The Miracle Called Francis L. Bartels
The ace novelist/poet, Thomas Hardy, once hinted at “the voiceless ghost”, inferring that many accomplished people, having already honoured their duties to society, slacken, exhaust their inspiration in some way, or at least, firmly stop thinking.
Not Dr Francis L. Bartels! In his younger years, he served in various capacities: First, the illustrious African headmaster of Mfantsipim School (Cape Coast, Ghana) where he taught the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan; then a high-ranking member of UNESCO; and later, as Ghana's ambassador to Bonn, West Germany.
The grand ol' man has now clocked 98 bold years, and he's still not about to rest from his labours.
For him, there's no such thing as letting your thoughts stand stiffly. Close the mind, and the body mass itself begins the rusty descent into decay.
For him, study was never a chore, but a vibrant responsibility and a pleasure. As a student at Mfantsipim in the 1920s, he tackled the unusual combination of English and Mathematics with equal dexterity, placing first in his group.
In his writings, he remained equally ambidextrous, with one hand thrust brazenly into the past, and the other tellingly into the future.
His lasting belief rests on quality education, the lack of which barriers formed, blocking Africa's ultimate emancipation.
He has just finished and published his latest book, Journey out of the African Maze: Indigenous and Higher Education in Tandem. (Available at www.lulu.com /content /1531072).
The one before that, “The Persistence of Paradox, The memoirs of F. L. Bartels”, came out only a few years ago.
It was published first by Ghana University Press (2003), and the new edition by “lulu.com” (2006). His “Roots of Ghana Methodism” was published by Cambridge University Press, 1965.
In between, he has written extensive reports on education and development.
Inspired perseverance by any other name is hard work, and commitment. Those virtues in the educator, tested and nurtured over a span of decades have bequeathed to the larger African community and the wider world feats of impeccable work in history and education.
Universities and colleges everywhere will find the book a most useful platform for meaningful discussions on Africa.
Akin to US President John F. Kennedy's “Ask not what your country can do for you; but what you can do for your country,” the enigmatic centenarian, F. L. Bartels, asks in metaphoric contexts, “What part will you sing?”
That critical refrain persists from his earlier book “The Persistence of Paradox”. Believing the youth to be the true key for development, he continues to take an inventory of education in Africa, and makes informed commendations for the future.
Great people have much in common. W. Somerset Maugham, Winston Churchill, Arthur Schlesinger and others, all in their weighty eighties, persisted in literary and historical quests that continued to highlight the world's intellectual landscape.
F. L. Bartels, in his loftier 98 years, topped that chart. Never a dull moment in his focused intellectual life, he has raised the ante many bold notches up in the continued search for what's in Africa's best interests.
From this new book, the author's tireless effort is becoming increasingly symbolic of the lifelong commitment to questions that refuse to go away.
In offering “A bird's eye-view of what has been, what is, and what is possible”, the critical questions inferred are themselves the answers: Can Africa neglect the import of education?
What type of African man and woman is education expected to mould? What is old? What is new? Is the fusion of the old and new possible? And where do we go from here?
He cautions that if education's true purpose is not identified and practised through meaningful, collaborative, hands-on activities, then idleness and truancy will persist.
In promoting a “creative engagement between the life of learning and the life of humans”, he suggested embracing elements from both our African roots and modernity.
He sees education as “a home-grown crop as well as a transplant”, and suggests extracting from our native roots “strands in the developmental process” that worked in the past, and merge them with the new.
Our past traditions, in fruitful co-operation, allowed everyone “to sing a part”. Participation was a wholesome, communal affair.
No one was left out. Inputs came from everyone, including the youth, (mbrentsee); the elders, (mpanyinfo), and the old man or the retired leadership (akodee).
The Akan hierarchy of values sustained a rich tapestry of moral and jural education through a community of learners where the youth “sit literally and figuratively at the feet of their elders”, or “squat by their elders in order to learn”.
All that supported “good upbringing”, (ntsetseepa). The author envisaged a great society “where education proceeded more by example than by precept, more by participation in adult life than by instruction”, where ambition was “not for personal distinction but for service to the community”, and where grooming (ntsetseepa) reduced the blatant “mediocrity in high places”.
The modern equivalent in higher education embraced the “postgraduate student”, “his professor” or lecturer, and “a retired professor” all working in tandem within a purposeful network.
Education is a collective rather than an individual process in which orderly connections are key. It takes a village, as they say.
Today's students' unrests and protests are the results of the unconsciously structured idleness within the curriculum itself.
Without a meaningful purpose to attract and hold together the many loose ends, chaos filled the vacuum.
Life on the campuses and content in the curriculum should be about solving problems through innovation, and extensive use of digital technology.
Having witnessed a great many meetings himself, he advises African universities to avoid “meetings that inevitably lead to recommendations, plans of operation, and proposals for aid”.
He suggested an “African pragmatism” where the time, energy, and money should not be spent on “the repetitive activities of the past”.
In short, pragmatic leadership ought to avail itself the privilege of summoning the god instead of waiting for him.
A serendipitous by-product of Dr Bartels's effort in this new book (and the one just before it) is the inspiration the reader absorbs through the author's skill in juxtaposing rich Akan adage and imageries in his discussions.
The technique had the soothing effect of softening the hard edges in a serious topic. That literary feat alone deserved a separate review, for the future, in the form of an Akan glossary of idioms, metaphors, and other literary devices.
The canny technique of lacing his points with Akan (Fanti) idioms (with translations) was most effective in narrating (in the first person) the evolution of pre-colonial African educational experiences and its aftermath.
There couldn't possibly be a more superior way of conveying the emotional import of his observations.
Though his statements are strikingly punctuated with wit, humour and sarcasm, they are not meant to be wisecracks.
The author is too conscious and meditative for indulgences. Regarding the proliferation of faiths in Africa, he observed, for example, that religion in Ghana “called the Akan out of his environment; it did not redeem him within it.”
The result was that we have deflated the Golden Rule, and settled for “just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another”.
Reading this new book (and writing this review) was an exhilarating exercise – especially in the early mornings where the Bartelsian tenets, the precision of language, and the chime of selected words, continued to groom one into the brave, new day.
Dr Bartels's vigour of intellect, the alertness of his voice, the genial air of vitality, and the versatility of his topical interests are persistent sources of inspiration.
With a heartfelt appreciation, the 1958/1960 year group erected Bartels's bust at Mfantsipim, and unveiled it in 1998 for the school's 122nd anniversary.
The message on the plinth said: “He sought to make us greater than himself”. As Ghana's foremost educator, he helped raise very many successful men over the years.
As to whether any were greater than the kingpin himself — well, we leave that for posterity. But, as we say in Akan, “Edua na oma nhoma ko hun sor”; (It was the tree that got the vines to view the skies!)
The education of the youth and the love for learning have been the undisputed guides to his long, fruitful life. Though he's about to enter his 100 years, you hesitate at the word “old”.
What you agree with readily is the unswerving passion of a noble craftsman of letters, his sense of a mission accomplished through a great many successes in a great vocation. One is reminded, by the way, of the great jazz arranger/composer Duke Ellington who, basking and beaming at the peak of his fame in his chosen vocation, declared: “Music is my mistress”.
For Bartels, education is truly his mistress, and he admits himself, “And what a reward!”
“Journey out of the African maze” contains an invaluable index of notes and references that cover nearly 500 entries.
Within the index itself is a bibliography of selected materials on education in Africa. The book is highly recommended for every African scholar.
By Anis Haffar
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