P. T. Mgadla. A History of Education in the Bechuanaland Protectorate to 1965. Lanham: University Press of America, 2003. xvii + 231 pp. $49.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7618-2488-6.
Reviewed by David Penna (Department of Government and History, Gallaudet University)
Published on H-SAfrica (July, 2004)
Studying Colonial Education in Botswana
One of the nice things about on-line reviews is that they frequently provide a forum for discussion between authors and readers. When reading an interesting book, whether fiction or non-fiction, I, like perhaps many other readers, find myself questioning the author's decisions at various points or wondering how the author might reconcile a particular fact with what was concluded in the book or pondering a whole host of other questions. I found myself regularly running such questions through my mind while reading P. T. Mgadla's A History of Education in the Bechuanaland Protectorate to 1965.
This volume provides a discussion of educational policy in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (present-day Botswana) during the colonial period. The author draws upon the writings of missionaries, colonial administrative reports and interviews for much of the primary data for the study.
I believe the strength of this work lies in the author's excellent job of accessing these primary sources and collecting the partial and fragmentary information that exists in widely scattered reports, journals and manuscripts on this under-researched topic. The research is thorough and reflects the author's years of delving into these sources both before and after his dissertation on the same topic. The extensive list of references presented is sure to be of assistance to future researchers.
In writing a book such as this, one of the challenges that any author must face is identifying the reading audience. The universe of those academics interested in colonial education in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (BP) is obviously exceedingly small; the author implicitly recognizes this in providing a useful glossary at the end of the text and a note on terminology in the introductory materials where important Setswana terms are defined. On the other hand, in the text itself, at times, the author seems to assume that readers have considerable knowledge of colonial history in the area by referring to important events and persons while providing little background. Again, this is a difficult balance that any author must maintain between dealing with the matter at hand and providing relevant background information; I would submit that the endnotes could have been better utilized in this regard. Perhaps I start with this relatively minor point because I think it highlights one of the disappointments I have with this book: the author rarely steps outside of the discussion of educational policy in the BP to address wider issues that both impact that policy and are impacted by it. Of course, the author notes the differences between European and African education in the BP and South Africa, the disparity in expectations and opportunities for females as opposed to males, and, to a much lesser extent, the lack of opportunity for subject peoples. He also touches upon a few external events such as the impact of World War II and the promulgation of the Bantu Education Act in South Africa; the former is dealt with in a sentence or two while more attention is paid to the latter. Even when dealing with these issues, however, the author does not provide enough context. It is reported how much the government spent on education in various years (pp. 128, 159-160) and the author concludes it is inadequate, which it surely was, but we are not given any standard to determine how inadequate it was. What was spent in South Africa at a comparable time or in Basutoland or elsewhere?
Provision of context is an essential task for a historian. While we are reminded that male teachers are paid more than female teachers throughout this era, even when they have comparable qualifications (pp. 122, 143), we are not informed of the gravity of the situation which is only superficially reflected in wage amounts. The author could have noted the impossible situation this would have placed women in by referencing the traditional division of labor within Tswana society. While wages paid to both male and female African teachers may have been barely at the subsistence level, a married male teacher could depend on his wife's agricultural output to supplement this income. Conversely, a married female teacher would either be expected to work both in the classroom and the fields or risk not being able to support herself and her family on the teaching salary alone.
Aside from the treatment in the brief epilogue, little attention is devoted to how developments in colonial education policy in the BP parallel or contrast with colonial education policy elsewhere. Even more significantly, in my opinion, is the fact that there is little linkage to the post-independence era. This may be, in part, my bias as a political scientist: the lasting impacts of this colonial policy are at least as significant to me as the injustices that were endured several generations ago by uneducated, partially educated and even comparatively well-educated Batswana. Professor Mgadla does note some patterns in passing, such as the high percentage of female students in primary school, but does not trace the implications of the pattern, for good or ill. Today, are there more Batswana women with higher education than in other countries? Could the unintentional effect of the colonial policy have been to create a degree of acceptance for female education that may be lacking in other African cultures?
Indeed, the blurb on the book cover indicates that one of the central arguments of the author concerns the underdevelopment of education by missionaries and the colonial administration in the BP and the negative attitudes of these authorities toward women and minority groups. Some useful attention is devoted to this topic in the study, but it is difficult to document this thesis in a convincing way. One reason is because education in general was so badly funded, administered and frequently sporadic that it would be difficult to compare, for example, the access to education for groups that lived in remote areas compared to Batswana who lived in remote areas. As for the status of women, in lower primary education (which was most widely available) girls represented a significantly higher proportion of the enrollment than boys. Did the later decline in female enrollment at upper levels represent negative missionary/colonial attitudes or traditional setswana cultural pressures? Mgadla partly makes the case that differential advanced curriculum for boys and girls demonstrates the culpability of foreign influence, but it seems that this aspect of gender differentiation was not initially significantly different than traditional attitudes. This is an issue that deserves further study and it is raised well, but not resolved by this study.
Another issue raised implicitly by the study is the extent to which colonial education policy was used to achieve other goals. Clearly missionary education was focused upon spreading Christianity. Professor Mgadla emphasizes the resource constraints impacting the provision of education in terms of budgetary issues and the supply of trained teachers. But a larger political question concerns why the budget was so small. In part, as the author seems to suggest, racist and imperialist notions about the appropriate level and extent of education for Africans certainly played a role. But what about economic interests related to providing a labor reserve for the South African mining and industrial complex? And what about similar elitism within the British educational system itself? The book is stronger in outlining Batswana's objections to various educational curricula they felt were not in their interests, such as the emphasis on vocational education favored by some in the colonial period and the focus upon the religious aspects of education in the missionary period. The author also raises, at several points, colonial concerns to not create a "native" intelligentsia that might challenge colonial rule, but the point is not developed. It would be informative to know to what extent any of these concerns truly animated education policy in the Bechuanaland Protectorate and to what extent they were rationalizations for policies favored for other reasons.
A History of Education in the Bechuanaland Protectorate to 1965 does an excellent job of recounting what has happened; it even does a satisfactory job of presenting some statements by administrators and historical figures as to why some things happened. What it does not do is assess the credibility of these statements. For example, one early government education inspector is quoted as stating that the London Missionary Society (LMS) "was a hindrance to the spread of education in the country" (p. 70). The statement, though placed at the end of the body of the chapter (to illustrate the government's perception of religious education and to possibly suggest a motive for the LMS's establishment of the Tiger Kloof secondary school in 1904 to respond to this criticism) is not drawn upon in the conclusion to the chapter. Nor is the statement evaluated as to how the LMS was a hindrance as opposed to an overwhelmed private institution attempting to fulfill what would later be recognized as a public obligation.
Of course, it would be naive to believe that there is a single animating factor behind almost one hundred years of policy, but we are left with little guidance as to what forces might have clashed to produce the policies over time. While readers might speculate based upon their own predispositions, the author's insight would be invaluable here.
Given the limitations above, however, I believe the research is still a valuable contribution to the literature. The book is an extensive review of the empirical evidence related to educational policy in the Bechuanaland Protectorate. And the strength of the narrative highlights the historical and cultural peculiarities of the history of education in the BP: the establishment of early missionary education; the establishment of the only secondary school (at the time) for the BP outside the territory of the Protectorate itself; the construction of Moeng College through regimental labor and taxation; the genderized patterns of enrolment where girls outnumbered boys in elementary education; the debate over the type of educational curricula to be offered; and the role, or lack thereof, of colonial funds for education are all sketched admirably, and give the reader considerable information and an abundance of references. Many of these incidents are of more than historical importance because they illustrate that the colonial experience was not imposed on helpless victims; the Batswana and other peoples oppressed by colonialism resisted and, to an extent, were able to influence some policies to both reflect their own cultural preferences and to protect elite and sometimes the general interests. The details of educational policy therefore deserve further study.
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David Penna. Review of Mgadla, P. T., A History of Education in the Bechuanaland Protectorate to 1965.
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