Pleiad from Senegal: The case for the liberal arts in Senegal

Pleiad from Senegal is a guest column by former Pleiad editor-in-chief Nicholas Diamond. Nick is abroad in Senegal, studying public health, French and Wolof.  He’ll be reporting about health challenges and cultural experiences while in Dakar.  

According to a 2011 study, approximately 12.2 percent of Senegalese between the ages of 15 and 35 are unemployed. Among Senegalese with advanced degrees, the unemployment rate rests at 35 percent. This is up from 16 percent in 2005.

Though students struggle to find work in a developing economy lacking foreign investment, part of the problem lies in educational opportunities, particularly the lack of diversity in those educational opportunities. Most students finish their education without ever having internship or volunteer experiences. Not only are they inexperienced, they’re overqualified. There are too many students with advanced degrees in fields that do not offer employment the struggling Senegalese marketplace.

For example, the linguistics department is the largest department at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. Students receive Masters and PhDs in English, French and Spanish. Many plan to teach languages in private and public schools, or to become professors. Though they receive these advanced degrees, there are only so many teaching positions available upon graduation.

Senegal, a former colony, still uses the French education system. This model tracks students at the age of 15 for either sciences or languages. Here, many students successfully begin the science track and can easily transition into the language track. Oppositely, many students struggle to begin the language track and then transition into the science track.

President Ditzler agrees that small, residential colleges are a “uniquely American invention.” However, the liberal arts model could be an American export. Given the current economic and academic crises, Senegal would benefit from borrowing the liberal arts approach.

Institutions like Albion pride themselves on preparing students for professional or graduate studies, especially in the sciences. Among the class of 2012, 48 percent of students are employed and 42 percent are continuing their education.

Using the liberal arts model in Senegal, thousands of students at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop’s linguistic department might benefit from pairing their language skills with another specialization. Students studying English, French and Spanish could pursue dual studies in business, computer sciences or medicine.

A bilingual liberal arts student with a degree in engineering could move Senegal forward. Just like American liberal arts students, they would be marketable abroad while developing solutions to local challenges.

Likewise, adopting the liberal arts model in West Africa would incorporate pre-professional institutes into university curricula. At Albion, programs like the Center for Sustainability and the Environment, the Institute for Healthcare Professions, the Ford Institute, the Honors Program, the Center for Teacher Development and the Gerstacker Institute offer distinct experiences for undergrads. These programs of distinction could help Senegalese students focus on challenges regarding economics, development, education, health and politics.

In a place where becoming a street beggar, or mendiant, is now a profession, we must consider other approaches to higher education in West Africa. If Dakar borrowed the methods that are effective in Calhoun County, the Senegalese may just find solutions to their problems and answers to their questions.

Photo by Nick Diamond

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