Educational Purpose: Good Citizenry Vs Rational Autonomy

By Abel Merawi

Education Rational AutonomyJanuary 26, 2021 ( -- Before diving into a discussion on the purpose of education, I venture into the age-old legend of the hero. Leaving aside the divine touch in the protagonist, which was indispensable in the classics, I portray the purely human protagonist. The hero begins life by participating in the ordinary social routine until maturity brings an insatiable thirst for more. This perpetually grows until the hero is unable to endure the immediate reality. Then the arduous journey into the wilderness becomes the only solution to the hero’s disquietude. Embarking on this journey is breaking social ties, which presents harsh criticism from beloveds and society at large. The wilderness too presents the hero with both ephemeral worldly desires and imminent dangers before awarding even minor victories. It is thus the one who perseveres by fixing one’s gaze on the final goal that finally triumphs and becomes the hero. Such victory will also liberate the society by bringing it a step closer to upward mobility. While needing the hero, society also fears the shaking of the status quo. The same goes with every pupil in school whose development in conscience both threatens tradition and enriches society.  

The curriculum of a given society reflects its values, future aspirations, and its expectations from future generations. The educational system instills these aspects of society into young minds through books and teachers. In this process of assimilation to the immediate society, we sometimes neglect the numerous cultures in the world at large. For instance, democratic nations fail to incorporate other worldviews such as communism, and vice versa. Thus the good and accepting student often fails to understand the world. To avoid confusion in the meaning of ‘good’ in this context, it connotes an individual’s adherence and acceptance of the established social, political and economic structure. If our aim is creating this type of good citizens, we have currently succeeded; but if our aim is to foster rational autonomy, we have utterly failed. In this light, the issue centers on finding a balance between communal and individual existence. Perhaps identifying the important ways in which these contradictions occur will lead to a better understanding.

The paradox of education is that we want good and obedient citizens while also expecting them to be innovators. It is hard to imagine creativity under adherence. James Baldwin in his essay ‘A Talk to Teachers’ argues education is paradoxical because, “precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.” The war of the educated with society originates from love. It is the desire to amend the irrational path of society that makes the educated appear antisocial. This is an arduous mission as it is met with harshness and ostracism from society. The educated are those who, despite the risk, tell us the world is round when we believe it is flat. They are the ones who speak of feminism in a patriarchal society. They are those who defend truth and justice by condemning the tyranny of racism by facing the brute force of the powerful. I believe this is the main task of education – preparing young minds for the courageous battle of defending freedom and justice against forms of injustice.

Fostering the habit of critical thinking rather than creating followers ought to be the aim of education. The good citizen can also be the autonomous one when acceptance comes after the rational and Socratic examination. I hardly think this is the current reality, and looking at the teaching of history is enough to observe the current trend in education. Currently, we brainwash students in ‘fictional history’ to create a false sense of national pride. For instance, our history books still teach students that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World – America. We fail to admit that you cannot discover or call ‘new’ a place where people already live. We also neglect the miscalculation that led Columbus from India to this land and his arrogance in naming the people Red Indians. This fictional history lesson characterizes every nation that praises constant victory and self-righteousness by presenting the ‘others’ as evil. In Ethiopia, we teach a truncated and compartmentalized history, by presenting national patriots as ethnic champions. The good and accepting history student will graduate with false pride combined with grievance and hatred for others. We continue to feed them with revered fiction, and we accomplish it by systematically avoiding critical thinking.

When we make a holistic observation of the curriculum, its failure is noticed in avoidance of ‘the human condition.’ This uniquely human condition comes, as psychologist Carl Jung argues, from the consciousness of our ultimate end in death and the struggle to live with this knowledge. This is also what Plato meant upon saying philosophy is the preparation for death. As Dr. Cornel West frequently remarks, the school doesn’t teach us how to deal with the death of a loved one or cope with personal and social suffering. However, the current curriculum is designed to produce specialized workers for the system rather than mature human beings. Currently, we see people graduating from a specific field of study while remaining ignorant to all the other aspects of life. Perhaps this explains how, in Ethiopia, most ethnic and violent protests begin in universities. This occurs when the students lack the ability to critically examine reality and easily become tricked. On the other hand, the student protests during Emperor Haile Selassie came from the education the Emperor put in place. Thus, depending on the education students receive they may stand for universal justice or they may irrationally stand for ethnic superiority.

It must be admitted that education is not the only source of learning. However, it must be recognized that it plays an important role in creating collective consciousness. The human progress we call civilization is the result of continuous trials, errors, and successes. We have accomplished much for we now conceive of human rights, justice, and freedom. Nevertheless, these noble axioms are not innate but rather learned. James Baldwin rightly contends, “It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.” The failure in education may result in the disappearance of such moral and humanistic standards. Thus, education should strive to make them a reality by making the classroom a miniature model of justice and freedom.

If we are to sustain civilization, the purpose of education ought to be the fostering of minds that examine our values in order to either accept or change them. In our attempt to create good citizens we left out the fundamental notions that safeguard our practical conduct. In the name of specialization, we are creating slaves, which Plato defines as people who accept and automatically accept the purposes of others. Civilization or progress becomes stunted when we teach students to blindly accept our standards. For now, let us satisfy ourselves with a diagnosis of the problem and keep a thorough discussion on the true meaning of education for another time. Let us conclude by arguing that redirecting our education purpose begins with the recognition that education must primarily focus on fostering rational and autonomous intellectuals. True intellectuals are those who fully realize that justice, freedom, and humanity is for every human being and never for a personal favorite group. Having this fundamental truth enables them to constantly examine and strive to not just perpetuate but develop society.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Crowd Leaders as National Enemies of Ethiopia

Ethiopia Under the Threat of Crowd Mentality

Conformist Realism in Ethnic Federalism

Alternatives to National Identity

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part II: A National Stand for Unity

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part I: EPRDF and the Creation of Ethnic Division

Forms of Human Violence (Part II)

Forms of Human Violence (Part I)

The ‘Having’ Mentality

Group Narcissism

Segregated Justice


Free but in Chain, Part IV: Personal Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part III: Economic Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part II: Social Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part I: Bondage of Worldview

Unemployment and Economic Growth in Ethiopia

The Underestimated Human Ignorance

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part II)

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part I)

Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality

Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance

The System and the 'Criminal'

Trust as an Economic Force

Do You Trust the Government?

Our Online World

Fame Mistaken for Expertise

The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers

A Time to Reflect

The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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