Educational Leadership and Other Determinants of Academic Achievement in Liberia

By Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 15, 2002

The demands of educational leadership in contemporary society have never been acute and difficult. Sound educational leadership requires a national effort and mobilization of all concerned through active, full and meaningful participation in dialogue. It is only through purposive dialogue that a civic society can create a democratic space to negotiate the most difficult paths toward creating solid foundations for the learning society. As the recent history of the most successful nation states has demonstrated, the learning society is a primary requirement for the growth and maturation of public and democratic institutions.

The learning society as manifested in the free and full participation in public discourse, is a necessary condition for economic growth and development. Economic research has clearly demonstrated a strong correlation between education and social development (see Tilak, 1997). Creating conditions for the learning society is hugely important because there is a symmetrical axis between it and the ideal conditions for rational discourse. As for rational discourse, it is the key to reflective action and perspective transformation (Mezirow, 1981, 1991, 1995, 1996). It is also the key for a praxis of educational intervention and social emancipation, as Paulo Freire and others have aptly underscored, in their numerous contributions to the advancement of the historical project of education. Thus, in this essay, I will attempt to discuss how the transformation of our cognitive and meaning structures undergird educational leadership and academic achievement in contemporary Liberian society.

The challenge of educational leadership

Meeting the challenges of educational leadership in a country in transition like Liberia, is impossible without the mediation of purposive dialogic approaches that yield authentic action, in a continuing process of engagement and refinement of specific policy objectives, to promote improvement and change in the structure of educational practice. The tradition of critical discourse and social action being described in this essay pertains to a specific form of educational leadership. This type of leadership, which I would refer to as enlightened and critical educational leadership, relies on the significant role of critical reflection in making sense of one’s personal and professional experiences. It also derives its essence and meaning from cooperative and collaborative processes at two distinct but interrelated levels.

These are invariably, the micro and macro levels. The micro level pertains to schools, colleges, post-secondary vocational institutes and universities. This, in effect, is the basic institutional level, which must serve as true laboratories and infrastructures for experimenting with the most complex administrative models, consistent with the attainment of the most profound human ideals and societal goals. The macro level is the aggregate of all functioning institutions and civil society, predicated upon collectivist and collaborative impulses.

What this presupposes is the recognition of a dialectical unity between the goals of school leadership and broader societal goals. This is to say that school norms, ethics and social practices are in general, a macrocosm of the greater society. It is prudent to suggest therefore, that education as manifested in the essential learning process, can be used as an instrument to promote the ideals of social and participatory democracy. Enlightenment through transformative learning is indeed, both the prelude and sin qua non of the process of modernization and social change. Modernization in the shape of dynamic political and institutional change is the optimal goal of the educational enterprise in countries in transition. These changes, which are foundational, must take place against the backdrop of an epoch of post-modernity----marked by diversity, collectivist impulses and difference.

Mezirow (1995) sees the process of adult learning, as manifested in critical reflection and transformation in meaning schemes through intentional construal, as an adjunct to fostering participatory democracy. Emancipatory action is the end product of critical reflection and perspective transformation. John Dewey recognized this fact before the middle of the last century, when he envisioned using education as a means to foster social democracy in society (Mezirow, 1995). The attainment of social democracy in this Deweyian context is essentially a process of emancipation.

The learning process, in Lindeman’s view (see Brookfield,1987), could be described as experience, which permits the learner to interact more freely and positively with his/her environment. And discussion amounts to an attempt to bring the learning situation into alignment with the actual life situation (ibid, p. 45). Habermas has underscored the importance of discourse in his theory of communicative action. In Habermas conception of communicative rationality, all state power derives from the communicative power of its citizens. This is an understanding of power in which popular sovereignty leads to the formation of laws, and social power gets transformed into administrative power by passing through the formation of communicative power (see Fleming, 2002, p. 11). Mezirow (1996, p. 164) encapsulates the historical significance of Habermas critical theory in the western tradition in the following statements:

“Habermas transcends both the rational tradition and the cognitive revolution by grounding understanding and learning in the very structure of human communication. We cannot make sense of the concepts of meaning, understanding, and interpretation unless we evaluate the validity claims (justifications) implicit in our speech acts: that what I say is intelligible, that its prepositional content is true, that I am justified in saying it, and that I speak sincerely, without intent to deceive.”

The concept of instructional leadership, which emerged in the early 1980s, has substantiated the principle of collaborative and cooperative leadership. This pattern of leadership espouses exercising power through others, not over them (Conley and Goldman as cited in Lashway, 1995). Sergiovanni (as cited in Lashway) has reported that in a true school community, relationships are based on shared values, professional and moral authority, rather than bureaucratic authority.

In modern literature on educational administration, it is often emphasized that leadership is a managerial function that must be practiced by all members of staff. The same literature also underscores the point that management is ‘the act and science of achieving goals through people (Smith and Offerman, 1990, p. 246). Allied to this concept of leadership are notions of strategic planning and participatory research, which involve the critical circle of reflection and action. This circle essentially describes a problem solving perspective. It fosters the identification and resolution of problem issues on the basis of foresight and a democratic framework. This type of democratic educational leadership requires a vision for not merely seeing what is, but foreseeing what could be (Heaney,1993, p. 18-20).

Transformation theory and administrative competence

Transformation theory was first introduced in 1978 by Jack Mezirow. Mezirow’s theory of perspective transformation is grounded in psychoanalytic theory. Grounded theory, an inductive theory building methodology, developed by Glaser and Strauss, is one of the sources of this theory of transformative learning (Merriam, 1989). Mezirow and his colleagues at Columbia University studied women in community college reentry programs and discovered that the central process occurring in the personal development of women particularly in college reentry programs, was one of perspective transformation (ibid).

Mezirow’s theory of perspective transformation is built on three major analytical categories - experience, critical reflection and rational discourse. In Marxist terms, critical reflection leads to the dialectical transformation of meaning schemes and perspectives. Critical reflection in this dialectical context is quit distinct from Rawls’s reflective equilibrium, which forms the core of his moral methodology. Rawls posits two distinct conceptions of the process of reflective equilibrium. During the first procedure, we move back and forth from the general to the particular, until we form a coherent structure of judgments. The second procedure recognizes a sub-class of initial opinions, which are to be seen as fixed points around which all else must be accommodated. This second procedure is problematic because it does not deal adequately with the issue of relativism in moral reasoning (Brown, 1986).

In transformation theory, learners must engage in critical reflection to change meaning schemes and perspectives. Meaning schemes and meaning perspective constitute a frame of reference. Mezirow draws a distinction between meaning schemes and meaning perspectives. A meaning scheme is constituted by a cluster of feelings, specific beliefs, attitudes and value judgments that shape an interpretation. Meaning perspectives (habits of mind) consist of broad, generalized, orienting predispositions (Mezirow, 1996).

Perspective transformation is said to be the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand and feel about our world. The process of transformation in one’s habits of mind begins when we encounter experiences, often in an emotionally charged situation, that fail to fit our expectations and consequently lack meaning for us, or when we encounter an anomaly that cannot be given coherence either by learning within existing schemes or by learning new schemes (Mezirow, 1991).

Reflection is the central dynamic for learning in transformation theory. We may reflect on the content of a problem, the process of our problem solving or the premise upon which the problem is predicated. Content reflection and process reflection play a role in thoughtful action by allowing us to assess consciously what we know about taking the next step in a series of actions. Transformative learning is also the process of critical examination of problematic frames of reference that lead to the formation of new frames of reference that are more inclusive, discriminating, reflective and emotionally able to change (Marsick and Mezirow, 2002).

Transfomation learning pertains to both the transformation of meaning schemes through content and process reflection and the transformation of meaning perspectives through premise reflection (Mezirow, 1991, p. 117). At the core of the process of change in our prior interpretation of objective reality is critical reflection and dialogue in the form of rational discourse. But such dialogue must exists within a specific social and historical context and not separate from it (see Clark and Wilson, 1991).

The role of social and historical forces in shaping the lives of individuals tends to be underplayed in the theory of perspective transformation. Notions of self-direction and autonomy of learners are emphasized at the expense of more complex and contested forms of identities. Thus, socio-cultural forces play only a secondary role in this and other models built on psychoanalytic thought. Tenant, for example, reports that Mezirow does not give enough attention to the influences of social and historical forces and how they shape our lives, particularly concerning the social dimension of adult development (see Benner, 1991).

The social and cultural dimensions of adult development is particularly important for some countries in transition including Liberia, where multiple social and ethnic identities tend to be the norm. Social and historical forces in these societies may condition the persistence of contested forms of individual and communal identities. And the individual can not, therefore, be separated from these other identities on the basis of a unitary self. Thus, this dichotomy of the individual and society is transcended by an epistemology of intersubjectivity (Fleming, 2002, p. 11).

Indeed, Vygotsky, Chomsky and others have argued that understanding is inherently a social act and so are the categories of cognition and the various forms of thought in which they are expressed (Mezirow,1996 p. 160). These reservations notwithstanding, it is probable to conclude that the theory of perspective transformation posits a generic characteristic of adult development and professional growth. It is thus a primary condition for understanding the mechanism of the individual and psycho-social forces, which foster administrative and cultural competence.

The perils of taken-for-granted assumptions in national life

In all historical societies, there is often the tendency for certain socio-cultural and psychological assumptions to constrain and prohibit the growth of free participation in dialogue. In the Liberian society, there are assumptions about politics and public practice, which have severely curtailed free participation and discourse in the domains of politics and public life. Thus, contradictions in our problematic and taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of the state, bureaucratic practice and the exercise of presidential authority, have posed severed strains on one’s ability to see through the clouds and take emancipatory action.

The overbearing nature of the state as exemplified in the unlimited powers of the presidency, and the pervasiveness of bureaucratic corruption have now become cultural assumptions. These assumptions have come to be seen as almost immutable and beyond the power and control of ordinary citizens. These assumptions, however, constitute a specific form of consciousness or meaning perspective. Geuss (as cited in Mezirow, 1985, p. 145) has identified this form of consciousness as false consciousness. This falsely perceived ideology and practice have fostered dependency relationships over the years, and buttressed the formation of an elaborate patronage machine, which in turn has constrained the growth of civil society, institution building and genuine civic consciousness.

The growth of an elaborate patronage machine and clientelism in the Liberian society saw its zenith during the twenty-seven long years of the Tubman (1944-1971) administration. But this phenomenon has its roots in the historical formation and evolution of social relations in the Liberian society. In the early beginnings of its formation, the nation was rocked by racial tensions. The mulatto social class dominated the echelons of power between 1847, when the nation declared its independence, and 1878. The indigenous population found themselves at the bottom of an unfolding social structure, with no meaningful participation in governance and transactional relations. This status quo persisted until the end of the 19th century. It was not until the administration of Charles D. B. King that cabinet positions for the first time became opened to members of the indigenous social stratum.

Around 1878, it seems that the dominance of the mulatto social class had come to an end, the nation was plunged into a political crisis. This crisis engulfed the founding fathers of the nation including Edward Wilmot Blyden, Alexander Crummel, E. J. Roye and others. In the true spirit of polemics or confrontation, Crummel was moved to denounce E. J. Roye’s opponents as being opposed to the true spirit of the Black republic; these were civilization, enlightenment and missions. (Brown, 1986, p. 228). The dominance of settler society through the instrumentalities of the True Whig party after 1878, at the expense of the vast majority of the general population, signified the betrayal of an historical promise.

Few would doubt that the foundation of the (replace Liberain with Liberian) nation as a home of the oppressed and downtrodden was a high moral ideal. Blacks escaping plantation slavery and resettling from the United States on the shores of the West African sub-region were expected to introduce the best ingredients in the American experiment in their new environment; such as the habits of ‘enlightened government,’ a representative system of rule, etc. Thus, the philosopher and keen observer of American social life—Alexis De Tocqueville, commented that “ the founding of Liberia is based on a fine and grand idea” (p. 218).

At the core of the failure of the Liberian experiment was a lack of understanding of the dynamics of African life, social customs and traditions. This led to the alienation of settler society, and conditioned the imposition of a social order and an institutional model, that in many ways negated the virtues and ordinary communal solidarity, which formed the core of African life in the sub-region. The specific manner in which Liberia was incorporated in an ever-evolving international economic system, added a new dimension to existing tensions and social contradictions in society. This system was predicated upon a constellation of metropolis-satellite relations between north and south regarding the production and distribution of goods and services. The consolidation of this pattern of international economic relations was assured, with the increase in capital penetration in the wake of President Tubman’s open-door policy. Economic downturn in the early and mid-1970s, and internal social cleavages brought long-standing historical contradictions to a head during the Tolbert era.

Samuel Doe came to power in a military coup on April 12th 1980. The military coup ushered in a new era marked by violence, schizophrenia, in public policy, and renewed pressures on civil society. This disruption of a long-established political and social order was an emotionally charge situation for most members of the defunct True Whig party elite. And perhaps for all social classes and segments of society. It may have helped transformed the frames of reference of many individuals, particularly regarding their feelings and notions about the immutability of a moribund and inept political system. What this presupposes is that traumatic and epoch-making events may precipitate epochal transformations in our existing frames of reference and meaning structures. This is a central tenet, which has been envisaged by the prepositional content of Mezirow’s transfromative learning theory. However, there is the possibility that such change or attempts at change in perspective may be only contingent, merely associated with the euphoria of an event, and subsequently fading thereafter.

Such a disruption in the continuum of thought formation is possible, especially in the absence of rational discourse and critical reflection on existing meaning schemes and perspectives. This unique observation is a heuristic innovation, which perhaps could inform a platform for theory construction in the field of transformational learning. Only critical reflection through dialogue can lead to the formation of an improved frame of reference, that is more integrative of experience, discriminating and open to change in the face of new evidence to challenge, the validity claims of existing perspectives, feelings, assumptions and frames of reference. This is the new educational challenge of learning through experience. This is the meaning of transformative learning. It is also the prelude to emancipatory action to correct anomalies in our thought and in existing institutional forms.

Proprietary rule in Liberia has made it difficult, if not impossible to facilitate free and full participation in discourse. The rule of the machine guns and other instruments of war have supplanted the rule of reason and rational discourse in the public and private spheres. This process was consummated with the coming to power of the current administration. But the challenge of educational leadership is to galvanize our conscientious efforts to promote an agenda for social action. This calls for mobilizing the efforts of all concerned including students, civil servants, market women, teachers, academics, farmers, NGOs, etc.

It is only through collaborative efforts both in and outside of learning institutions, can a public space for democratic associational life be instituted and sustained. Invigorating the forces of collective action in civil society is a moral imperative, and primary requirement for higher academic achievement. This is invariably the task of theory and critique. For theory or critique can only become a historical and “material force” when it has “gripped the masses” (Marx as cited in Welton, 1995, p. 17).


This paper concludes that there is a direct relationship between the nature of educational leadership and academic achievement. Learning through critical reflection and dialogic approaches are primary determinants of administrative, communicative, and cultural competence. There is a need to mobilize the forces of civil society to aid and facilitate this process, which is essentially a process of learning and taking corrective action. This process of change also calls for adjustments in our uncritical assumptions about the organization of learning and the nature of the society in which this learning must take place.

In this connection, I wish to suggest that Mezirow’s theory of perspective transformation posits a significant model, which explains the process of revising our prior interpretation and understanding the factors, which contribute to administrative competence and democratic leadership in civic society. Central among these factors are critical reflection and the fostering of rational discourse as a precondition for the learning society, upon which a modern social system and cultural canon and must be built.

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