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Opinions Sat, 29 Sep 2018

Whatever happened to education for its own sake?

Education is a word that comes from the Latin word educare, which means “to lead out”.

It is good people who “lead others out” and inspire them to do better for themselves and their societies. In my youth, I met and was assisted by quite a few people with such a noble character – true “educators” in other words. And this article is dedicated to them with love. Are there such people still around, I wonder? If there are, this story is also to give them a part on the back and encourage them to continue helping others or “leading them out”.

Now, when one lives abroad most of the time, a gulf is inevitably opened (call it a memory or knowledge gap) between one and one’s past benefactors that can be so wide that it creates a fear which deters one from enquiring about these very people one so anxiously yearns to reconnect with. Just in case one hears that the news about them is not that good.

I have had such a spear thrust into my heart by asking about a person who played a big part in my development as a human being. When I was serving as a pupil teacher at the Asiakwa Presbyterian Junior School in mid-1954-55, one of the deepest friendships I struck was with a teacher at the adjacent Presbyterian Senior School called Kofi Anin, or to give him his “official” name, Teacher Ebenezer Anin Asamoah.

He was one of the few Asiakwa scholars who had not only got good grades in the Cambridge School Certificate examination, but who was interested in trying to continue his education on his own to the university level, not having gone on to study in the Sixth Form.

He did this by taking a correspondence course that would enable him to pass his “A” levels – a “correspondence course” from a famous and very useful educational institution called Wolsey Hall, in London.

It was Teacher Asamoah who, together with another person who was thirsty for knowledge called Kwabena Ettoh, instigated the formation at Asiakwa of a branch of the People’s Educational Association (PEA).

PEA classes were organised by the University of Ghana’s Extra-Mural Studies Department. If you formed a branch of the PEA in your town or village, and were able to sign up a prescribed number of members (twenty or so) the Extra-Mural Studies Department would fish out appropriately qualified university graduates near your station and pay them to come once a week to lecture your branch on any discipline(s) the members chose to study in depth.

Although as a person with a mere Middle School Leaving Certificate, I was supposed to have had an “inferior” education. Kofi Asamoah and Kwabena Ettoh saw enough aptitude in me to urge me join the PEA. I did so with alacrity, for I harboured an insatiable thirst for knowledge, which had been thwarted mainly by a lack of financial resources that would have enabled me to go to a secondary school.

My ambition had driven me to seek the company of Messrs. Asamoah and Ettoh, who were delighted to let drop pieces of knowledge my way that would otherwise have passed me by and which they needed to recall by way of “revision” or else lose it.

Asamoah, as a post-secondary senior school teacher, was earning enough to have been able to buy a wireless set, and almost every morning, I trotted over to his house to listen to the BBC news with him. He was so full of a desire to hear about and discuss world affairs that we spent endless hours dissecting contemporary history. Names of actors on the world scene that I’d never heard before became familiar to me.

Asamoah and Ettoh addressed each other – for no reason that I could discover – as “Jeff”! I was extremely pleased when a few weeks after I’d begun to enjoy their company frequently, they began to address me, too, as “Jeff”.

We laughed a lot as we discussed the news of the time – what was happening in Cyprus; the rise of Bulganin and Khrushchev in the Soviet Union (it was from Asamoah’s lips that I first heard the feared name of “Beria”, as that of a mass murderer whom Stalin had used to kill off millions of Soviet citizens whom Stalin suspected of being “the enemies of the people”) and who, ironically, was also killed later without much ceremony himself.

It felt so good being in the company of people who knew about the world “in real time” such as the two “Jeffs”. One of the games Asamoah and I played as we listened to the BBC news together was to guess the name of the BBC news reader from the few words he said before he announced his name. “This is London calling. Here is the news read by…..”

“Derek Baker!” we would shout together.

Or: “Leslie Tucker!”

“Alexander Morris [misheard for “Moyes”, a name that was unknown to us).

“No wrong! It’s Foster Morris!” (Again, we were wrong: the actual name was “Norris.”)

“Young Star!” (For Ian Stamp).

“Roger Collins!” [For Collinge]

“Peter King!” (Such a deep voice that no-one could mistake him for someone else.) And so on!

We just enjoyed doing these things and being connected with the world through the BBC in London. None of us thought, of course, that we would ever step in London or speak on the BBC (which I frequently did -- several years later!)

But it was at the PEA lectures that we most enjoyed ourselves. We had been through an educational system in which learning had been a “duty” or “task”. A teacher passed the knowledge over to you; you chewed it “by heart” and recited it back to him when he asked you to do so. If you failed to reproduce what you had been taught, you [usually] got punished. So your “education” was entirely concerned with what we irreverently described as “chew, pour and forget”.

And forget you often did, because the information taught to you usually had no practical relevance whatsoever to the life you actually led and your interest in it was mostly for examinations purposes and nothing else. Meanwhile, the knowledge you really needed -- expertise in agriculture, an elementary knowledge of commerce and the law, elementary engineering and basic accounting, were kept out of the curriculum and treated with a certain amount of disdain! .."Vocations" could be acquired after schooling, not during it!

But the lectures we got at PEA classes were different. They were of immediate, practical use to us. At Asiakwa, we all wanted to improve our English and so we chose English as our first preferred subject. Our lecturer, picked by the university for us from one of its former students who had read English, was called Mr E C E Asiamah. He was then teaching English at nearby Abuakwa State College, Kyebi, and he was brilliant. He taught us how to avoid making elementary mistakes when writing in English.

He taught us, for instance, that there was no such word as “enviness” in the English language. “Envy” was both a verb and a noun! He also taught us about prepositions and how to use them correctly; regular and irregular verbs. He corrected many of the howlers then prevalent in the use of English in Ghana for us, and also taught us how to pronounce certain words correctly. It was through him that I learnt how to use ‘A Dictionary of English Pronunciation’ by Daniel Jones .

But above all, Mr Asiamah encouraged us to write essays on subjects which we really knew something about, not abstract topics picked from textbooks that often bore no direct relationship to our real lives. I remember one essay title he gave us: “Beggars”. That was almost certainly my first attempt at writing what must have come across to him as a piece of journalism, for it described what I had myself seen at markets, and retold some rumours I had heard about how certain rich people had started life as beggars.

I was thrilled when Mr Asiamah told me he would let me read the “Beggars” essay to the whole class. Since the class included some relatively senior people (including a head-teacher and a priest) his asking me to read it to all of them gave me a psychological boost that built up a self-confidence which was later to serve me very well in life. Unfortunately, he had so much to teach us that day that there was no time for me to make my debut as a stage star! He drove away to Kyebi as soon as it began to get dark! (There was no electricity at Asakwa then!)

Mr Asiamah reinforced the advice Mr Asamoah had been giving me to the effect that I should tryand do a GCE course at the Ordinary Level by a correspondence course. The six subjects I chose included Latin (for in those days you could not hope to enter the university unless you had either Latin (for an arts degree) or Maths (for a science degree.) For my Latin lessons, Mr Asiamah kindly invited me to travel to Kyebi once a week to receive personal tuition from himself.

It was a wonderful time in my life when my head was bursting with knowledge that had been freshly acquired. I also thoroughly enjoyed my trips to Kyebi, where there was a library full of exciting novels. The PEA also bore the expense of sending a box of books to us each month, which we circulated and exchanged among ourselves.

Unfortunately, my pal, Kwabena Ettoh, who had contracted tuberculosis while studying at a commercial college at Somanya expired a few years after we had begun the PEA classes. We were all grief-stricken. But life must go on, and in the mean time, Asamoah succeeded in obtaining his A Levels. We celebrated his success as he went on to do a B.A. at Legon.

I, in my turn, obtained five passes at the “O” Level after 15 months of studying part-time by correspondence course [from the Rapid Results College, London], whilst still teaching. Mr Asiamah was exceedingly proud of me and praised my name all over Abuakwa State College, telling the students what a person not as privileged to be in a secondary school (unlike them) could do, if he worked hard enough. When I needed a testimonial to go to work at the Ghana Broadcasting System, Mr Asiamah wrote me one that would have impressed the choosiest of employers.

Fast forward: I shall never forget the day Mr Asamoah walked into my office unannounced when I was editor of the Daily Graphic! I had the great pleasure of introducing him to some members of my staff as one of the men who inspired me to acquire the qualifications that had eventually earned me the job of editor. I sent for a beer and we sat down and reminisced a lot about our days at Asiakwa. I now wish I had excused myself from work and taken him out for dinner. But being an editor has its own tyrannical routines that can only be evaded at great risk.

I learnt that Asamoah later left Ghana for “Agege” in the “brain-drain” epidemic” that struck Ghana in the 1970s and which took so many of our citizens to oil-rich Nigeria. The last time I saw him he’d retired and returned to Asiakwa. But unfortunately, he’d gone blind. I remember him telling me modestly that he was still pursuing the intellectual life by listening to audio books sent to him by his children.

A few years passed. Then, one day, I asked about him from someone.

“Oh, he passed away about two years ago!”, the person said.

“You don’t say?”

The shock nearly incapacitated me.“Yes – Kofi Anin too is gone!”

I was dumb-struck. I can only say to his wife, “Awo” Dede, “Condolences and thanks so much for taking such loving care of my old friend, “Jeff”. He was certainly a man who taught me that knowledge was to be acquired for its own sake; that this should be a voluntary, enjoyable process; and that when knowledge was acquired, it should not be flaunted, but used expertly – and humbly — to inspire others and help improve or advance their intellect; teach them to apply and relate the knowledge they acquired to matters relevant to them and their society.

Just imagine that this country had had more scholars with such an analytical, independent-minded and (above all) an altruistic attitude, instead of churning out the mercenary Ph.D rote-learners that abound in our country and who drive the nation into more social darkness with each passing day: The chief executive of such and such company, Dr Asomasi, has been asked by EOCO to explain how the colossal sum of…. was paid to A or B without going through the correct processes”… etc

Kofi Anin, Madamfo Pa, da yie, wae! [Rest in peace my Good Friend Kofi Anin!] May God receive and preserve your fine spirit. And may your example inspire others to approach the acquisition of knowledge with finesse and a desire to serve others with it — as you did for me — and not only to glorify themselves and use their knowledge to steal money that ought to help Ghana to build more and better roads, hospitals and schools.

Columnist: Kantarakam