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09 Mar 2023
Richard Sack

Educational Research and Democracy: In Search of a Linkage

In this NORRAG Highlight, Richard Sack comments on a recent article by Achille Mbembe about “the decline of democracy in Africa” and explores the ways in which education research could contribute to the strengthening of democracy.

Writing in the French daily Le Monde last October, Prof. Achille Mbembe (Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research of the University of Witwatersrand) addressed the issue of “the decline of democracy in Africa,” which, he wrote is the “result of a lack of intellectual vitality” (atonie intellectuelle). In that article, he calls for the development of collective intelligence, the identification of living laboratories (lieux-labos), and research that would bring intellectual capacities to focus on societal issues. The challenge he lays down is all the more formidable given the absence of strategies on how to meet it, how and where this could be accomplished.

The education system could be one entry point into working: (i) against this lack of intellectual vitality; (ii) for the development of mechanisms of collective intelligence; (iii) for the identification of living laboratories (best practices?), and (iv) for the development of research to achieve these goals in the context of education—which encapsulates a host of societal issues. There are several, interconnected reasons for this—all related to the particular characteristics of the “education sector.”

For one, the underlying science of learning is weak; there is no unified theory of learning. Rather, there are several, if not many. Contrast this with medicine which has long had its germ theory of disease: once a doctor has a diagnosis, he/she then has a high probability of predicting the outcome, with or without treatment. Education has nothing equivalent to this. Diagnostics, treatments, and, even, outcomes are all rarely certain and often contested. If there is nothing more practical than a good theory (i.e., with high explanatory and predictive powers), then education is clearly lagging. Given this epistemological situation, expertise is often seen and misunderstood more as an expression of opinion than as being scientifically grounded.

Secondly, just about everybody — as parents and students — is concerned and has experience with education. They all have their opinions and may even think of themselves as experts. Indeed, parents probably trust their children’s bodies more readily to doctors than their minds to teachers.

This is why (third point) education is so easily politicized throughout the world. This is probably more likely to be the case in relatively open societies where information can flow and opinions are expressed with relative ease, which is generally the case throughout Africa. Even in countries where the formalities of political democracy (open and fair elections, open access to platforms of political news and expression, alternating political leadership) may be relatively limited, critical discussions about education are rarely throttled.

This is where Mbembe’s call for intellectual vitality to counter the decline of democracy meets the education sector. The premise for such an encounter is composed of the factors outlined above: (i) lack of scientific consensus that expected outcomes will result from policy choices in the form of inputs and interventions; (ii) the broad, intimate, and varied interests, convictions, and experience concerning education throughout a country; and (iii) the levels of politization that characterize many things education. For the numerous professionals working throughout any education system, including their international partners and colleagues, this trifecta is seen as a devaluation of our expertise. As such, it is often resisted, if not denied by the experts.

Rather than resistance and denial, it could be seen as an opportunity for the development of the “mechanisms of collective intelligence” called for by Mbembe. This opportunity is highlighted, reinforced by the current discourse around evidence-based policymaking, which is both very much in vogue and the object of much advocacy, including by international development agencies. Indeed, Prof. Mbembe’s article for Le Monde is probably not foreign to his work with the Agence Française de Développement, the French development investment bank.

Research is a prime source of evidence. Research can also be the source of collective intelligence, assuming that its findings are of sufficiently broad interest and can easily flow into the public discourse. And, here comes the point of this blog: research that irrigates the public discourse about education could have the simultaneous benefits of (i) constructively contributing to educational policymaking while, at the same time, (ii) strengthening democracy by bringing intellectual capacities to focus on that most societal of institutions which is education.

The preconditions for this are largely present in Africa. There is an education research community in every country in Africa, generally associated with a Faculty of Education (such as at Wits), or at an Institut National de Pédagogie, or, in some Francophone countries, both. However, for various reasons, the work done by these researchers is all too often overlooked and undervalued by the policymakers, who may often be listening more closely to experts (like myself) coming from international organizations than to members of their own national education research community.[1] The question, therefore, becomes something like this: How to promote the production, use, and general awareness of educational research so that its intellectual outputs feed into, encourage, and reinforce public conversations and controversies, and concerns about education?

One response to this question, and to Mbembe’s article, could be to devise strategies and programs aimed at increasing the likelihood of broader representation in, and wider discussions of education policies. Such a response would involve the education research communities as well as communications strategies that present and explain research in terms and formats that are easily understood by, and available to multiple stakeholders.

For example, policies concerning of language of instruction are generally highly controversial and generate resistance from those segments of the population expected to benefit from such policies. The research is clear: beginning schooling in a familiar language (mother tongue, usually) benefits learning outcomes, even when instruction switches to a foreign language in the later years of primary school. The resistance to such policies (from parents, teachers,…) is also clear: the foreign language (English, French, Portuguese…) is seen as the language of social mobility, it is the language of the administration, and much more; the readiness of the education system (trained teachers, textbooks,…) for the policy is doubted; there are examples of poor implementation and failure; the objectives of the policy are not clearly stated (specifically, for pedagogical efficacy? and/or more diffusely, for broader cultural objectives?).

Bringing research — empirical research, in particular —  into these debates and to the knowledge of multiple stakeholders could contribute to an improved understanding of why such policies are proposed, as well as improving the focus on what is needed for the policy to succeed. And, as a contribution to the intellectual vitality that, according to Mbembe, underpins the democratic processes, bringing research into the picture could stimulate informed debate and empower stakeholders (parents, teachers, media,…) whose voices, knowledge, interests and insights would, otherwise, be lost and/or ill-informed.

The potential of educational research to contribute to the strengthening of democracy in Africa is only one window of opportunity in response to Mbembe’s article. Many potentially exist and should be identified. Part of the challenge of bringing intellectual capacities to focus on societal issues is to figure out how to bring the fruits of research into the broader public sphere, well-beyond the borders of our narrow communities of researchers and experts.


The author

Richard Sack is currently a consultant and a member of the Independent Technical Assessment Panel established by the Global Partnership for Education. He served as executive secretary of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) from 1995-2001.  Prior to that he also worked as a consultant and taught at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), Université Laval (Québec), and the Université Nationale du Zaire in Kisangani.


[1] Maclure, R. (1997). Overlooked and Undervalued: A Synthesis of ERNWACA Reviews on the State of Educational Research in West and Central Africa. Bamako, Mali: Educational Research Network for West and Central Africa (ERNWACA) and USAID.

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