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Category archive: Africa

Monday July 14 2008

Carlin Romano, who teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about honorary degrees, in The Chronicle Review.  He begings his piece by arguing that honorary degrees do nothing for universities.  He quotes Jacques Barzun, who says: “the honorary degree as now commonly dealt out has lost its point”, and: “The Chairman of the Board of General Aphrodisiacs may be all that is said of him in the citation, but it is not a judgment on which the university should set its seal.” Universities should stick to rewarding measurable academic excellence.  MIT and Harvard eke out their existences without awarding any such degrees.  Others should follow their example, says Romano.

But then he gets to the matter of Robert Mugabe.


Yet for all this history and perspective, indicating that honorary degrees and their nullifications amount to tempests in teapots, the peculiar biography of Robert Mugabe makes the matter more complicated. Recent journalistic attention to Zimbabwe’s tragedies, welcome as it is, has provided little context about the man causing them. For that, we’re fortunate to have three incisive books on him published in the last decade: Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe, by Martin Meredith (Public Affairs, 2002); Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe, by David Blair (Continuum, 2002); and Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, by Stephen Chan (University of Michigan Press, 2003).

All paint a portrait of Mugabe that may surprise non-Africa hands ignorant of his prepresidential life. Born in the Jesuit mission station of Kutama on February 21, 1924, the third of six children in a family abandoned by his father (a dyspeptic carpenter who moved 300 miles away and took another wife), young Mugabe could not have been more bookish as he rose to become a teacher.

“All accounts describe him in the same words,” writes Blair, “diligent, quiet, studious, introverted.” Mugabe shunned smoking and drinking alcohol and “excelled academically” at every institution he attended, including South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, the hotbed of African nationalism from which Nelson Mandela had been expelled earlier. During Mugabe’s 11 years of imprisonment, from 1963 to 1974, under Zimbabwe’s white-ruled predecessor state of Rhodesia, the future president enrolled in University of London correspondence courses and earned four degrees — a master’s degree in economics, a bachelor’s degree in administration, and two law degrees — to go with the three bachelor’s degrees he already possessed, in economics, education, and history and literature.

Meredith writes of how Mugabe in prison “resumed his studies with fierce dedication, his books piled on both sides of his bed.” The prisoner’s late wife, Sally Hayfron, then living in London, copied out whole volumes by hand and posted them as letters to her husband. When Mugabe finally won release from prison, in November 1974, he held seven academic degrees.

So even now, after more than three decades in which the former Marxist revolutionary leader — seen as conciliatory toward opponents at Zimbabwe’s independence — has evolved into a murderous autocrat, Mugabe’s lust for academic credibility may endure. In the paranoid recesses of Mugabe’s octogenarian brain, stripping him of degrees may exact a toll few can imagine.

In which case, it’s probably time for Michigan State University, which doled out an honorary doctorate to Mugabe in 1990, to step up. And what about those seven earned degrees? Can a university revoke degrees earned in a correspondence course? How? By sending Mugabe a letter? Why not leave him only the eighth academic laurel he famously boasts of — “a degree in violence”?

Now, after Zimbabwe’s latest parody of democracy, the man once called “Satan’s apostle” by his also-ruthless white predecessor stands as the re-elected president of Zimbabwe. If things keep going as they’re going, however, Mugabe can forget about retiring to one of those handsomely endowed chairs at a Florida university, the sort that draw Oxford dons seeking to up their pay in a sunny place.

He simply won’t have the credentials.

A degree in education.  How about that?

The idea of stripping Mugabe of his various degrees, honorary and real, was causing much mockery on Mock The Week, when I watched the latest manifestation of it a few days ago, as did England refusing to play cricket against Zimbabwe next year.  But it would appear that even if taking his degrees away won’t now do anything to stop Mugabe, this might cause him some small degree (so to speak) of hurt.

More Mugabe honorary degree complaint here.

Tuesday April 29 2008

I seem to be writing rather a lot about sociology, in the sense of how different power structures elicit radically different behaviour from the same people.

It occurs to me that one of the particular clichés of our culture just now, the stroppy middle class teenager, proves the point even more forcefully.  I refer to the teenager who is (a) monstrously badly behaved towards his or her own parents, but who is, simultaneously, (b) much better behaved towards other people.  The difference in behaviour is explained by the fact that the parents are defenceless against their own teenagers.  Can’t live with them, can’t kill them, etc.  In particular, can’t either torture them or else chuck the ungrateful parasites out into the street and slam their front doors in their faces.  Whereas, other people can do various versions of this.  They can either chuck them out, or shun them.

imageThis syndrome applies particularly to middle class teenagers, because their parents are the most dutiful and anti-punitive, hence most defenceless, and because middle class teenagers are quite well educated and have good prospects in the world at large, provided they treat the world at large with a modicum of politeness and don’t completely piss it off.  Their parents will forgive them no matter what they do.  The world will not be so forgiving.  The teenagers know this and act accordingly.

Middle class teenagers who are vicious to their parents but nice to others remind me of King Leopold II of Belgium.  King Leopold II was, simultaneously, a satisfactory King of Belgium, and a spectacularly disgusting ruler of the Belgian Congo, which was his personal possession and in which he murdered and plundered at will.  He deserves to be far better known, as the first of the great modern mass murderer-predators, alongside Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest of them.  King Leopold II behaved nicely in Belgium because he had to.  King Leopold II behaved disgustingly in Africa because he could.  Exact same principle.

Thursday April 03 2008

imageSuddenly I am being emailed with news of interesting videos, and I’m very glad about this.

Here‘s the best video I’ve been emailed about so far.  It’s a talk by Cambridge Maths Professor Neil Turok about his African childhood, his research work at Cambridge, and about AIMS, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.  As you can see from all the categories this posting has at the bottom, he covers a lot of ground.  There could have been more.

Favourite Turok quote: “We want Africa to be rich.” Once again, there’s that enterpreneurship vibe.  I’m not stuffing that word into his mouth.  He used it.

Strongly recommended.  And, I would say, a perfect example of how valuable it is to make progress by doing the very best you can for your best students, and not just the best you can for regular students.  It’s also a first class example of seizing an opportunity instead of just moaning about problems.

Monday February 04 2008

James Tooley on the educational free market in Africa:

An estimated 40 million primary-school age children in sub-Saharan Africa are not in school and in half of the countries less than 60% finish the full course of schooling. But staying the course isn’t such a great idea either. The United Nations recently reported that, “Most poor children who attend primary school in the developing world learn shockingly little.”

A common response to these problems is to call for billions more in aid for public education. The poor must “be patient,” the development experts opine, because public education needs first to be reformed to rid it of corruption and inefficiencies.

But there is another way of solving this problem and it is being illuminated by, of all people, some of the poorest parents on earth. These parents are abandoning public schools en masse to send their children to budget private schools that charge low fees of a few dollars per month, affordable even to families living on poverty-line wages. In the shantytowns of Lagos, Nigeria, for instance, or the poor rural areas surrounding Accra, Ghana, or in Africa’s largest slum, Kibera, Kenya, the majority of schoolchildren – up to 75% – are enrolled in private schools.

Recent research has shown these budget private schools are superior to government schools because teachers were much more likely to be teaching when researchers checked in on classrooms unannounced, facilities were often better equipped with drinking water and toilets, and academic achievement was much higher, even after controlling for background variables. All of this was accomplished for a fraction of the per-pupil teacher cost.

Here in Britain we can, sort of, afford to waste billions every year on our crappy state sector, so we do.  In Africa, they can’t afford such nonsense, and in way, they’re lucky.  The people there know that either they solve the problem, or it doesn’t get solved by anybody.

Saturday December 29 2007

News from South Africa: Schools and teachers need a lot more jacking up.  Here in the UK, everyone is doing better, according to the exam results.  In South Africa, they appear not to have mastered the trick of proving that everything is getting better even though it’s not.

So, my long distance guess is: in South Africa, they very possibly have a distinctly non-corrupt and quite informative examination system, which actually tells them which pupils are half reasonable and which ones are getting nowhere.

Tuesday November 27 2007

From The Times:

A British teacher faces a jail sentence in Sudan for insulting Islam by letting her class of seven-year-olds name a teddy bear Muhammad as part of a school project.

My first hope was that this would be journalists getting over-excited.  This, on the other hand, doesn’t sound like over-excitement:

Yesterday she was in isolation in a cell in Khartoum, and colleagues and the consular authorities were desperately trying to negotiate her release.

So how did she get into this pickle?  Judging by the cannily chosen photo at the top of the piece ...


Ms Gibbons is a lady who is willing to take risks in order to learn.  And the report says:

Ms Gibbons had left Liverpool for Sudan in July, after leaving her job as a primary school deputy head in the city. An experienced traveller whose MySpace entry talks of her passion for learning about other cultures, ...

Now a bit more experienced.