The Answer is Not at the Back of the Book

[1] Sir Kenneth Robinson emphasizes a recurring theme in his “Changing Educational Paradigms” TED talk.  He criticizes the obsession over maintaining outdated and ineffective ideas about teaching, learning, and the role of education in our society. We often discourage collaboration and creative solutions for problems, instead relying on singular simple answers. Robinson’s frustration comedically and creatively addresses the problem that has a significant impact on how students approach the study of history. I entitled this post, “The Answer is not in the Back of the Book” to underscore one of the central themes that I see impacting students and educational structures today–a disregard for historical analysis and shifting cultures of schooling, learning, and teaching.

[2] This post discusses several key ideas. First, significant uses for history and the humanities within in an educational environment are overshadowed by the somewhat dubious demand for graduates in the sciences, technology, and math-oriented fields. Despite the frenzy, the humanities remain more important in the education of students today than ever before. Secondly, the historical case study is a useful pedagogical tool to complicate often-misconstrued approaches to dealing human relationships and outcomes as deterministic in nature. Historical case studies, long adapted for their value in schools of business and medicine, have origins in the discipline of history and are rooted in frames of thinking most effectively developed in dialogue with primary and secondary sources. They reveal the uses of history as a source of inspiration, a model for decision-making, a method of developing a sense of community, and a quest for truth. Finally, case studies are instructive not only historically about challenges to educational crises of the modern era but they also have significant value in getting us to think about how to creatively apply lessons we have learned in other contexts. Case studies teach us effectively about learning about the past but also are instructive on how to contextualize information and apply it to the present.


[3] The contours of these ideas have been explored in previous work by bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Walter Rodney yet their approaches fail to fully address this significance of this question for students of history interested in how recent shifts in culture and structures of learning are impacting their conception of historical knowledge. There is far from a consensus that culturally relevant, historically-based, and divergent approaches to learning are useful. Others have argued that humanistic inquiry in general and focused inquiry in particular in the African diaspora are passé, irrelevant, and overly political.

[4] These varying interpretations present a series of important questions. [4a] How have the cultures of learning and teaching impacted our ability to understand the purposes and uses of historical thinking? [4b] How have historians, students, and teachers from the past responded to these challenges? [4c] What are lessons that we can apply from the past examples to our concerns today– especially in the context of the African Diaspora?

In this essay, I argue that the expectations of learners are not served well by our current structures and cultures of education. The highest form of education comes in challenging the answer-driven, grade-obsessed, degree-oriented culture of learning and the ego-centered, ethnocentric, individualistic practices of teaching to engage broader forms of inquiry and innovation. The study of history is key to the process because it is embedded in every discipline and is used in every transaction of life.

Beyond Banking: Confronting the Culture of Schooling

[5] The view that effective teaching and learning is focused on the transfer of content from one mind to another has been the prevailing view for so long that most have no other conception of what education would be what role the teacher should perform. Paulo Friere, a Brazilian educational theorist who challenged conventions of teaching among dispossessed and marginalized populations, regarded this particular approach as a banking model (Freire 2000). The banking model was damaging in his assessment because it negated anything that the students had to contribute to the learning experiences. Perhaps one of the most damaging aspects of this approach to education, especially in the humanities, is that it often is psychologically damaging the students because it assumes the customs, traditions, cultures, or life experiences they bring with them into the classroom are useless and in need of replacement with new perspectives–especially ones that fit into the existing needs of the economy.

[6] The Sierra Leonean educator Constance Cummings-John was particularly aware of the impact that this approach could have on students of Africa and African-descended students. When she arrived in the United States as a student at Cornell University in 1937, she was shocked to find missionaries spreading falsehoods about the existence of cannibalism in her native land. She instinctively challenged this lie and readily understood the broader problem that these particular forms of education were destroying the psyche of people of African descent (Adi and Sherwood 2000: 30).

[7] It is likely that the perception that these teachers had in relation to their students and their subject matter made them exaggerate differences. One of the reasons this must be is our contemporary culture of schooling emphasizes a model in which the transfer of information privileges those coming from a position of authority and power. In the past, except in rare moments like this one, it was unlikely that students would challenge the content that they were being presented with, even if they had personal and empirical evidence that suggested the contrary. Today students are much more likely to challenge the content but less likely to challenge the broadly accepted culture and shifting role of higher education which has in the last twenty five years increasingly emphasized training over inquiry. Both are forms of the banking model on different scales.

[8] As [2a] Paulo Freire argues students should be readers of the word and the world. Instead of substituting their life experiences and passions for another’s, the emphasis should be on understanding the dynamics and the relationships of power that influenced their approach to knowledge and the critical issues impacting them. This directly underscores the significance of our study of the African Diaspora. Africans throughout the Diaspora have long looked back towards the continent for new models of understanding their identity and its meaning in an emerging context of a global world of knowledge.


[9] A key decision in the life of another Sierra Leonean James Africanus Beale Horton is instructive in how students were able to liberate themselves from the banking model have applied their knowledge to create new educational constructs. Horton was educated abroad in Britain during the 1850s but challenged prevailing educational paradigms. He insisted on researching and writing on Africa when many of the time insisted that Africa had no history. Where he saw the absence of institutions that affirmed his views and experiences, he created them, establishing the African Times and advocating for self-government. Particularly interesting is the fact is that Horton became one of the wealthiest men in African history through his mining concessions (Adi and Sherwood 2000: 86-88). He lived a successful life by most standards but he was never formally instructed how to achieve the things he did. His professional successes came as a result of a deep personal pursuit of knowledge not a mere transfer of ideas. The lesson is that gainful employment is often derived from gainful education–the degree is not the source of wealth but rather the acquisition of knowledge.

The Culture of Learning

[10] We must give adequate attention not only to the culture of schooling but also to the culture of learning if we are to ask better questions and answer about the current dilemma of our educational pursuits. Yet if we insist that the highest forms of learning are only in the domain of the manufacture of gadgets and the selling of trinkets, what does this say about our culture or our collective future?

[11] Another key reason for our inability to ask the most important questions and to define meaningful answers is found in the shifting culture of student learning. Students have come to expect much less from the collegiate experience and consequently invest significantly less effort in reading and completing assignments than their predecessors. This is somewhat of a paradox because students invest much more money, often racking up thousands of dollars in student loans.

[12] [2d] Arum and Roska (2011) argue that as students are investing far less time into reading, writing, and learning, they are earning higher grades.  Additionally, as students “investing” in fields of study that are more employable are showing less gains in learning than those in the liberal arts. However, studies have shown that students are learning significantly less than prior generations. This disconnect between ability and assessment misleads students into believing that they are better prepared for the life challenges and global competition they will face than they actually are. Ultimately, when students are thrown into real-world experiences without intellectual habits to cope, they feel that the educational system has failed them, further eroding confidence in academic pursuits of knowledge.

[13] However, if students can shift the emphasis from career credentialization to conceptual customization they will find a wealth of opportunities. Further supporting the fact that is the case of Ladipo Felix Solanke. Solanke faced many of the challenges that students today encounter in impoverished communities and hostile academic environments. However, Solanke used his experiences as inspiration and motivation to solve the problems he encountered. According Adi and Sherwood, he was at the fore of the West African Student Union and established a hostel for West Africans in London to address discrimination but also to model practical solutions that he developed through his own educational experiences. Solanke’s experiences align with contemporary paradoxes of upper class African immigrants to the United States and a rising Africa amidst numerous economic, racial, and political crisis. While the new technocratic upperclass has been quick to dismiss the relevance of humanistic strands of inquiry, the world is awash with opportunities for those who can bridge the two worlds. Recently, Slack and other tech companies have attributed their success to wave of talented and contextual thinkers hailing from history, philosophy, art, and the humanities.

wasu hostel

[14] The internet has also been part of the problem in the culture of learning. For at least one generation now, many students feel that any answer can be found on the internet. According to Web 2.0 critics like Andrew Keen and Marc Baulerain, this has developed the cult of the amateur, misleading many digital natives to believe that they have expertise in a subject merely because they have equal access to information. This sorely underscores the ongoing relevance of the teacher as an enlightened guide but no longer the sage on the stage. However, the prevailing theme in education has never been the answers – it has always been the questions.

The Culture of Teaching Ignorance

[15] Lastly, we should consider the lack of meaningful learning experiences as resulting from the culture of teaching—particularly in academia.


[16] As Carter G. Woodson has stated many highly educated individuals believe that ignoring social problems can be an effective strategy to solving them–at least when it relates to the race question:

The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker peoples. For example, the philosophy and ethics resulting from our educational system have justified slavery, peonage, segregation, and lynching. The oppressor has the right to exploit, to handicap, and to kill the oppressed. Negroes daily educated in the tenets of such a religion of the strong have accepted the status of the weak as divinely ordained, and during the last three generations of their nominal freedom they have done practically nothing to change it. Their pouting and resolutions indulged in by a few of the race have been of little avail.

No systematic effort toward change has been possible, for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.

The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race.

While Woodson was speaking specifically to the problem of racism in American society, his conclusions are applicable to the current status of teaching in a variety of contexts. Teachers are often dissuaded from engaging in the discussion of difficult, complex, open-ended problems, by default teaching students that ignoring problems through willful ignorance is a desired course of action for one who is educated.

[17] Additionally many educators no longer feel a sense of responsibility for engaging difficult questions because educational institutions reward them for avoiding controversy and confirming the status quo. The menu of answers provided by pre-populated tests and exam guides are readily selected because they are easily quantified not necessarily because they are the most relevant or meaningful answers to the contemporary questions of that time.  The rush to adopt standardized solutions, questions, and assessments—a common pedagogical approach in many of the hard sciences, though often misunderstood and applied by non-specialists in other disciplines–distorts the true nature of knowledge and the role of the teacher.

[18] These practices directly contradict the important role of historical thinking in the educational process. History provides far less answers than questions posed through our reassessment of the past. The purpose of history is not to confirm the answers but to challenge the assumptions and raise new questions about the past that relate to the present. The Guyanese historian Walter Rodney mastered this approach to history in his writing but also in the way that he engaged the community through his ‘groundings.’


[19] So why study history? Why study the history of the African Diaspora? Why insist on the validity of historical cases as a basis for inquiry? History provides significant answers to life’s questions, prodding us to reconsider the culture and context of our needs and our education. The relevance of history is often regarded as irrelevant because many of the answers it provides are not found “at the back of the book” yet it urges us to consider the complexity of many important questions that would not be considered otherwise. History is about developing habits of thinking and action that are responsive to the concerns of the present as they are to the remnants of the past. The African Diaspora serves as an excellent beginning for these concerns because so much of the record of these stories are incomplete.

[20] There are no answers in the back of the book. There are no easy answers to life’s persistent challenges and the concerns of humanity. The recent challenges embedded the cultures and structures of learning reflect more a crisis of the human spirit than a triumph of a new discovery over the old. The lesson learned from this is that we need to be more persistent in engaging these questions rather than dismissing their relevance. This is important because this is how we become critical thinkers, creative leaders, curious learners who propose bold solutions for life’s persistent problems.


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