of selfishness in the society, and that is good! Without this awareness, there is bound to be a greater potential for endless conflict. I realize that in the traditional cultural framework, the freedom of the individual may be compromised but if that happens in the interest of the larger community, then so be it!

Q: What would you say are the cons of the traditional system?

A: The pros tend to balance out the cons like the whole issue of female circumcision for example. To me it is a give and take situation, basically a trade-off between the good and the bad. While some people might have qualms with the negative and somewhat controversial aspects of this process, I am more interested in accentuating the positives!

The secret societies also try to control antisocial behavior such as incest, murder, arson, and looting by warriors. Initiates gain skills in interpersonal relations and master musical and oratorical and argumentative skills (see Cole et al, 1971). Beryl L. Bellman (1984), in his book the Language of Secrecy, had some interesting exchanges with an informant regarding some aspects of the training that Poro society initiates undergo. During the exchanges, the informant highlighted the values of respect and salient aspects of authority relations in accordance with the process of hierarchical control and vertical mobility on the basis of ranked lineages and age sets typical of the Poro (Sawyer, 1992,p49).

Sawyer (ibid) citing d’Azevedo has intimated that the Poro “provided a sacred and secret arm of political authority and intergroup diplomacy that helped to maintain stability through appeal to the gerontocratic and hierarchical principles derived from the ideal model of the ranked-lineage structure. ”The Sande, which is a counterpart to the Poro and responsible for female initiations, has been used as an instrument to inculcate modern conceptions of maternity and childcare as well as traditional ones. These institutions have served as stabilizing elements whose religious and social control were conducive to maintaining public order in the pre and post republican era in Liberia. The Poro since its emergence around the sixteenth century has displayed amazing flexibility and “capacity for accommodation, seeking often to validate adaptations and thereby securing its continuing legitimacy.” (Sawyer, 1992, p.50).

Commitment to both institutions particularly the Poro deepened as a defense against the intrusions by Islamized Mah peoples who sought to subdue their forest-dwelling kinsmen (ibid). These contradictions were accentuated by the military exploits of the war chief Samoure Toure in his resistance against French encroachments in the hinterland (ibid). The Poro as a traditional political and religious institution is so central to the lives of indigenous communities in Liberia that politicians have often misappropriated its rituals in the past (see Ellis, 1997).

For example, the warring factions in Liberia from the 1990s up to present, have misused the rituals of initiation of the secret societies to their selfish ends (ibid). But such practices are not new in Liberian politics. They are embedded in the rent-seeking and predatory tendencies of imperial rulers and an overextended state (Sawyer, 1992). The predatory tendencies of the overextended state in Liberia were occasioned and reinforced by a system of indirect rule installed in the early 2oth century to extend the authority of Liberian state officials over the hinterland (Sundiata, 1980).

Through this system of indirect rule, the country’s political rulers resident mainly in Monrovia exercised tremendous control of the hinterland thanks to the newly formed Liberia Frontier Force (ibid). Indeed, the exploitation of Liberia’s traditional institutions for purposes of political legitimation and predation as having its roots in the past has been recounted. As d’Azevedo (1962,p.515) has noted in his anthropological studies on Liberia:

“The opportunity which Poro membership provides for influence in the hinterland has caused a large number of Liberian officials to join at considerable expense and has encouraged them to affirm their kinship connections with the lineage of important chiefdoms.”

Indeed, Charles Taylor took the title of Darkpanah, or supreme head of all zos in the 1990s. Before him, however, William R. Tolbert who ruled Liberia from 1971 to 1980, also became both supreme zo of the Poro society and president of the World Baptist Alliance. What an interesting contradiction? Some authors have made analogies in terms of the concept of a diving king and its effects on the development of a body politic and modern state system (see Ellis, 1997). The phenomenon or mystique of the diving king speaks to how symbols of the Poro have been misappropriated for the wrong reasons. The divine king is the one who directs the transformation of others but he by all accounts is not subject to self-transformation. And herein lies the mystique of his powers- he changes others but he cannot change (ibid).

In other words, he has unlimited powers to determine the rules of the game while at the same time not being subject to those rules. Canetti (ibid) believes that the figure of the divine king has had a decisive influence on our modern conception of power in that the state could easily usurp the powers of the divine king. The divine king in the context of conflicts in Liberia and West Africa could be a rebel leader (Charles Taylor, Ahiji Kromah, Sekou Conneh, George Boley etc.) or the zos hired by them to do their biding.

At the end of the rite of passage after 3 or 4 months as occasioned by the Poro is rebirth whereby a person becomes born again. Central to this process of rebirth is a liminal condition or indeterminate status that initiates assume (ibid). This new outlook achieved at the end of Poro and Sande rituals was central to social cohesion and civic consciousness of individual members of the collectivity. This spiritual process of transformation in perception and action is not dissimilar to a Christian conversion experience, especially within the context of highly fragmented and unstable social systems (Sawyer, 1992).

Mezirow (1985b, p.24) has distinguished between the less common but more dramatic effects of epochal transformation of a system of meaning schemes and an accretion of transformations in specific meaning schemes. Epochal transformations refer to a religious conversion, Zen experience or consciousness raising. Ellis (1999,p.268) remands us that there were in fact many instances of notable and dramatic Christian conversions during the course of the war, particularly in the 1990s:

“It appears that Christian teaching is particularly attractive to any ex-fighter who wishes to make a radical break with his or her past, perhaps because of the Christian belief that the Holy Spirit is universal in nature and can enter anybody to provide instant transformation. One eleven year-old former fighter, for example, having been ‘born-again’ in Christ, said he had ‘taken an oath never to kill again. Certainly, a number of former fighters, including such leading fighters as Blahyi, Milton and Armah Youlo, claim to have become born-again Christians.”

While spiritual transformation in Liberia has immense potential to help in the process of social change and structural development, especially in times of great national stress and moral challenges due to war, the esoteric rituals and practices of the secret societies in Liberia have intrinsic structural and institutional limitations, in terms of the development of dialectical cognition in young or late adulthood. I shall explore this claim in the next section. In the interim, I would argue that these limitations could be contrasted from contemporary concepts of personal and structural transformations and adaptive processes, which are embedded in the western critical and dialectical tradition, and the practice of participatory democracy.

Traditionalism and multiple modes of cognition

I would begin this section by asking a simple question: What are the differences between traditional forms of cognition and modern concepts especially in terms of cognitive development and structural adaptations? One would begin answering this question by contrasting the underlying features of traditional modes of cognition and the hypothetico-deductive mode of reasoning (see Mangan, 1978; Okun et al, 1978). Scribner and Cole (1981) for example, have suggested that the differences between the two systems may be due to the fact that “modern peoples” receive training in context-free communication while “traditional peoples do not. James Mangan (1978) has characterized a mythticomagical mode and an empiriosceintific mode of cognizing the universe. It is suggested that the distinctions between the two worldviews stem from cultural differences and diverse value systems and basic beliefs (ibid). These differences may indeed be at the core of cognitive differences (ibid).

Watkin and his associates (1962) developed the concept of psychological differentiation or cognitive style using the field-dependent and field-independent construct. A field-independent cognitive style is the ability to rely primarily on internal referents in a self-consistent way, whereas, a field-dependent style is the tendency to give greater credit to external referents. There is little doubt that the role of external referents in field-dependency has implications for the development of critical discourse and participatory democracy.

It suffices to note that the role of context is important in our understanding of both field-dependent and field-independent cognitive styles. Thus, the problem solving skills acquired and task oriented learning carried out in the Poro and Sande institutions transcend notions of field-independent and field-dependent learning and cognitive styles. At the cognitive level, the acquiring of specific skills in concrete domains of practical knowledge in these institutions suggests an externally referential logic that is also embedded in context. External identification, such as constant appeals to authority or the ontology of ancestral spirits in the culture, does not suggest a lack of reasoning abilities among traditional peoples, although it presents great challenges for the development of democratic practice and dominance free communication.

In fact, research done in the 1960s and 1970s documented sophisticated memory and reasoning abilities among “traditional peoples” who performed poorly on standard experimental tasks (see Sternberg and Wagner, 1986, p14). Robert Sternberg proposes in his triarchic framework that a complete theory of intelligence entails interaction between three sub-components or sub-theories that encompass the componential, experiential, and contextual sub-theories. The contextual sub-component elucidates the cognitive features of practical knowledge. An adjunct to the contextualist approach is Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI) (ibid, p. 169-173).

The contextualist viewpoint is enshrined in Gardner’s definition of intelligence (see p.165). I would argue that aspects of Poro and Sande training neatly fit in Gardner’s conceptual framework. These include for example, linguistic, musical, spatial and interpersonal intelligences. These intelligences are clearly associated with the type of skills acquired during the rites of passages occasioned by the Poro and Sande institutions in Liberia. This brings me to Cole and Bruner (cited in Mangan, 1978, p.182) who have notified us that it is more useful to find whether members of a given cultural group “conserve or think formally by finding the cognitive domains within a culture within which conservation or propositional thinking commonly occur and why, as well as determining whether and where heuristic reasoning processes are valued.” (ibid). This observation issues a challenge to the field of developmental science. As Vijver and Poortinga have succinctly noted (2002, p. 254):

“Studying the cultural factor in human development is a complex enterprise that needs input from many sources, ranging from biology to psychology and cultural anthropology, as well as a varied array of sophisticated methodological approaches.”

Ramirez and Castaneda (1974) have reported that field-dependent people appear to be more successful with verbal tasks while field-independent people tend to do best on analytic tasks based on inanimate and impersonal material. As I have suggested, the rites of passage occasioned by the bush schools are different from modern concepts of personal transformation in distinct respects. However, there may also be similarities from an adaptive and moral-developmental point of view. For example, the last stage of Mezirow’s perspective transformation [stage 10: A reintegration into society on the basis of the conditions dictated by the new perspective] which is inform by rationalism and the assumptions of post formal reasoning, involves the reintegration into society on the basis of the conditions dictated by the new perspective or critical consciousness (see Mezirow et al, 2000; see also Taylor, 1998; 2000).

This critical consciousness, I would suppose forms a more active pathway toward a life of self-criticism and self-knowledge thereby perhaps becoming a more civically responsible person opened to new perspectives and change. Critical consciousness do not imply a movement from false to true consciousness, it is an improved form of knowing that leads to more internal forms of identification and cognitive behavior (Mezirow et al, 2000).

Labouvie-Vief (cited in Johnson, 2003) believed that one of the structural transitions of adulthood was to achieve new integration in which initially de-contextualized logic was to become re-embedded in its social context. This means in practical terms that if a person were once an arsonist, that person would come to terms with the moral consequences by weighing the costs and benefits of such behavior within the concrete context of the society or community in which he/she lives. Open systems of thought appeal to our adaptive capabilities to cope with contradictions and sometimes moral and ethical ambiguities. Such learning outcomes and new integration are expected and entirely likely in the case of Poro and Sande initiates albeit the nature of the learning process may be driven by external identification in terms of an enduring obligation to suit the wishes of the elders and ancestral spirits in the metaphysical realms.

This process of external identification is quite different from learning processes that reinforce free discourse, reflective judgment and social criticism. Thus, critical theories of adult learning have substantiated the role of participatory discourse, power awareness and an emancipatory praxis (see Welton, 1995; Ettling, 2003). As an educational theory, for example, Transformation theory stresses the search for alternatives, the “enhancement of context awareness, critical reflection of assumptions, discourse and reflective action.” (Mezirow, 1999, p.3). It strives for participatory democracy and seeks “to empower individuals to free themselves from unexamined ways of thinking that impede effective judgment and action.” (ibid).

Elizabeth Lange (2004, p.121) has said, “transformation is not just an epistemological process involving change in worldview and habits of thinking.” But it is also an “ontological process where participants experience a change in their being in the world.” She concludes that a “dialectic of transformative and restorative learning is vital for active citizenship.” (ibid). One can argue that in concrete domains of human interest, transformation theory is clearly distinct from the bush schools, which have the tendency to impose their dictates by often appealing to the ontology of ancestral spirits and secret edicts. The lineage and hericharchal structures of traditional social systems also undermine an attempt to develop a sustained theory and practice of participatory democracy and rational discourse (Sawyer, 1992).

This is quite unlike what we find in the search for rational consensus and undistorted communication which lends due accord to the centrality of critique (Mezirow, 1996, p.164). Let’s look at what Mezirow (ibid) has said with regards to the centrality of critique in the process of rational discourse:

“Following Habermas, Transformation theory constitutes a dialectical synthesis of the objectivist paradigm of learning and the more recent interpretive paradigm and its concern for socially constructed meaning, the significance of language in creating meaning, the centrality of critique, and a sensitivity for cultural diversity.”

Brookfield (1985b) has suggested that field independence is a learning style associated with open democracies, which encourage freedom and autonomy. Field dependence in contradistinction to field independence, is characteristic of the learning conducted in societies with rigid social structures where authoritarian control is highly valued. Walter (cited in Bellman, 1984) claims that the basic underlying principle of social systems governed by despotic rulers and an elite caste through the yoke of secrecy is terror. Such observations clearly apply to the workings of the Poro and Sande societies in Liberia. Bellman (1984) has argued, however, that the threat of violence for exposing Poro secrets is more symbolic then real. In the same breath, he concedes “the Poro and Sande are so entrenched in the local power structure that their position is unquestioned, and their authority to perform rituals resides in their acceptance by the owner of the land, who represents the public and secular parts of the community.” (p.143). In Bellman’s view, the Poro use secrecy, not terror, as the organizing framework for political, social, economic, religious, and interpersonal behaviors (ibid).

Polycentrism and the way forward for Liberia

Today there is a complete breakdown of order in Liberia even as the current interim administration and the United Nations take some positive steps toward creating a new future. As I have already noted, the international community can play its part to change Liberia, but Liberians must be willing psychologically to facilitate this process. Thus, the fundamental question of which way we should proceed in building a viable and sustainable path to the future is purely a matter of enlightened choice. It is a choice to be made to enhance participatory democracy and dialectical meaning perspectives as I have described them; or a choice for unreconstructed traditional epistemologies and meaning perspectives.

There is no doubt that the post-independence period in Liberia in the 1840s began with a false start and thus a promise unfulfilled, as I have alluded to in the introductory section of this article. Freepong (2004) has argued that one of the reasons for which Liberia failed to attained successful statehood was its inability to confront the crisis of identity at the beginning of its formation. He has suggested that this crisis of identity is one of several crises that must be resolved at the beginning of state formation (ibid). This author goes on to assert that by confronting this issue of cultural identity, people learn to identify themselves as citizens of the nation state, rather than as members of provincial entities and particular ethnic sub-groups.

Regrettably, the type of effort and existential exercise emphasized by Freepong was not successfully undertaken at the beginning in Liberia, but this task must now be reevaluated in approaching the future. This task involves new approaches, perspectives, consciousness, and a new pan ethnic civilization that values civil and communicative democracy and action. It also involves the creation of a new covenant with the Liberian people undergirded by people-centered development and a cultural synthesis reflective of the cognitive, conative and affective variables that have become pronounced in the process of human development (see Dirkx, 2000).

This in my view constitutes the core of a polycentric social and political order. It is my opinion that a proper appreciation of the role of the articulation of socio-cultural paradigms and belief systems that have now gained roots in Liberia is highly desirable at this stage. This can happen through the deliberate expansion of higher education, a new appreciation of our traditional belief systems, and the elimination of illiteracy (Basseches, 1986). What we need in Liberia today is more formal education and not less. This is the honest and simple truth! And therefore shame on those who have sought to detract from this inexorable maxim in the name of callous political expediency. Let them come forward and name any modern and successful society in existence today which one would claim had been erected on the feeble pillars of ignorance, magico-superstitions, self-imposed immaturity, and universal darkness.

Thus, the post war cultural situation must transcend the impediments of the old divisions and reified economic and social structures put in place by national rulers who did not understand the finer details and vital influence of culture as determinative. What is required in current conditions, therefore, is the formation of a logical synthesis, which extols the practical value of personal and social transformations embedded within various strands of national culture (both within the spiritual and secular realms). This very tedious process ultimately involves specifying the determinants of our conscious actions that lead to social change and improved frames of reference as implied in the epigraph to this article.

Summary and conclusion

This article has outlined some of the reasons for hope in the future and in the possibility of social change in Liberia after so many false starts. These reasons are imbedded in the realization that through critical consciousness and dialectical thought processes, we can energize the process of structural and institutional change. The article alluded to a deeper and critical meaning of participatory democracy and communicative competence as being defined by the nature of our consciousness and belief systems. Toward this end, I would argue that the search for a viable cultural system is essentially undergirded by the determinants of our motivations and critical consciousness. This search can be impeded or enhanced based on our ways of knowing, the quality of our insights, and modes of validation of our feelings and belief systems.

The article has also highlighted the conception of an indeterminate status or liminal condition as a delicate status in the process of personal transformation according to the esoteric rituals of the Poro societies in Liberia. Civil conflicts in Liberia have offered opportunities for exploitation of this ritual by warlords in their senseless assaults on innocent victims. This is illustrative of the fact that callous individuals, in their quest to subjugate others, can exploit forms of authority and power relations. This is not a surprise, as the war has also had tremendous effects on other historical institutions and challenged our commitment to a moral heritage as a nation.

Thus, the challenge of post war development is to modify the influence of these institutions by building upon and refining those aspects that appeal to our rational instincts and sense of modernity, such as the need to change or improve the way we interpret the meaning of our experiences, so that we may become co-creators of our historical destiny as well as productive and civic members of society. This in the final analysis will lead to a notion of common destiny, a cultural synthesis, and a more vibrant national polity at ease with itself.

About the Author: Tarnue Johnson, Ph.D. is currently a non-tenured professor of political science at East-West University in Chicago. He lectures courses in Political Philosophy, State and Local Government: Politics and Policies, and the Politics of American Minorities.


Appiah, K. A. (1992) In my father’s house: Africa in the philosophy of culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Basseches, M. (1986) Dialectical thinking and young adult cognitive development in Mines, R. and Kitchener, K.S. (Eds) Adult cognitive development: methods and models. New York: Prager.

Bellman, B. L. (1984) The language of secrecy: Symbols and metaphors in Poro ritual. Rutgers New Jersey: University Press.

Brookfield, S. (1985) A critical definition of adult education, Adult education quarterly, 36, 1, 44-49

Brookfield, S. (1985) Self directed learning: A critical review of research in Brookfield, S. (ed) Self-directed learning: From theory to practice. San Francisco: Jossy-Bass Publishers.

Brookfield, S. (1987) Developing critical thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass publishers.

Brookfield, S. (1993) Understanding consulting as an adult education process in Zachary, L. and Vernon, S (eds) The adult educator as consultant, No. 58, summer, San Francisco: Jossey- Bass Publishers.

Brookfield, S. (2000) Adult cognition as a dimension of lifelong learning in Lifelong learning: Education across the lifespan (Eds) Field, J. and Leicester, M. Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

Burrowes, P. (1998) Cornerstones of a nation. Lectures to the Liberian Lyceum by Joseph Jenkins Roberts, John Naustedlau Lewis and Hilary Teage in 1845 with an introduction by Carl Patrick Burrowes, Liberian research and information Project.

Clark, C.M. and Wilson, A.L. (1991) Context and rationality in Mezirow’s theory of transformational learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 41, 75-91

Cole, M. and Bruner, J. (1971) Cultural differences and influences about psychological processes. American Psychologist, 26, 867-876

Cole, M. and Gay, J. and Glick, J. and Sharp, D. (1971) The cultural context of learning and thinking: An exploration in experimental anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Cole, M. (1990) Context, modularity, and the cultural constitution of development. Eric Educational Resources Information Center. (Information Series No. ED326301)

Cole, M. (1999) Culture free versus culture based measures of cognition in Sternberg, R. J.(ed) The nature of cognition. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Davis, R. W. (1975) The Liberian struggle for authority on the Kru Coast. International Journal of African Historical Studies, 8, 2, 222-265.

d’Azevedo, W. (1962) Common principles of variant kinship structures among the Gola of Western Liberia, American Anthropologist, 64, 504-520.

d’Azevedo, W. (1971) Tribe and chiefdom on the windward coast. Rural African, 15, 10-29

Dirkx, J. M. (2000) Transformative learning and the journey of individuation. Eric Digest No. 223. Eric clearing house on adult, career and vocational education, Columbus, Ohio.

Dunn, E. and Hosoe, S (1985) Historical dictionary of Liberia. African historical dictionaries, series No. 38. New Jersey: Scarrecrow Press.

Dunn, E. and Tarr, B (1988) Liberia : A national polity in transition. New York: The Scarcecrow Press Inc.

Ellis, S. (1999) The mask of anarchy: The destruction of Liberia and the religious dimensions of the civil war, New York University Press, New York.

Ellis, S. (1997) Young soldiers and the significance of initiation: Some notes from Liberia, Afrika-Studiecentrum, Leiden. Retrieved on 2003 and available at:

Ettling, D. (2003) The praxis of sustaining transformative change. The voice of scholarship in education. University of Columbia, New York.

Frankel, M. (1964) Tribe and class in Monrovia. New York: Oxford University Press

Freepong, D. (2004) State formation and collapse in Liberia. Avialable at

Gershoni, Y. (1985) Black Colonialism: The Americo-Liberian scramble for the hinterland. Westview Special Studies on Africa.

Gustavsson, B., and Harung, H. (1994) Organizational learning based on transforming collective consciousness, available at

Johnson, C. (1987) Bitter Canaan: The story of the Negro Republic. Transaction Books, New Brunswick (USU).

Johnson, T. (2002) Educational leadership and other determinants of academic achievement in Liberia. Available at

Johnson, T. (2003) Fostering transformative learning and social action in Liberia: New perspectives for the 21st century (An Extended Review), The African Symposium: A
Journal of Educational Research on Africa, 3, 1-4

Johnson, T. (2004) Education and social change in Liberia: New perspectives for the 21st century. Indiana: Author House.

Kegan, R. (2000) A Constructive Developmental Approach to Transformation. In
Mezirow (ed) Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress, San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers

Kitchener, K. S. (1983) Cognition, Metacognition, and Epistemic Cognition: A three level model of cognitive processing, Human Development, 26, 222-232

Kramer, D. A. (1983) Post-formal operations? A need for further conceptualization. Human development, 26, 91-105.

Labouvie-Vief, G. (1980) Beyond formal operations: uses and limits of pure logic in life-span development, Human Development, 23, 141-16.

Lange, A. E. (2004) Transformative and restorative learning: A vital dialectic for sustainable societies. Adult Education Quarterly, 54, 121-132

Mangan, J. (9178) Piaget’s theory and cultural differences: The case for value-based modes of cognition, 21, 170-189.

Moran, M. (1990) Civilized Women: Gender and prestige in southeastern Liberia. Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London.

Mezirow, J. (1981) A critical theory of adult learning and education. Adult Education, 32,3-24.

Mezirow, J. (1985a) Concept and action in adult education. Adult Education Quarterly, 35,142-151.

Mezirow, J. (1985b) A critical theory of self-directed learning in Brookfield, S. (ed) Self-Directed learning: from theory to Practice. Jossey Bass Publishers: San Francisco.

Mezirow, J. (1989) Transformation theory and social action: A response to Collard and Law. Adult Education Quarterly, 39, 169-175.

Mezirow, J. (1996) Contemporary paradigms of learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 46, 158-173.

Mezirow, J. (1999) Transformation theory –Postmodern Issues. 1999 AERC Proceedings. Aavailable at:

Mezirow, J. (ed.), (2000) Learning as Transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress, Jossey Bass Publishers: San Francisco.

Nave, A. (2004) Rites of passage and transition. Retrieved in 2004 and available at:

Okun, M. A. and Fisk, E. C. and Toppenberg, L. W. (1978) Implications of Riegel’s dialectic approach for adult instruction. Human Development, 21, 316-326.

Paradise, R. (2002) Finding ways to study culture in context. Human Development. 45, 229-236.

Ramirez, M. and Castenada, A. (1974) Cultural democracy, bicognitive development and education. New York: Academic Press.

Sawyer, A. (1992) The emergence of autocracy in Liberia: Tragedy and challenge. ICS
Press: San Francisco, California.

Sawyer, A. (2003) Violent conflicts and governance challenges in West Africa: The case of the Mano River Basin Area. Workshop on political theory and policy analysis. Indiana University.

Salomon, G. (1993) ‘No distribution without individual’s cognition: A dynamic interactional view’ in G. Salomon(ed) Distributed cognitions-Psychological and educational considerations (pp111-138). Cambridge University Press; Cambridge.

Scribner, S. and Cole, M. (1981) The psychology of literacy. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

Sernberg, R. J. and Wagner, R. K. (1986) Practical intelligence: Nature and origins of competence in the everyday world. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Sternberg, R. J. (1999) (ed) The nature of cognition. The MIT Press: Cambridge.

Sinott, J.D. and Guttman, D. (1978) Piagetian logical abilities and older adults’ abilities to solve everyday problems. Human Development, 2, 327-333.

Sundiata, I.K. (1980) Black Scandal: America and the Liberian labor crisis, 1929-1936. The Institute for the study of Human Relations: Philadelphia.

Taylor, E. (1998) “The theory and practice of transformative learning: A critical review.” Columbus Ohio: Eric Clearing House on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education (Information Series, No. 374)

Taylor, E. (2000) Analyzing research on transformative learning theory. In J. Mezirow and Associates (Eds). Jossey Bass Publishers: San Francisco.

The Whitman Institute (1994) Interview with Stephen Brookfield, A Review of General Semantics, 54,1-7

Tuttle, K. (2003) The republic of Liberia. Retrieved in 2004 and available at: http://www.africana .com

Vijver, F.J.R. and Poortinga, H. Y. (2002) On the study of culture in developmental science. Human Development, 45, 246-256.

Weiner, B. (1986) An attributional theory of motivation and emotion, Springer-Velag, New York.

Welton, M. (1995) In defense of the lifeworld: A Habermasian approach to adult learning in Welton, M. (Ed) In defense of the lifeworld: Critical perspectives on adult learning. New York: New York university Press.

Wertsch, J. (2001) Socio-cultural approaches to cognitive development. Human Development, 44, 77-83.

Witkin, H. and Associates (1962) Psychological differentiation. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Witkin, H. and Berry, J. (1975) Psychological differentiation in cross cultural perspective. Journal of cross cultural psychology, 6, 5-87.

Witkin, H. and Gooenough, D. (1975) Field-dependent revisited. Princeton, N.J. Educational Testing Service.