Teaching a hidden curriculum of authoritarianism
Malawi set out to give pupils skills to support democracy. But it has not been easy
LIKE many other countries, Malawi was caught in the wave of democratic change that swept sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s. It was triggered by the fall of communism along with military and civilian dictatorships around the world, and brought to an end nearly a century of authoritarian colonial and one-party rule.
Other factors combined to bring about the rapid shift, including resistance to the oppressive one-party rule. These protests were backed by Western governments and donor organisations which imposed aid conditions to force democratic reforms.
What this meant was that when change finally came it was largely seen as an external and Western imposition. As a result, those who held power adopted democracy reluctantly.
Nevertheless, democratic reforms came with the promise that citizens would be empowered. Central to this was decentralisation of decision-making. And citizenship education for democracy was introduced in secondary schools in 1998 in the social studies curriculum. The aim was to improve their involvement in the democratic process.
But official rhetoric hasn’t been matched with practice. Educational policies, curriculum development and standardised national assessments are still decided and designed at the centre. This means there’s little or no effort to empower people at local level. It also means there is limited space for schools to practise democracy.
Top-down curriculum innovations, for example, pose a challenge when it comes to relevance and ownership. They also undermine the government’s policy designed to develop skills and attitudes needed to uphold and support democracy.
An added difficulty is that cultural norms in Malawi militate against children having a say. There were contradictions between what pupils learned in class and how they were expected to behave.
It’s often said that democracy is best learned by practice. This supports the notion that schools should become sites where democracy is practised in and outside the classroom. This is the basis for the government’s several policy documents advocating the involvement of pupils in educational decisions and issues that affect them.
But there are tensions in its education system which militate against this. Subtle resistance prevents it from taking root.
Traditionally, decision-making is the preserve of adults. When this is extended to teachers at schools, it can become a recipe for authoritarian practices.
Schools don’t exist in a vacuum. The hierarchical relations between adults and children that exist in the wider African society are, therefore, reflected in the relations between teachers and pupils on the school landscape.
Teachers are likely to resist school democratisation because it would empower pupils and threaten their authority. Teachers are likely to see avenues for democratic participation by pupils as a loss of authority and cultural privilege.
My study showed that pupils had taken on board the principle that all suspected offenders had the right to be heard before being judged.
But many were suspended without getting an opportunity to be heard. And the stand taken by teachers had the support of most parents who encouraged teachers to rid the school of any forms of misbehaviour using any means available.
This inconsistency, described by Henry Giroux (one of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy in the US) as the hidden curriculum, is likely to undermine what pupils learn in class. A further consequence is that pupils will acquiesce to authoritarian practices from people in positions of authority.
In addition, they may think classroom learning is only meant to prepare them for national exams and has no bearing on their lives. This may result in democratic citizenship appearing as a façade. And it could facilitate the resilience of autocratic practices – at schools and beyond.
If Malawi is going to develop democratic citizens, experience with democracy at school is important. It’s essential teachers get sensitised to this.
It should still be acknowledged that school democratisation, in a patriarchal society, will require time before it’s accepted. Efforts towards democratisation need to be acknowledged and encouraged. Action should be taken to promote democracy at national and school levels.
As a starting point, schools could set up committees to oversee the process. This will ensure translation of national policy into practice. The committee could also work to resolve tensions between the roles of pupils as young citizens and as children. – The Conversation