Education Policy

Ghana’s Search for Self-sufficient Educational Goals: Lessons from Aristotlelian Educational Aims

Bangladesh Education Article
Bangladesh Education Article
Written by Goutam Roy



After 54 years of independence, Ghana continues to ask questions about which direction education should go in. We seem not to know what we expect from our educational system. We are dissatisfied with students’ performances in national assessments and unemployed graduates from our universities. Businesses complain about the quality of our graduates while society continues to get frustrated about educated people who acquire ‘‘book knowledge but lack home sense’’. Numerous reforms of the educational system seem not to have helped our course and the reforms have become an ‘’unending cycle’’ (Tonah, 2006). What should a good education entail? What is our mental picture of someone who has undergone a good educational experience? Is the ideal kind of educational experience attainable in any sense? This paper will attempt to sketch a brief history of education in Ghana with an object of carving out what has been an endless search for good education. The philosophical position of Aristotle shall inform my analyses of the aims of education. I shall take a position on whether the ideal kind of education is attainable in any sense and conclude by suggesting the kind of education that is good for Ghana.

I have observed with some level of concern the number of reform policies we have had since independence. We seem to be flailing around for what ‘‘education is to be and how one ought to be educated’’. At one point we are worried about ‘‘westernized Ghanaians’’, at another time it is about vocational education or preparing individuals for the job market. We seem to be interested in education that is ‘‘more relevant to national needs’’ (Tonah, 2006). Yet still we are deeply concerned about the performance of students at the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and the West African Senior Secondary School Examination (WASSCE). The reason for choosing this topic for reflection is to enhance the debate on the aims of education and to suggest how best to strike a balance among ‘‘what we expect education to do, what schools actually do and what they ought to do’’ (MacAllister, 2011).

Education has been an integral part of human societies from time immemorial. Regardless of the form it took, education of the younger generation of all societies took place wherever they lived. In Ghana, indigenous education had no time-structured curricula or structures to help best achieve the purposes of education. Education of the youth was the responsibility of all adults in the community. According to Agyin (2005) the curriculum included agricultural education: farming, hunting, fishing, rearing and general knowledge about flora and fauna while Physical education involved: wrestling, drumming and dancing, games and army training. The intellectual abilities of the youth were developed through puzzles, oral histories of tribes and villages and riddles. Moral training was achieved through folktales in which immoral characters were named and shamed while good characters were identified and praised. Also, beliefs about the impeccable character of the Supreme Being and the desire to aspire to be like the ideal helped mould the character of the youth (ibid). Aside these, Agyin (2005) posits that knowledge and skills gained from this kind of education was for instrumental purposes since no one acquired skills that he or she would not need immediately or later in adult life.

Formal western-styled education was introduced by European merchants but the development and expansion of education to the rest of Ghana is credited to the activities of Christian missionaries and increased financial support from government in the second half of the nineteenth century (Graham, 1971). The curriculum involved reading, writing and bible knowledge aimed at conversion and training of students as translators for the merchants or the missionaries (ibid). It is important to note that most of the teachers in these schools were European missionaries or ‘‘Europeanised Africans’’ who did not advocate indigenous cultural values and that not every child attended these schools. The students included children of mixed race (mulattoes) and later children of powerful African chiefs (Mcwilliam and Kwamena-Poh, 1975; Graham 1971). This kind of education was alleged to be elitist (Kadingdi, 2004), focused too much on the intrinsic value of education and failed to provide character training or development in leadership and that ‘‘many Africans who attended primary school developed a scorn for manual work’’ (Guggisberg, 1927 cited in Williams, 1964). Thus, education came to be associated with learning the English Language, passing European examinations and getting clerical jobs with the government or European businesses. Schooling was therefore linked with better opportunities in terms of job acquisition and better standards of living. Several changes to the curriculum from 1928 to the present seem to have done little to marry the values and functions of education and the expectations of society.

A major target of most educational reforms has therefore been how best to attend to the needs of individuals for education and to reconcile that with broader national goals. For instance, how can we restructure the educational system so that any person who undergoes the educational experiences gains knowledge that is relevant to him or her and the nation at large? What constitutes relevant experience? Who defines relevant knowledge- students, parents or state? The result of this quest has been a diversification of the curriculum to include everything and nothing at the same time. The curriculum now includes Science, Vocational/Technical, Arts (general and visual) education among others but lack of resources and general public apathy and disregard for some of the subjects (Arts and vocational/technical) (Akyeampong et al. 2007) makes them unattractive and thus a resort to ‘business as usual’. The institution of performance monitoring via achievement tests has shifted the focus from the contents of the subjects to the structure and contents of examinations. The fixation on test results to evaluate education takes no cognisance of ‘‘…the deeper question whether such [test scores] indeed measure what we value or create a situation in which we are valuing what is or can be measured’’ or ‘‘whether a high score in these [tests] does indeed indicate good education is an entirely open question that crucially depends on what we expect from education’’. (Biesta, 2009 p. 1) In effect, there is no problem with the obsession with assessments if and only if society expects students to be in school to pass assessments. However, as it stands, no society sets up a school system to measure how best people can excel in assessments but schools are set up to achieve broader goals. What then are these broader goals? What can be considered as ‘‘effective rather than ineffective’’ (Biesta, 2009) or ‘‘educative rather than miseducative’’ (Dewey, 1938) educational experiences?

Aristotle’s Philosophical Position on Aims of Education
Aristotle observes in The Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics that individuals tend to live in four kinds of ways (1095b14- 1096a1). These include living for pleasure, for honour, for riches and a life of contemplation. According to Aristotle, a life for pleasure is fitting for beasts and slaves while a life for honour is associated with politics or politicians. A life for wealth as he indicates in The Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics should not be pursued as an end in itself but a means to an end. Finally, Aristotle posits that a life of contemplation or quest for theoretical knowledge should be desired and cherished by individuals since that leads to flourishing or happiness — the ultimate good. He argues further that flourishing or happiness should not be equated to a state of feeling or state of pleasure but an activity, a constant striving for what is virtuous, valued or desired intrinsically. It should be seen as activities or actions towards a ‘’self-sufficient’’ end (Happiness, virtue, flourishing) that has been appropriately identified beforehand rather than an event. That is, the moral and intellectual virtues must be acquired through the habit of doing or ‘’perfecting the intellect to elicit with readiness acts that are good’’ (Waldron, 1912) in accordance with the function of man- reasoning- respectively. Training in the habits and in reasoning must not be done one at a time but, as he indicates, must ‘‘chime in perfect unison’’ to avoid errors.

It is conspicuously stated or implied in most societies that the forms of education prescribed is mostly geared towards the development of the ideal individual; and for that matter the goal of education should be in tandem with the ‘’goal of man’’(UNESCO, 1993)- happiness or flourishing. However, Aristotle contends that the ‘’happy man is neither a noble savage, nor man his natural state, but the educated man. The happy man, the good man, is a virtuous man, but virtue is acquired precisely through education’’ (ibid. p. 2). Who then is the educated man? Aristotle identifies three prerequisites of a good man: nature, habits and rationality or reason. In the first place one should be born human rather than a beast with some malleable habits engineered by nature. It is Aristotle’s contention that only man lives by reason and for that matter is likely to go against the dictates of nature and habit by acting rationally. The good man must seek a state of equilibrium or ‘mean’ among these elements. Thus, it is not enough to be born human or have some natural predispositions towards good but one need to be educated in order to flourish or achieve the virtues.

How does education contribute to this lifelong quest for happiness? In Aristotle’s view, since we ‘’approve of that which is midway between extremes and assert that it is something to be aimed at’’ (1342b14-15) education should aim at the mean in order to develop the moral virtues and the removal of restrictions that impede the habit of ‘’perfecting’’ the intellect. That is, education should contribute to striking a balance among man’s natural constitution, habits and remove impediments to the exercise of the intellect. Education should not be skewed towards only nature as that would make man not any better than a beast, neither the habits nor reason alone but find a middle ground among the three. This apart, education should aim at freedom through ‘’contemplation or a philosophical life – mental activity devoid of restrictions’’ (UNESCO, 1993). That is, intellectual pursuits for their own sake since that constitute a ‘’self-sufficient’’ good. It is based on this principle that Aristotle rejects the ‘’introduction of pipes into education, or any other instrument that requires the skills of a professional’’ (1341a17) because ‘’the performer does not perform to improve his own virtue, but to give pleasure to his listeners, and vulgar pleasure at that’’ (1341b8). It is important to note that, it is not the performance itself that should be rejected but the fact that it is it does not improve one’s own virtue but performed for a reward or fun; these in Aristotle’s view, are worthless or non-essential pursuits that do not befit a free man.

Nevertheless, man must not end up rejecting society in his pursuit of the virtues since even happiness engaged in to the extreme is not desirable. Therefore, the educated person should be able to commune with others as well because ‘’a man who cannot live in society, or who has no need to do so because he is self-sufficient, either a beast or a god; he is no part of a state’’. The good man, the educated man or the virtuous man should be able to fit well within the socio-cultural environment he finds himself since the polis is where he can find fulfillment.

In conclusion, the aims of education, according to Aristotle’s perspective are that education should aim at the intellectual development and character formation of the individual to equip the individual with a set of theoretical and practical principles regarding how to make the right choices of action. This is aptly put thus;

‘’The statesman must therefore take into consideration the parts of the soul and their respective actions, and in making laws must have an eye to all those things (peace, war etc) but more especially to the better ones and to the ends in view; and he must regard men’s lives and their choice of what they do in the same light. For one must be able to work and to fight, but even more to be at peace and have leisure; to do the necessary and the useful things, yes, but still more those of moral worth. These then are the targets at which education should be aimed, whether children’s education or that of such age-groups as require it’’. (1333a30)

Unlike Aristotle who thinks that the educated man (the good man) is one whose function it is to achieve excellence in human function or reach the apogee of moral virtues (through habituation rather than teaching) and intellectual virtues (through a contemplative life or reasoning):- Peters’ educated man is one who has imbibed ‘’breath of knowledge, depth of knowledge and knowledge of the good’’. The knowledge should have been ‘’passed on by the community’’ of ‘’ultimate values’’ unto an ‘’initiate’’ by people who have already been initiated; the initiate develops knowledge and understanding and comes to care about the knowledge so initiated into them (Peters, 1972). Nevertheless, Peters agrees with Aristotle that such knowledge should be valued for their own sake.

Aristotle has been criticized on the basis that the sort of education he prescribed was elitist as it ‘’seemed to be restricted to wealthy males’’ (MacAllister, 2011) rather than to everyone.  This does not take away the fundamental issues raised in his argument especially in terms of application in our education systems today where people are still socially excluded (UNDP, 2007) and access to good quality education is still the reserve of the wealthy few (Marlier et al, 2007).

Relevance of Aristotle’s thinking in the Ghanaian Context
In order to assess how relevant a philosophers’ thinking is to our society today, we need to analyze the philosopher’s ideas to see what we can get from the ideas (Darling, 1993) However, the criticism has been that the writers of the previous centuries were not writing ‘’for or about’’ our situation today. His rebuttal to such charges is that some of the ideas espoused ‘’are immutable, and therefore continuing, elements of the human condition; or that aspects of society which were questioned’’ in those centuries ‘’seem to have continued impervious’’, and therefore still relevant (ibid). My contention is that knowledge that is grounded in logic and the universal principles of human existence outlive time and contexts; also the acceptance of the writers thinking as relevant does not necessarily constitute a positive judgment of the ideas (ibid p. 28).

There is no doubt that Aristotle’s view on what education should be for is to free the individual from all restrictions to pursue ends that are good intrinsically and would result in unlocking the individual’s highest potential for effective social participation. In the Ghanaian context, current education reform policies that impose restrictions on teachers’ and students’ autonomy through high stake national testing systems, accountability and performance monitoring give little room for developing critical and innovative thinking in students. The curriculum should be diverse enough to allow learners to pursue what makes them happy and fulfilling enough to keep them motivated to bring out the best in them under the professional guidance of educators. The increasing attention that examination is gaining within the Ghana education system should be de-emphasized and examination should be restricted to its original purpose of evaluating learning and assessing progress rather than evaluating teachers’, schools’ and students’ performance. Students should be encouraged to learn with the aim of helping them reach their highest potential in accordance with ends that do not lack in anything when isolated (self-sufficient ends) rather than preparing them for examinations.

Aristotle also contends that education should have a traditional function of aiming at ‘attainable and stable ideals’ rather than fleeting and radical changes that in his view may not be good necessarily. A society in which everything seem to fall in place in an orderly manner is desirable and should be sustained while a radical and constant transformation of society may not. The same holds for the educational system. This contention of Aristotle’s has been interpreted to mean a disdain for change in the status quo but I think the argument is against revolutionary and constant changes rather than evolutionary or gradual transformation towards the best life. It is difficult for me to reason that someone who preaches that all human quests should be directed towards the ultimate good – flourishing – would speak against transformation- if that would make people flourish best.

In the current global discourse of educational policy where deregulation, decentralization, marketization and competition is deepening rather than bridging the gap between the rich and the poor in society, Aristotle’s proposal for state control and funding of education is relevant. This is particularly relevant in the Ghanaian context where social exclusion (UNDP, 2007) and injustice is seen in lack of equity in access to education due to inequality in the distribution of education facilities occasioned by competition and performance monitoring; and since the poor are mostly disadvantaged in the competition for good education, social inequality is widened further.

It is also noteworthy that the concept of happiness is a controversial one as what makes people happy differs from person to person and at different times for the same person. Therefore, despite the fact that the quest for happiness is desired universally and is intrinsically good, exactly what makes people happy is difficult to generalize since in Aristotle’s words ‘’men do not all prize the same virtue’’.  When applied to education, one realizes that educational purposes also vary despite being grounded in similar principles. For instance Kaye (1999) as cited in Queensland State Education (2010) argues that education has generally been aimed at the ‘betterment’ of society though the purposes of education vary from place to place and from time to time. Thus what would be regarded as valuable in one educational set up may be meaningless in another setting. My opinion is that given current global trends in education policy and the rapidity of policy transfer, it is difficult for one society to carve out educational aims that pertain to that society alone or to resist the influences of educational aims from other settings for long. Given that educational aims vary over time and place and the fact that educational goals are built on the present needs of society (education being used as a tool to solve societal problems which are ever changing and differ collectively and individually), the ideal type of education is far-fetched and may not be attainable for the whole society despite being possible, to some extent, by an individual because happiness is a subjective good.

It is clear from the above that society expects education to socialize, prepare the young to take up jobs and to make them individuals capable of independent thinking but what schools do in Ghana is to prepare the young for the BECE and WASSCE. A good education in Ghana should therefore aim at what Biesta (2009) refers to as ‘’a proper balancing of the qualification, socialization and individuation functions’’ of education.

AGYIN, O (2005) History of Education in Ghana UEW-K, Ghana
Akyeampong, K., J. Djangmah, A. Seidu, A. Oduro, and F. Hunt (2007) Access to Basic Education in Ghana: The Evidence and the Issues. CREATE Country Analytic Report. Sussex: CREATE
Aristotle (1981) The Politics, Penguin, London, Revised Edition
Aristotle (2009) The Nicomachean Ethics, Oxford, New York
Biesta G (2009) ‘Good Education: What it is and why we need it’, Inaugural Lecture, The Stirling Institute of Education
Christopher W. (1996), Quality and Education, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers/Journal of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, p.34
DARLING J (1993) Rousseau as a Progressive Instrumentalist Journal of Philosophy of Education, 27 (1)
Dewey J (1938) Experience and Education, New York, Collier Books
GRAHAM, C. K (1971) The History of Education in Ghana from the Earliest Times to the Declaration of independence. London: Cass
Kadingdi S (2004). Policy initiatives for change and innovation in basic education programmes in Ghana. Educate. 4(2): 3-18.
Kpordugbe P (n.d) What is Relevant Education? History of Education in Ghana [online] [accessed on 15th January, 2012]
MacAllister J (2011) Education Leadership and School Improvement [lecture notes]. Unpublished course unit resource for EDUC 60481 Philosophical Foundations of Educational Leadership. Manchester: University of Manchester.
Marlier et al, (2007) The EU and Social Inclusion: Facing the challenges. The Policy Press
McWilliam H.O.A. and Kwamena-Poh, M.A. (1975) The Development of Education in Ghana. London: Longman
Peters R S (1972) Education and the Educated Man, in Education and the development of Reason, Edited by Dearden R, Hirst P and Peters R, Routledge Kegan Paul, London pp 3-18
Queensland State Education (2010) The Purpose of Education. Consultation Paper. Queensland, Australia
SUPPES, P (1995) Philosophy of Education. The Aims of Education Weblog [Online] 17th January. Available from:  [accessed 17/01/2012]
Tonah, S (2006). The Challenge of Making Education Relevant to National Needs: Analyzing Ghana’s Unending Cycle of Educational Reforms. Paper presented at the “African Studies Association of Germany Conference”, Goethe University, Frankfurt, 24-27 July
UNESCO (1993) ARISTOTLE (384-322 B.C.) In: PROSPECTS: the quarterly review of comparative education vol. 23, no. 1/2, p. 39-51.
United Nations Development Programme (2007) Ghana Human Development Report: Towards a More Inclusive Society Ghana. Combert Impressions
Waldron, M.A. (1912). Virtue. In: The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. [Online] [accessed 12 January, 2012]
WILLIAM D. T (1964) Sir Gordon Guggisberg and Educational Reform in the Gold Coast, 1919-1927 Comparative Education Review, 8(3) (Decmeber) pp. 290-306

Writer: MA student, University of Manchester, M13 9PL, Oxford Road, Manchester, United Kingdom.

Editor’s Note: Though this article is directly not related to Bangladesh education but the context of both Ghana and Bangladesh considering various country pockets is similar. We believe this article can help the Bangladeshi professionals in many ways. We encourage such articles to be published here.

About the author

Goutam Roy

Leave a Comment