Prof. Ted Vestal’s Second General Assembly Keynote Address


Keynote Address


25, May 2014 

Theodore M. Vestal, Professor Emeritus, Oklahoma State University

President Petros, Vice President Alem, Esteemed Tafari Makonnen School Alumni, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentleman:

I am honored to be asked to speak at your gathering of alumni, and I have been so pleased to find so many of my friends and colleagues among your attendees. These people I knew as renowned diplomats, international civil servants, university presidents and professors, and businessmen—but I didn’t realize until I saw them here together that they all had shared in the superb education gained by attending Tafari Makonnen School in their youth. And last night at your opening banquet you affirmed that not only do you represent the best and brightest of Ethiopians intellectually, but you also still can shake a mean shoulder on the dance floor.

Today, let us consider the development of modern education in Ethiopia and the significant role played by Tafari Makonnen School in that process. My remarks are informed by my articles on “Modern Education” and “The United States Peace Corps” in Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, a five volume collection of the finest scholarship available, published in Germany and written in English.

My connection to education in Ethiopia came through my work in the Peace Corps in the 1960s. During the John F. Kennedy administration, in September 1961, Congress established a new organization, the Peace Corps, a bilateral aid program, to promote world peace and friendship by volunteers to help people in developing nations to meet their needs for trained manpower. In February 1962, Harris Woffard, Special Assistant to President Kennedy for Civil Rights and the Peace Corps, went to Ethiopia to appraise Emperor Haile Selassie’s proposal for 500 to 1,000 Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) teachers. Shortly thereafter, Ethiopia was one of the first nations to request Peace Corps assistance. On 23 May 1962, a country agreement between the two countries was signed providing for 300 PCVs to teach in the secondary schools. By September, with Woffard as their Director, 277 PCVs were at work in Ethiopia (the group was called “Ethiopia I”). Emperor Haile Selassie held a reception for them at Jubilee Palace where he thanked them for coming to his country to “help drive out ignorance.” During the next eleven years, more than 2,500 PCVs served in Ethiopia in various capacities and assignments.

Some 1,500 PCVs were teachers in secondary schools in 80 locations, where they instructed over 300,000 students. The Americans taught nearly all the subjects offered, but in reality, they all taught English, a real plus for the students who worked with native speakers of that language on a daily basis. The PCV teachers bolstered the percentage of instructors with university degrees in Ethiopian schools, and their presence sparked a significant increase in the number of secondary school instructors. In the first two years alone, there was a 59% increase in secondary school teachers. The PCVs also played a vital role in extra-curricular activities, coaching sports teams, organizing clubs, and setting up libraries and reading rooms in their homes. Research by the Ministry of Education found that these activities of the PCVs activated higher academic achievement and a positive attitude change in participating students.

PCVs had two-year assignments. As they completed their service, new cohorts of PCVs arrived through 1974 when “Ethiopia XX” was the last group to serve in the country until the program was resumed in 1995. Their ages varied from 20 to 73 upon their arrival in Ethiopia. Until 1967, the Volunteers were trained at U.S. universities, including Georgetown, UCLA, and University of Utah. Later groups received in-country training or went to the Peace Corps Training Center in the Virgin Islands. Noted instructors included Wolf Leslau, Abraham Dämoz, Asmaron Lägässä, Taddässä Bäyyäne, Haylu Fulas, and Mikaýel Mésgénna.

Although the Volunteers were criticized by some Ethiopians for being inexperienced teachers, the Minister of State for Education and Fine Arts and the Director General of Secondary-Special Education approvingly acknowledged their enthusiasm and willingness to work.

I began my work and adventure in Ethiopia in May 1964 when I arrived in Addis Ababa with my wife, Patricia, and three children, the youngest of whom was just a little over a year old. I had spent an event-filled year at Peace Corps/ Washington where, among other things, I had heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial, cheered President Kennedy and Emperor Haile Selassie as they drove by in an open limousine, and mourned the slain President at his funeral.

During my second year in Ethiopia, the Peace Corps reached its largest number of PCVs in the country. In September 1965, 584 PCVs were at work, 440 of whom were teachers in 58 cities and towns in general secondary, special, and middle schools. In my job of keeping track of these teachers and visiting many of them in the field, I traveled to all of Ethiopia’s provinces where I witnessed firsthand the PCVs’ contributions to improving the quality of instruction and to the opening of new schools.

In 1965, PCVs also taught at Haile Selassie I University, where they were 20% of full-time and part-time faculty, notably in the College of Business Administration, Faculty of Law, Laboratory School, Creative Arts Center (where my wife taught painting), the Faculty of Arts program to improve English skills of first-year students, and University Extension. Peace Corps Medical projects were staffed by PCV Medical Doctors and highly-trained health-care professionals who instructed Ethiopians in a variety of health-related programs. In addition, 250 PCVs worked in agricultural extension work.

Upon their return to the United States, the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) promoted a better understanding of Ethiopia on the part of Americans. In 1991 “Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs” were formally organized and hold frequent gatherings to stay current on events in the Horn of Africa and to participate in service projects in the lands of their Peace Corps assignments.

Continuing our analysis of modern education in Ethiopia, it should be noted that between 1961 and 1971, the government expanded the public school system more than fourfold and declared universal primary education a long-range objective. Expansion in buildings and equipment was financed by World Bank loans. Another contribution in 1964-1974 came from some 2,700 students in Ethiopian University Service, a compulsory year of national service between the third and fourth years of college. Total expenditures on education increased from 10% of total government expenditures in 1968 to 20 percent in the early 1970s, but funding remained inadequate. Sadly, educational expenditures in Ethiopia as a percent of the gross national product (1.8 percent) were about half of that for other African countries.

In 1974, over 90% of the population was illiterate. Primary education was available to only 12% of primary school age children, and only 1 million students were enrolled in all the nation’s schools. The Education system was criticized as elitist, inflexible, and unresponsive to local needs. Educational opportunity was limited mainly to urban areas (55 % of secondary schools were in Eritrea and Šhewa, especially in Addis Ababa). The whole system remained inadequately financed. In the early 1970s the Ministry of Education’s Education Sector Review addressed many of these concerns and proposed far-reaching educational reform and expansion. Unfortunately, this report was not published until February 1974 and was never implemented.

Formal education in Ethiopia was carried on for centuries by a system of religious instruction presented by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Modern education had its modest beginning with Menilek II’s first modern state-sponsored school in 1908, Ménilék II Secondary School. In 1925, as you all know, Tafari Makonnen Lyceum came into being in Addis Ababa. To finance the school, Ras Tafari instigated a special education tax of 6 % on all imports and exports, the first Ethiopian Government education budget. Tafari also sent promising students to study overseas, most of them at his own expense. The change to a modern system of education ran into opposition, however, from the feudal nobility and the Church, groups intent on maintaining the status quo in the country.

After Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930, progress quickened. Education was seen as directly related to the creation of a skilled civil service and a modern and efficient government. The Ministry of Education and Fine Arts was set up and received 2% of national treasury revenue. In 1930, Empress Menen started public education for girls by founding Itegue Menen School in Addis Ababa during the same year that Haile Selassie I School was established. Several elementary schools also were founded between 1908 and 1935.

In Eritrea, schools were racially segregated by the Italian colonists. During the Italian occupation of “Abyssinia” from 1936 to 1941, schools in Ethiopia were closed.

In 1941, Ethiopian schools reopened and were dominated by the British for a decade. Heads of schools in Addis Ababa and important advisers in the Ministry of Education were British. In 1944, English was declared the medium of instruction. New secondary schools opened in Addis Ababa in the 1940s: Haile Selassie I Secondary School in 1943and General Wingate Secondary School in 1946. Princess Zenebe Work School, the English School, later known as the Sanford School, and the Alliance Française were private schools that opened in Addis Abäba in the early 1940s. In 1944, the first Teacher Training School was founded. The Sudan Interior Mission built the first secondary school outside of Addis Ababa, the Medhane Alem Academy, in 1948.

The Ministry of Education opened the Technical School in 1943; the Commercial School in1945; and the Ambo Agricultural School in 1946. Education received about 20% of the national budget during the 1940s, the second largest allocation of funds. Provincial education officers were appointed to promote education outside Addis Ababa. The Education Land Tax Act in 1947 earmarked 30% of ordinary land taxes for education in the provinces. A short time later, a government secondary school opened in Harar.

In Eritrea, the British reorganized the Italian schools. After federation with Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I Secondary School was established and the Eritrean Government added a 9th grade to the Prince Makonnen School in Asmara, the first two secondary-level schools operating in Eritrea.

From 1953-1955, advisers in the U.S. Point Four Program encouraged the adoption of an education system appropriate for conditions and needs of the Empire. The Report of The Long Term Planning Committee under the Vice Minister of Education became the blueprint for a revitalized system. Amharic was to be the language of instruction for the first six school years, with English in later grades. A new curriculum for secondary schools was initiated, and textbooks were written specifically for Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s first Five-Year Development Plan (1957-1961) stressed the need for manpower planning, and several academic and technical-vocational professional schools were built.

The apparent gains in Ethiopian education were put in perspective, however, by the 1961 UNESCO Conference of African States on the Development of Education, which was held in Addis Ababa. Among other things, the conference pointed out Ethiopia’s education deficits: primary and secondary education was ranked at the bottom among African nations; there were shortages of schools and teachers; a high dropout rate; and low overall attendance rates. Challenged by these findings, the Ministry of Education developed a new policy in effect until 1974 (during the 2nd and 3rd Five-Year Development Plans). The grade structure was reconfigured with 6 years of elementary school (taught in Amharic), two years of junior secondary, and 4 years of senior secondary schooling taught in English. By the mid-1960s, the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate had become the only valid secondary school diploma.

You know how Tafari Makonen School fit into this brief narrative of Ethiopia’s education history. The accomplishments of the school, its students and alumni are truly outstanding, exemplary of the best from Ethiopia. Your experience demonstrates that the highest function of education is the teaching of things in perspective, toward the purposes of enriching the life of the individual, cultivating the free and inquiring mind, and advancing the effort to bring reason, justice, and humanity into the relations of men and women and nations.

President Kennedy said that we will be remembered “not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” Tafari Makonen School, its faculty, students, and alumni were and are major contributors to the human spirit.

TMSAANA’s efforts to assist their former school by sharing knowledge, providing financial assistance to needy students, and endeavoring to improve the quality of education are all contributions to the human spirit. You alumni bear a high moral responsibility to help those who are struggling to educate themselves in the face of enormous challenges. This is especially the case with girls, who face huge obstacles in seeking education. Study after study emphasizes the role of women in bringing about worthwhile outcomes in a nation’s development. Hence the importance of what you are doing to help. I wish you all the best in your continuing contributions to the human spirit, and I thank you for letting me share in the joy of this weekend with you.

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