African Curriculum Materials

African Curriculum Materials

Africans as Primary Actors in Their own Lives and Lands: Validating African Curriculum Materials

Paper presented at the African Studies Association meeting, Baltimore, November 3, l990

Nancy J. Schmidt, Africana Bibliographer, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN (permission to reprint granted)

In 1969 Barry K. Beyer wrote a pioneering guide to African curriculum in elementary and secondary schools that represented some of the best reformist thinking of the l960s about the role of Africa in U.S. school curricula: Africa South of the Sahara; A Resource and Curriculum Guide (New York: Crowell). In this guide Beyer stated:

Africa must be studied from the inside, in its own terms. No culture or region can be accurately understood or analyzed through the values and assumptions of another culture (p.23)

In 1989 Barry K. Beyer was one of three co-authors of a high school textbook, World History: Traditions and New Directions (Menlo Park: Addison Wesley), in which 30 of 878 pages focus on Africa and Africa is mentioned on a few other pages. The chapters which focus on Africa are on kingdoms of ancient Africa, diversity in Africa, empires and kingdoms 1450-1800, imperial control, impact and resistance, African independence, and culture of Sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is not mentioned in the first chapter on roots of civilization and prehistory, yet there is prehistoric evidence of culture from Africa earlier than anywhere else in the world. A world time line (pp. 838 ff) begins at 30,000 B.C. for Europe, 24,000 B.C. for Asia and 5,000 B.C. for Africa when agriculture was introduced into Africa. In the chapter on ancient Egypt there is no mention of Sub-Saharan African connections or influences. In short, the revisionist historical scholarship of the last two decades is not represented in this textbook, which is highly Eurocentric in focus despite the attempt to include more information about non-European areas than was included in world history textbooks two decades ago.

How can Barry Beyer be a coauthor of such a book which studies Africa from the outside, when in 1969 he said that Africa must be studied on its own terms and presented resources that would assist in an African-centered approach? Beyer's 1969 book was an independent effort, unrelated to textbooks adopted by school systems or state boards of education, designed to change teachers' and curriculum designers' approaches to teaching about Africa.

Beyer's work and that of others in the 1960s did influence the thinking of some teachers and curriculum developers. The amount of information about Africa included in textbooks has increased in the last 20 years. The accuracy of information about Africa included in textbooks has improved, although certainly not enough. Yet most textbooks remain Eurocentric in focus even when they incorporate primary materials by Africans. The bureaucratic structures of textbook publishers, textbook review committees, state and local boards of education insure this. These are formidable structures to deal with. Only a few states such as New York and North Carolina, and relatively few school districts, including Portland, Oregon, have been able to mobilize sufficient support to overcome entrenched structures and introduce African perspectives into some curriculum units.

The challenge for most teachers who want to teach about Africa in U.S. classrooms is how to introduce African perspectives in focus. Teachers are faced with at least six major challenges in introducing African perspectives into the curriculum:

1. finding materials (print, audio, visual) in which African viewpoints are expressed 2. selecting which African viewpoints to include 3. providing balance in presenting different African viewpoints 4. selecting viewpoints which inform but do not reinforce stereotypes 5. selecting materials that students as well as teachers understand and respond to 6. providing context so that African and Eurocentric viewpoints can be compared and understood

In the last 20 years several different approaches have been used in incorporating primary materials in the curriculum to represent African perspectives. I will briefly discuss and critique several materials that use these approaches as a means of exemplifying the scope of the challenges just mentioned.

In 1970 Leon Clark edited Through African Eyes (New York: Praeger), a six volume collection of primary resources written by politics, which has been revised and is being published in two volumes by CITE (Center for International Training and Education, New York, Vol.1, 1988, Vol.2, 1991). Each selection from a primary source is several pages long- long enough for the author to develop his/her ideas and to provide the reader with an impression of the authors style. Through African Eyes includes fiction and poetry that express African viewpoints by well-known writers such as Chinua Achebe, David Diop and Stanlake Samkange, as well as expository prose.

The primary resources are divided into topical sections. Clark has written an introduction to each selection that places it in the context in which it was originally created. The introductions provide background that can help students understand the different origins of African and Eurocentric perspectives.

As an Africanist scholar Clark is familiar with a wide range of material on Africa, and has selected works that are relatively accurate, by important, well-known and respected authors. Thus the selections are relatively well-balanced to represent different kinds of African perspectives.

The readings in Through African Eyes are quite flexible. They can be used in their entirety as a high school curriculum on Africa, or may be used in part to fit into history or social studies curricula on Africa, or to introduce African perspectives into general curricula on history, colonialism or nationalism. The readings can be used on their own or in conjunction with curriculum suggestions that are published in a separate volume, Teaching Strategies.

Few teachers could individually select such a wide range of African viewpoints to include in a curriculum. Most teachers lack access to a wide range of resources from which to make selections. Very few libraries in the U.S. have comprehensive collections of materials on Africa. Even fewer have collections which include materials published in Africa.

A very different approach to using primary resources is found in Problems of Africa, Opposing Viewpoints (St. Paul: Greenhaven Press, 1986) compiled by Janelle Rohr. The opposing viewpoints Series for high school and community college students uses newspapers, magazines, popular journals and books "to help readers become more intelligent and discriminating consumers of information in our media-centered culture" (back cover). Most volumes in the series focus on American topics such as AIDS, abortion, animal rights, the arms race, U.S. foreign policy and death and dying. Of more than 30 volumes in the series, less than five focus on foreign areas. Neither Rohr, nor the series editors, David Bender and Bruno Leone, have significant African expertise.

Although some African viewpoints are included in Problems of Africa, no attempt was made to provide them on all topics or to balance them with non-African viewpoints. Almost all selections come from U.S. and British publications which are included in standard indexes and bibliographies and are readily accessible to non-specialists. The brief introduction to each selection sometimes identifies the occupation of the author, eg. journalist, politician, but context for the selections is not provided. Instead the introduction includes a one or two sentence summary of the selection that follows and a list of questions to think about when reading the selection.

The structure of the entire volume has a strong Eurocentric bias, beginning with the title, Problems of Africa. Why not have a title such as political issues in Africa or challenges in Africa? The five chapters in which the primary resources are included are also biased. Although chapter 1 is entitled, What are the causes of Africa's problems?, the problems are identified and discussed by non-Africans. Not one African viewpoint is included in this chapter. Chapter 2, Have the Superpowers Hindered Africa's Development? takes an external perspective in which Africa is presented as responding to outside forces rather than internal goals. Only one African perspective is included in this chapter. The title of the third chapter, Why is Famine Prevalent in Africa? is erroneous. The compiler equates food shortage and famine in organizing the chapter in which no African perspectives are expressed. Most of the African viewpoints are expressed in the fourth and fifth chapters on apartheid and South Africa. Including two of five chapters on only one African country is an incredible imbalance in a book which purports to cover the continent. Issues of concern in South Africa are not typical of those of the continent.

Problems of Africa informs and reinforces stereotypes. For some topics it misinforms because there are factual errors both in some chapter introductions and selections. Misinformation also occurs because Africa is treated as a country, not as a diverse continent. Information on only a few African countries is included, and there are many generalizations about the continent which are unsubstantiated. Problems of Africa also reinforces stereotypes because the structure of the volume and the questions for student discussion assume that everything is wrong with Africa.

If individual teachers were to try to select their own readings from the press on current issues in Africa, they would have some of the same problems as the compilers of Problems of Africa, if they used only the American and British materials that are most readily accessible. Few African perspectives are expressed in Euroamerican mainstream media. Most teachers will not have access to African newspapers and magazines in which a wide range of African perspectives on contemporary issues are discussed or to American publications such as Africa News or Africa Report which express some African viewpoints. These kinds of materials are not available in most school libraries, curriculum resources centers and public libraries.

Global Insights (Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Publishing Company) incorporates primary materials in an author written text that is organized by topics more relevant to Africans than those in Problems of Africa. "Global Insights Africa" is one section of the Global Insights textbook. The 1980 edition was written by Ella Leppert and Ellen Johnson, and the 1988 edition was written by Katherine Thuermer. Johnson and Thuermer have considerable African expertise. The authored text and short selections of a few paragraphs to two pages from primary resources are interspersed in the coverage of each topic. The selections include oral literature, fiction, poetry and expository prose. Many of the selections are too short to grasp the author's full argument or show the author's styles, the arts and development. The 1988 edition provides three case studies on Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, which represent the diversity of large English- speaking nations in which the U.S. has a special interest. Three case studies are preferable to one. It is not possible to show the diversity of the continent in a short textbook. The framework of the general chapters, Adapting to the Environment, African Heritage, From Colonialism to Nationalism, Arts in Daily Life and Challenges to Development, is more Africa-centered than in Problems of Africa or World History. There is some focus on what Africans are doing rather than on what is happening to Africa as a result of external forces. Many African viewpoints are expressed, although not in depth.

"Global Insights Africa" includes attractive, interesting illustrations, but some of their captions are not as accurate as the text. This is a result of the editors, rather than authors, writing captions. The questions in "Global Insights Africa" encourage inquiry, rather than focusing on forming opinions based on limited data as in Problems of Africa. The questions in both textbooks tell students what to look for in the primary resources, rather than letting students interpret the primary resources on their own.

Changes were made in the primary resources by Africans in the second edition of "Global Insights Africa." One resources dropped was a long selection from Wole Soyinka's play, The Swamp Dwellers. Although Soyinka was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature, his writing is not easily accessible to American high school students, and thus is not as appropriate for inclusion as that of some other African creative writers. This example serves as a reminder that materials expressing African viewpoints need to be selected for appropriateness to the focus of curricula and the abilities of students, just as do materials expressing American or other viewpoints, and that high quality materials which appeal to teachers and curriculum developers may not be appropriate for inclusion in school curricula.

A different approach to providing African perspectives in American curricula on Africa is to have Africans write material explicitly for American students. I will provide two examples of materials prepared as curriculum supplements.

The essays in Lessons from Africa (Bloomington, In.: Social Studies Curriculum Development Center, 1989) edited by Merry Merryfield, were written by African teachers and curriculum developers who were taking advanced degrees in education at Indiana University. The essays focus on commonplace activities of African teenagers and are intended to supplement social studies curricula in middle schools. The topics covered, include daily activities of 13 year olds, marriage, family, food, etiquette and Kenyan and Liberian stereotypes of America. The essays are on specific countries or ethnic groups in English speaking Africa, and incorporate viewpoints of the authors and their perceptions of what American young people should know about Africa.

These essays are not without problems for use in some schools. The authors vary in their writing skills and use of English. For example, the idiomatic use of English differs in the U.S. and Lesotho or Liberia. For stylistic reasons, the essays will vary in their appeal to American students. Some of the material in the essays reinforces stereotypes at the same time that it informs. For stylistic reasons, the essays will vary in their appeal to American students. Some of the materials in the essays reinforces stereotypes at the same time that it informs. For example, the emphasis on topics like polygyny or the use of terms such as "tribe" and "hut," which do not have the negative connotations in the authors' countries as they do in the U.S.

The African Outreach Program at the University of Illinois has assembled a large number of handouts written by Africans and Africanists and compiled them in Curriculum Materials for Teachers, which has been issued in several editions since 1983. These are materials which can be photocopied and distributed to students. Almost all of the authors are or were affiliated with the University of Illinois as students or faculty. Biographical information is provided on the authors in compilation.

The materials, intended as supplements to social studies curricula in elementary and secondary schools, are on diverse and specific topics such as folktales, directions for playing African games, information about and instructions for making adinkra cloth, music, sports, cocoa production, tourism and economic development. Most materials focus on a specific country and are written on topics for which the authors have subject expertise. The African Outreach Program at the University of Illinois has prepared a volume of readings in French, Afrique en Francais (1986) compiled by Severine Arlabosse, for use in French language classes at the beginning and intermediate levels. The information in this volume focuses on French-speaking African countries.

The materials created at Indiana University and the University of Illinois and usually present only one viewpoint on each topic. The subjects and countries covered are limited by expertise of those who voluntarily will write materials for use in American schools.

As these examples show, letting Africans speak for themselves in African focused and African centered contexts in American schools is not easy to achieve. The most useful materials which include African perspectives are created outside the formal textbook structure. They must be sought out by teachers, since they are not published by major U.S. publishers of Curriculum materials.

African focused materials and primary resources by Africans need to be evaluated for their relevance to specific curriculum goals by the same kinds of criteria as any materials on Africa are evaluated. Some of these criteria include:

1. What are the credentials of the author? 2. Is the subject matter up-to-date or current for the historical period represented? 3. Is the level of generalization appropriate for the subject? 4. Is the conceptual framework relevant to Africa and Africans? 5. Is the vocabulary appropriate for the topic discussed, or are biased, loaded, condescending, sensational or other inappropriate terms used?

More detailed criteria for evaluating materials can be found in my essay, Criteria for Evaluating Precollegiate Teaching Materials on Africa (Issue (Los Angeles) 3/4 (1980): 58-60) and in Louise Crane's essay, some Guideline for Evaluating Materials About Africa for Children (Curriculum Materials for Teaching. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1983, pp. 71-74). It is highly desirable to incorporate African perspectives in teaching about Africa in American schools, but primary materials must be selected with the same care and concern for appropriateness and validity as are other materials on Africa.

In the last 20 years the most successful approach to incorporating African perspective in American curricula is that taken by Leon Clark Through African Eyes. Primary materials written and spoken by Africans are introduced, in relation to the context in which they were originally created, into American history and social studies curricula. What is desperately needed in the 1990s is a greater infusion of this approach into mainstream social studies and history curricula on Africa.

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D.
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