The Role of Education in Strengthening Civil Society in Liberia:
A New Agenda for Self-Emancipation and Social Change

By Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

January 10, 2002

This article seeks to discuss and thus render some judgments regarding one of the most crucial and strategic functions of education as an enabler of a vibrant civil society and political culture. In a postindustrial age where knowledge or what some refer to as social capital has become a central productive force, the challenge of educational development is inseparable from the progressive reorganization of the social order. Thus, understanding the relationship between education and the building of a healthy civil community---in all its multiple dimensions and complexities---is as important as understanding the most intricate processes and assumptions regarding the structuring of contemporary discourse and political action in the face of extreme poverty, institutional paralysis, and monumental policy challenges that currently face the Liberian nation. In line with the foregoing assessment and propositions, this article will also try to provide an evaluation of the following questions:

One might note that the question regarding the role of education in civil society is not a new one. Indeed, it has been raised many times before. Functional structuralist theorists [particularly the works of Talcott Parsons, see Knapp, 1994] operating in the broader field of sociology, and educational scholars of other persuasions have commented variously on this issue. Invariably, it is fair to argue that all these theoretical perspectives have made penetrating and thought provoking contributions-in one form or the other--to our empirical understanding of the role of education in building an architecture for a culture of democratic pluralism and institutional change.

I have written in the past about the learning society as belonging to the pantheon of late modernity, and its essential hermeneutical, political and social content (Johnson, 2001). And I have also written about how to make the institution of the learning society a reality in the face of pervasive stagnation or what one might call the growth of underdevelopment in the Liberian society. Evidently, there are various kinds of educational and learning goals that could be articulated and framed for a variety of instrumental and cognitive objectives. But the educational goals and objectives one envisages must lead to full participation in the "democratic process". This "democratic process" must be perceived as being transformative and of a higher quality and thus substantial. For it is ultimately a transformative process that deligitimizes patronage and cures the malaise of the personalization of state power in the Liberian society.

However, it is suggested here that only a specific kind of educational goals can facilitate transactional relations within the spheres of civil society, which can lead to the common good of contemporary societies, such as the formation of a viable civic community. This hypothesis or essential formulation embraces the most ambitious and overarching framework for social change, which should be reflected in the conception of the new educational challenge.

This basic operational framework for social change about which I believe I have already written on some occasions, enables participation, dialogue and the finest intuitive impulses imbedded within a given civil society. These impulses are those of solidarity, a sense of shared destiny and cultural values symbolized in one's willingness to be his/her neighbor's keeper. These impulses would also help considerably to structure one's normative orientation in determining what is and what ought to be in advancing the general welfare of society.

I believe that the framework within which education can lead to strengthening civil society as a sphere of interpretive discourse and the dynamic interpenetration of social structures must be built upon an appreciation of the magnitude and urgency of socio-historical change in contemporary Liberian society. After more than a century and a half of national existence, the urgency of social change must not be perceived as a matter of political expediency as politicians are often tempted to do.

Such a superficiality, which is often the offshoot of misguided actions and social consciousness, would be simply counterintuitive. What is imperative, however, is that this unique challenge, which requires discontinuity and change in our psychosocial assumptions and other forms of national consciousness (see Johnson, 2002) requires a deep sense of national purpose as it is intimately linked to the survival of the nation state.

A metaphor for defining civil society

Civil society should be perceived as a critical point of interaction and interpenetration of the state system and countervailing social structures. This understanding suggests a dialectic unity in which there is balance, but at the same time constant struggles between the state and civil society structures. This definition also presupposes a metaphor for continuous dialogue, critical reflection, challenge, conflict resolution, renewal and qualitative growth.

In their study, Cohen and Aerator have defined civil society in terms of the sphere of interaction between the economy and the state. This sphere of interaction is composed of institutions such as the family, voluntary organizations in the sphere of associational life, social movements and "forms of public communication" (cited in Fleming, 2002,p.3). The Italian political economist Gramsci was a pioneer in launching the process of elaborating three crucial components to the understanding of civil society (Murphy, 2001). The first emphasis was on the cultural and symbolic dimension of civil society. This dimension determines the formation of action-orienting norms, values, meanings and identifications.

The second dimension focused on the more creative side of civil society. This includes social movements, collective political struggles, voluntary associations, interest groups, informal networks etc., (see Flaming, 2002). The third arena of civil society, to which modern social theorists have made a key contribution to illuminating, involves the communicative, deliberative conception of the public sphere. The public sphere is located in civil society and is where people can discuss issues of mutual concerns on the basis of equality. In a functioning democracy, the public sphere is a source of public opinion required to legitimate authority relations (Rutherfold, 2000). The success of the public sphere and civil society is determined by the pervasiveness of rational and critical discourse, predicated upon communicative competence and the power of argument.

The process of dialogue, which takes place in the public sphere, is a learning process and can lead to the development of individual autonomy and self-determination. It is this process of learning that will eventually lead to self-emancipation within a collectivist framework in Liberia. Hence, one of the dangers of the overbearing state (leviathan), which we have seen time and again throughout the history of Liberia, has been the violation of the capacity of individuals and groups to formulate, reconsider and recreate their lives in the space provided by civil society. But there is no doubt that only this process of renewal and constant rediscovery of national imperatives can lead to the strengthening of civil society and the reorganization of the existing social order.

For only self emancipation and collective empowerment within the spheres of civil society, will deliver us from our national sins and set an ethical agenda for a serious engagement with the most fundamental problems of national development. It also ultimately requires the reactivation of the spirit of voluntarism, which has always existed in the social sector as a veritable platform for social and political engagement.

Patterns of civil organization and critical consciousness

Empirical research conducted by Seibel and Massing in the 1970s argued that indigenous formal and informal organizations had long existed in Liberia. It was suggested that some of these organizations were often of ancient origin. These voluntary organizations were said to be dynamic and often adjusted to social and economic change thereby playing a major role in the transformation of traditional modes of production (Seibel and Massing, 1974). These patterns of civil and voluntary organizations that have long existed could be further nourished to enhance an incipient mode of critical consciousness in the social sector.

The outbreak of war and its subsequent aftermath saw the beginnings of new patterns of civil governance in Liberia, predicated upon the desire to form alternative and countervailing structures outside the narrow enclave of the state. What this suggests broadly speaking, is that there was a proliferation of largely self-governing structures, which form the social or non-governmental sector. Currently these organizations which are often refer to as NGOs, consist of a broad range of entities operating across a much wider spectrum of national endeavors. In 1991 the Interim Government of National Unity announced that there were not less than twenty international NGOs operating in the country. By now new organizations have cropped up while others have ceased their operations.

A typical example of organizations which have operated in the country includes Action Internationale Contre La Faim, Medicines Sans Frontiers of France, Catholic Relief Services, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Church World Service, Community of Caring, Plan International, World Vision, Adventist Development Relief Association, Baptist Relief, Oxfam, Save the Children Fund, the Christian Health Association of Liberia, Liberia Committee for Relief, Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, Special Emergency Life Food. Other organizations currently in existence include the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, the National Adult Education Association of Liberia, the Liberia Bible Translation and Literacy Organization etc.

These organizations have been concerned with local issues across all sectors ranging from the economy, human rights, public health, education, resettlement etc. These are the organizations that must constitute, through their public advocacies for constitutional rights and sound public policies, the locus of legitimate dialogic voices in civil society. The involvement of international NGOs is demonstrative of the fact that Liberia will need tremendous international support in accomplishing legitimate aspirations for social change. In an era of globalization, the interdependency of nations calls for a collaborative spirit in tackling the challenges of underdevelopment and democratic change. International support and local endeavors in the social sector should be geared towards the fostering of critical consciousness and self-determination in civil society.

In Paulo Freire's conceptualization of critical consciousness (see Inglis, 1997), education for self-emancipation is a collective educational activity, which has as its primary goal the object of social and political transformation. The most significant aspect of critical consciousness is the construct of power awareness. Power awareness is knowing that society can be remade by human action and by organized groups in society. This notion of power awareness is not only optimistic, but is invariably what must drive the social sector and lend it that sense of civic purpose and meaning, without which associational life is devoid of political and critical content. And this recognition should determine the educational and learning experience that lead to the attainment of critical consciousness and self-determination.

In the current situation of economic and political hopelessness, one must extol and call for the accentuation of the most progressive tendencies in an incipient social order in Liberian society. What distinguishes this incipient social order is seriousness in civic purpose and concerted efforts to harness a growing culture of self-reliance by the voluntary and non-state sector. This growing culture of self-governance at local levels is mainly embodied in the work of NGOs and those individuals who are determined to become autonomous agents of change. In these self-help organizations one can see the modest beginnings of a learning society. Through these NGOs, for example, Liberian youth have gained material support and emotional courage to build their knowledge and marketable skills, such as carpentry, tailoring, and entrepreneurial skills. Non-profit and non-governmental organizations (both local and international) also run adult literacy projects and vocational schools in Monrovia and various parts of the country.

Micro-enterprise training for private sector development and support programs run by NGOs often provide seed money and tool kits for trainees upon graduation, so that new skills can be put to immediate use for the benefits of individuals, their families and the larger society. Most of the financial support for these efforts have come from international and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), UNESCO, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) etc. For example, UNDP has allocated US$1.3 million to support rehabilitation of the education sector to improve capacity in planning, supervising, monitoring, and evaluating.

These international organizations' support must be welcomed. But they should readjust their policies by targeting resources to those areas that really matter in terms of the value they add to building a society that will not revert to the old ways of doing things. In the past, multilateral and bilateral financial support played a decisive role in prolonging the life span of dictatorial regimes in Liberia and in other non-democratic states, such as the Congo under President Maputo. This was done by often misdirecting development assistance, and without adequate emphasis on the building of accountability structures to ensure the proper allocation of donor assistance. Therefore, it is imperative that these international efforts---as helpful as they could be---- be complimented by internal mobilization of self-governing structures working to empower individuals and groups in civil society. There must also be an emphasis on developing partnerships and critical dialogue between the state, private sector, and civil society organizations.

Culture, symbols and self-determination

The cultural and symbolic dimension of civil society as determining the parameters for action-orienting norms and value systems have been emphasized by Gramci (Murphy, 2001) as indicated earlier. Thus, cultural and national symbols play a decisive role in organizing people for social action. Cultural values and symbolic representations of national identity are also often crystallized in the most cardinal principles, which undergird national policies. Such intellectual artifact and symbolic representation of national consciousness and aspirations is the national constitution. The constitution in any given society constitutes the basic and underlying framework document that embodies both the cultural and legal basis for promulgating national policies.

The Liberian constitution is no exception in this regard. Thus, chapter II article 5b of the current Liberian constitution leaves much to be desired in terms of our conceptual understanding of the cultural framework for national existence and socio-economic development. Chapter II article 5b of the Liberian constitution states:

The republic shall preserve, protect and promote positive Liberian culture, ensuring that traditional values which are compatible with public policy and national progress are adopted and developed as an integral part of the growing needs of the Liberian society.

It is very difficult to determine what precisely is meant by the terms--- "positive Liberian culture which are compatible with public policy". Is this positive Liberian culture organic enough to be representative of the virtues eminent in all indigenous cultural heritages that have evolved and adapted to the manifold social and historical processes in the sub-region? If this is the case, then no mention of such understanding is made in the current constitution. There is no doubt that the use of language in such a symbolic document whose provisions constitute first principles in the reading of the most important facets of national life, has important ramifications in terms of power and dominance relationships in society. This understanding has been the preoccupation of speech act theory and contemporary socio-linguistics (see Harnish, 1992; Bach, 1987; 1994; Atlas, 1989).

It was Foucault who initiated the exploration of discourse by defining discourse as "the general domain of all statements, recognizing that these utterances had meanings and effects in the real world" (see Mills as cited in Paskett, 2001). Fairclough (Ibid) developed the thesis that modern governments are particularly concerned with linkages between discourse, ideology and power relations within society. There are three different levels of discourse analysis in Fairclough's model (Ibid).

The first level involves description at the level of the text to reveal its experiential, relational and expressive values. The second level involves interpretation and the third level involves explanation. Applying Fairclough's third level of discourse analysis to the interpretation of the text in article 5b of the Liberian Constitution, reveals that the text of this constitutional provision seeks to reinforce historical power relationships and a cultural paradigm undergirded by elite Anglo-American values. However, such socio-cultural assumptions do not occur in a vacuum in the Liberian context, as attested to by both the commonwealth constitution [adopted during the process of territorial consolidation] and the Greenleaf inspired constitution of 1847.

The commonwealth constitution of 1839 for example, made no mention of, nor indeed, showed any sensitivity to the cultural sensibilities of the indigenous inhabitants, who would be co-opted to constitute the future Liberian society and national polity. The Simon Greenleaf constitution of 1847, which would be only abrogated in 1980, can be casted in similar light. In these constitutional frameworks, there was no account of the compelling historical urgency to form an all-inclusive African identity that valued all the good things embodied in the African heritage that persisted in the sub-region before the 1820s and after. In this particular context, one might add that Liberia was to ignore the warnings of Edward Blyden at its peril.

Indeed, Frempong has argued that one of the several reasons for which Liberia failed to attain successful statehood was its inability to confront the crisis of identity. It is suggested that this crisis of identity is one of several crises that must be resolved at the beginning of state formation (ibid). The 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. In an educational and learning process based on critical discourse, cultural awareness is the key to self-determination and social empowerment. Ultimately, it is this indispensable recognition of critical cultural and power awareness that elucidates the critical role of education in strengthening civil society in our contemporary age.

Concluding remarks

This article has sought to discuss the role of education in strengthening civil society in Liberia. The article has primarily sought to describe education as learning, which takes place in the process of critical discourse and interaction in the social sector. This new educational challenge of fostering participatory discourse and social action, suggests that one must place premium on the critical role of cultural and power awareness, as the basis for attaining critical consciousness in civil society. Thus, in view of the discussion in this article, two interrelated judgments can be rendered:

· The process of national renewal requires strengthening civil society through the formation of countervailing social structures, to enhance the functional capabilities of the state;

· The process of nation building must be rooted in a sense of cultural and national identity. This conclusion is particularly important for Liberia as the country is expected to head towards general elections in 2003.

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