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An Introduction to African Holistic Pedagogy: Nyansapo/ The Wisdom Knot*

By Dr. Asantewaa Oppong Wadie 

Presented by Omni-U Virtual University

Much has been written about the necessity and mandate for African-centered education for African Students (wherever born).  However, African-centered pedagogy is less  emphasized.  The African worldview posits a distinct holistic cosmology which profoundly shapes the best practices for teaching students.  The author introduces the reader to Dr. Grant Venerable, a successful practitioner of African holistic pedagogy.  

I began my journey into African holistic pedagogy as a doctoral candidate engaged in writing my dissertation on educational pedagogy. The central question of my research was: Which professor of African-centered thought coupled their information with ways of teaching that honored the time-tested teaching methods of our African  ancestors?  Who among the great Africentric thinkers in higher education was bold enough to abandon the Western lecture/discussion format and honestly delve into the African experience for a method of teaching centered in the worldview and way of life of African people? 

The answer: not many.  In fact, it took quite some time to find someone who had shaken up the traditional structure of teaching and learning.  In the midst of my persistent research I ran into an article entitled, “The Chemistry was All Wrong”(Pena, 1996). The article was written by a student at San Francisco State University.  In the article the author bitterly complained about Professor Grant D. Venerable, a professor of chemistry at the university who decided to leave because the administration of the college of science and engineering, could not accept his self-created Kemetic (ancient Egyptian) science class as a legitimate science class. In the article, Dr. Venerable commented on  the university’s narrow thinking that functioned to suppress his talents as a teacher of Black studies and Science.

After reading that online article, I became convinced that Dr. Venerable would be a great person to reach out to in order to answer the central question of my dissertation. After searching for him at several schools, I was able to locate him at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In our initial conversation, I told Dr. Venerable how I learned of his research, and I described, as best I could at that time, my dissertation interest. Dr. Venerable immediately recognized what I was talking about. Right away he opened my eyes to the fact that African holistic pedagogy was not left in Africa during the trans-Atlantic slavery, nor was it completely destroyed and forgotten when African knowledge systems came under attack by colonial powers. It is Dr. Venerable’s position that the process of teaching and learning, born in Africa, came to North America and continued to be viable in the communities of African people up until the time of Brown v. The Board of Education. Months later, Dr. Venerable sent me an article that he wrote entitled, “Politics, Pedagogy, and Paradox: The 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (1954-2004).” In the 2004 article, Venerable clearly lamented the pedagogy that was lost, in his judgment, after the landmark court decision. One of the central questions, that Venerable  raised in the article, concerns whether  integrated schooling represented the pinnacle of education:

“Then how [do] I reconcile the superior liberal arts education afforded my father, his sister, and their classmates at black, segregated Lincoln High School in Kansas City in the 1900 and 1910s?” (p.8) In the article, Dr. Venerable  stated  that, in answer to this question, he received an epiphany:

Lincoln High School in the period of 1900-1940, along with its counterparts in such places as Tulsa, St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, and other cities, were bastions of liberal arts excellence that were led by distinguished principals and faculties, many with master’s degrees who could teach almost anywhere at the college level. Furthermore, they were epistemological universalists, that is, practitioners of a “unity of knowledge” pedagogy that accompanied the African ancestors from the Gold Coast to America during the slave trade. (p. 8).

To further expand the idea that the African methodology of “unity of knowledge” characterized the education of African Americans prior to Brown v. Board of Education, Venerable  explains:

In the old African American pedagogy, that once flourished in the Deep South and places like Lincoln High in Kansas City, students were taught by self-made autodidacts, theorists and generalists sometimes with very little formal schooling across the standard subject fields … With limited resources and books, these teachers lovingly nurtured and toughly disciplined their pupils in the art of organizing, sorting and applying complex information to any number of possible practical ends. They taught the unity of all knowledge by first inculcating their pupils with key universal themes for example, geometry, the science of spatial relations… The old African American southern pedagogy made liberal use of analogy to project geometric meaning upon the spatial aspects of grammar and composition. The same holds true when geometric axioms are applied to analogous spatial relationships in biology, or to analogous spatial relations in music (as between related themes, tempos, tonal structures), or analogous relations of form and meter in Latin, Greek or Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry. The point of such a pedagogy is its achievement of educative efficiency by maximizing learning across several disciplines at once- discovering the universal ideas in one discipline- and applying them across other disciplines that might appear otherwise distantly related. (pp. 8-9)

Interestingly, in the American South, according to Venerable’s account, the science of geometry was used to replace the folkloric mythology –such as the Ausarian myth and other stories used in Ancient Africa- to teach the universal themes found in all fields of knowledge. However, the effect was the same. Both approaches emphasize that the student must first grasp an understanding of how things exist in relationship to each other. Once that basic template is mastered, then one can use it to learn across the disciplines. This approach to learning even exceeds the boundaries of what is considered education in the Eurocentric sense. This technique leads one seamlessly into the field of what is called religion and other- worldliness/spirituality, and deep psychology.

What is lamentable about the Brown v. the Board of Education case is that it assumed that African people in America had nothing to bring to the intellectual table. In fact, this landmark decision was, and is, celebrated as helping African American students who were before this point being under-educated. Venerable  stated it this way:

‘Thus the local districts mandated the closure of formerly black schools, the dismantling of their unique pedagogies and academic traditions, the displacement of black teachers and administrators and the reassignment of black children to formerly all white schools- all in the service of reinforcing a newly established legal principle of spatial proximity to whiteness. This was not integration based on a vital and unified whole of complementary traditions, but a homogenized farce, in which the minority tradition was forced to mimic the majority…. It has left a bitter legacy of loss- the loss that is, of a universal approach to knowledge and learning that might now nourish all youngsters, irrespective of cultural or genetic heritage and that no level of standardized teacher certification or pupil testing can ever restore. (p. 9)

Venerable’s basic point is that African American teachers- prior to Brown vs. Board of Education- utilized a pedagogy that emphasized a unity of knowledge and developed human intelligence in many areas simultaneously.  This then,  was a holistic method particular to the African world that was brought and retained in the Americas by captive Africans.

Exactly how it was preserved and passed down from generation to generation is a subject that requires much further research.  What I am certain of, based on my research, is that the older southern teachers of African origin would often hand-pick, and mentor up-and-coming teachers on how to appreciate and teach from the holistic method.  Dr. Venerable himself was so-chosen and mentored in this ancient pedagogy by Dr. Therese Hance Braithwaite. Braithwaite, a student of Dr. Alain Locke and others, held a doctorate in mathematics, philosophy and education.  Such a feat is only possible when a holistic form of learning is being used.  Braithwaite told Venerable, when she met him fresh out of University of Chicago’s doctoral program, “I have to save you from your formal education.” (Oppong Wadie, p.113, 2009).  Braithwaite proposed that they study together for seven years. During that time Venerable remembers sitting up late and getting up early in the morning to get re-immersed in the knowledge of the whole- that is how the entire universe is connected. 

A detailed explanation of what the Ancient African pedagogy is and how it is applied greatly exceeds the limitation of this paper.  However, below I offer a glimpse into how a teacher steeped in this method, introduces his/her students to any subject matter.

Pedagogy of Universals

In order to fully understand the approach to knowledge used by Venerable and others like him, it is necessary to first re-call the metaphor of the sower/farmer and the seed.   In order for the farmer to ensure maximum germination he/she must first spend sufficient time preparing the ground for planting. This often involves adding nutrition to the soil. Next, the farmer must plant and nurture the seed and guard the crop against weeds.  After much effort, it is time for reaping. This metaphor guides African holistic pedagogy. 

Venerable explains that, based on his training, he has learned never to walk into the classroom on the first day of class and just hand out the syllabus and then proceed to describe the course. Rather, like the sower/farmer, Venerable spends much of the early weeks of class preparing the minds of his students for maximum absorption. Venerable explains:

It doesn’t start with “good morning class. This is Dr. Venerable. This is Chemistry 121. And these are your prerequisites. These are the goals of the course.” And then, I give you your syllabus and your schedule of examinations. In our American system, that is what we call the formal approach. … I let my teaching assistants handle all of that. … [And then] I would stand up and I would say something like, “I’ve Known Rivers. I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. And my soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.” By this time the students are looking at me like I was crazy, but others are like oh, oh, and others are getting into it.

“I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers.  Ancient dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” That is what chemistry was about. What is that poem about? I would say: write a paragraph. …Braithwaite got me to that point- start with the universal- the harmonious significance where the student begins to feel his or her harmony to the cosmos and to one another. (Oppong Wadie, p.146, 2009)

In the first phase of this method the rule/tool for maximizing the learning experiences of students is to begin with the “universals”- those things that all humans can resonate with and appreciate.  This remains true even if students do not immediately comprehend the connection to the information they are receiving.  The utilization of this method requires the teacher to introduce the subject matter in its most abstract/universal formThis is most easily done by employing the arts.

Venerable chose to introduce chemistry with the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes.  The wisdom of his choice becomes clear upon a closer examination.  Historically, we are told that human civilization began along the lakes and rivers of the great lakes region in Africa.  Chemistry itself was born along the Nile.  Chemistry takes its name from Alchemy, and ultimately from Kemet- Land of the dark-skinned people.  These historical concepts are introduced in an intellectually palatable way; via a poem.  In his introduction, Venerable is simultaneously teaching literature, history, and chemistry, which is why this method is called holistic. The method literally merges together the splintered disciplines of the academy.  To successfully utilize this methodology, the teacher must be an adept in literature, history, science as well as the subject matter they are presenting.

The genius of African holistic pedagogy is not only in its ability to bridge the disciplines, it also is a powerful tool for melting the apprehension that students may feel when they encounter a subject like chemistry. The softness of the first encounter can be more welcoming than the lecture approach.  Furthermore, Venerable used jazz music, changed in chair arrangement, and utilized voice modulation in order to create a hospitable learning environment.

Venerable shared with me that sometimes he would move all the chairs out of the classroom and walk the students in a counter-clockwise circle. Each step would be timed and rhythmic. He called this activity walking the Nubian vortex. Historically, students were literally re-enacting the way knowledge and civilization flowed down the river Nile from ancient Kush/Meroe into ancient Kemet. Scientifically the students were moving in the direction of the magnetic field. As the students walked the vortex, Venerable would narrate the history of time and the movement of knowledge along the Nile. This scientific and historical exercise was aimed at awakening genetic memory and activating latent parts of the brain; creating fertile ground for learning (Oppong Wadie, 2009).

Over the years, Venerable confesses that he learned to trust his ancestral guides when he entered the classroom. It became easy for him to incorporate whatever came to his mind.  African holistic pedagogy evolves the teacher into a more receptive human being who can change a lesson so that it is best suited for the students to whom it is being presented. (Oppong Wadie, 2009).

Most insightful, into the effectiveness of this method, were the comments from Dr. Venerable’s former students. I was able to interview three of his former students, all of whom had taken his class about twenty years prior to the time of the interview. The students were recommended to me for interviewing by Dr. Venerable. All of the students’ names were changed to protect their privacy. The first thing that stood out was that all of the students remembered the class with clarity. They were not at all sketchy on the details of their chemistry class with Venerable. Reflecting on his teaching methodology Ama, a student who began her college career as a Home Economics major and, after Venerable’s class  became a Chemistry major, and now holds a PhD. in Chemistry, had this to say.

Grant did explain that we would not be getting the typical ‘memorize this and that’ chemistry class. He told us that we would learn a method of thinking. About 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through the class the chemistry part was added and it just fell into place. I was like, “Wow how do I understand all this stuff”? A light bulb would go off in your head. …The method was totally different. Other classes required a lot of memorization of the periodic chart and formulas. This was a method of thinking. (Oppong Wadie, p.152, 2009).

Kweku, a student who had the privilege of studying with Dr. Braithwaite as well asq Dr. Venerable, strongly emphasized how Venerable’s teaching method fortified his religious faith. As a follower of the Bahai tradition, he clearly could see the connection between both.  He commented that Venerable taught him that, “The patterns are knowable in all fields of human endeavor and creation” (Oppong Wadie, p.152, 2009).  He adds “This is not a new methodology, nor is this unique; this is a clear understanding of the methods of the cosmos” (Oppong Wadie, p.152, 2009). For Kweku, the African holistic pedagogy perfectly aligns with the organization of the universe. The method literally works the way the mind works.

Finally, Yaa a newspaper journalist, who intentionally sought Venerable out to take his chemistry course after hearing him lecture at a local high school, said this of Venerable’s class:

For the first time I understood both the value of outside points of view and the power of analogy as tools for learning and understanding complexity, in a way that I never would have been taught in a traditional setting. It left a lasting impression on me as a journalist and later as a champion of interdisciplinary research and collaborative problem- solving. Frankly, it was very confusing to science students. As I recall, they had to be coerced into trying the method. They seemed to be much more comfortable with the idea of memorization and regurgitation. (Oppong Wadie, p.153, 2011)

From Yaa’s comments, we see that not all students  readily gravitated to the pedagogy Venerable utilized. Unfortunately Eurocentric education prepares people to think in only one way. However, this does not mean that the teaching method is less than effective. Rather, it could point to the fact that, for Western trained students, there is a bit of un-learning that needs to happen if they are to going to be able to learn from an African holistic pedagogy.

Africa stands to re-gain its former status as the intellectual center of the earth.  Western- trained intellectuals are slowly realizing that Africa’s intellectual heritage is massive, under-realized and misunderstood (Finch, 2003). Out of the depth of this rich intellectual pas,t Dr. Grant Venerable has brought to light this pedagogy – a science of learning that has profound implications for education in the United States and elsewhere. 

African holistic pedagogy contains the word holistic in its name because of its ability to unite several fields of knowledge in its use. Thus, a teacher that is an adept in only one field of knowledge is in effect teaching-disabled.  African holistic pedagogy has, as its main requisite, a teacher that is widely read- an adept in several fields.  Only then can he/she even become aware of how disciplines intertwine. Dr. Charles Veharen, professor of philosophy at Howard University, explains it this way:

 All reality is a unity and …we divide this unity into parts because of the limitations of our present knowledge… All academic disciplines (mathematics, language, science, philosophy, history, art) are interconnected. They are taught as separate subjects only by distortion. …Teaching them as separate “cultures” not only miseducates students but also destroys their interest in what we so misguidedly call “school”. (pp. 65-69, 1995)

The holistic designation in African pedagogy also refers to the fact that the method, and therefore the teacher, is sensitive to the emotions of the student; especially as those emotions inform the student’s attitude towards learning. Students are introduced to knowledge via the arts, because the arts have the amazing ability to soften mental resistance to any discipline.  In addition, the arts speak a symbolic language understood by the subconscious mind. 

Finally, the term holistic in African holistic pedagogy, refers to evolution of the teacher into a more intuitive agent, one who can address and incorporate the unspoken energies that exist in the classroom setting. This is a primary difference between Eurocentric pedagogy and one that is truly African in origin. Within an African pedagogy the teacher is expected to at some point make the quantum leap from being a teacher tied to the syllabus and lesson plan, to someone who can sense what the students need, one who is trustful of what their spiritual guides (ancestors) impress upon their mind in the moment, and one who is able to bring all of their previous learning and experiences to bear in the classroom.

As Africana Studies matures as a discipline, it will invariably be forced to reconcile the great intellectual past bequeathed by Africa. Along with finding space for the Dogon’s immense scientific knowledge (Finch, 2003), merging with the tens of thousands of books being found in the lost libraries of Mali and elsewhere in Africa (Vales, 2006), integrating astrophysical implications of the megaliths found all over Africa (e.g. Nbata Playa) (Brophy, 2002), Africana Studies will also have ownership of the pedagogy that originated in Africa.

We can be certain from the lives of Dr. Grant Venerable and Dr. Therese Braithwaite that the pedagogy remained in the hearts and the minds of those Africans who made the unfortunate trip across the Atlantic Ocean.  That is, one does not forget everything that they know just because they are put in chains and loaded on a ship. The science of teaching survived the middle passage and was passed inter-generationally, formally, and informally, from mother to child, from preacher to people, from older teacher to younger teacher.

The question then becomes: Where are those teachers who have been taught this pedagogy? Once aware, the discipline of Africana Studies will be charged with responsibility to comb their communities in search of those who are familiar with this pedagogy.  We saw a glimpse of such a teacher in the recent highly publicized, Davis Guggenheim (2011) documentary, Waiting on Superman. Her name is Ms Harriet Ball and she was a black teacher whose pedagogy inspired two young white male teachers to open 99(or more) Kipp Charter Schools, nationwide. Ms. Harriet Ball self -describes her holistic technique as, “[A] multi-sensory, mnemonic, whole-body teaching technique” (Robelen, p.1, 2011). The genius of the African holistic science of teaching remains in our communities, perhaps in places where we would least expect to find it.

As Africana studies reclaims its intellectual heritage and its pedagogy, it is possible that it will be the vanguard of educational reform in the western hemisphere.  Western scientists and practitioners are aware that the current teaching methods are inadequate. There is an active search for a new way. Renate and Geoffrey Caine , researchers into brain-based learning speak of their longing for the kind of inter-disciplinary integration that African holistic pedagogy provides.(1991)

All knowledge is embedded in other knowledge. When we translate this to school subjects, we see an enormous degree of overlap, in that literature is deeply embedded in history, as are mathematics, science and art…The ability to perceive this interpenetration and both understand it and teach it constitutes one of the cornerstones of brain-based learning. (p. 39).

Harvard University’s, Pulitzer Prize winning, author Edward Wilson (1998) echoes a similar sentiment.

In education the search for consilience is the way to renew the crumbling structure of the liberal arts… With rare exceptions, American universities and colleges have dissolved their curriculum into a slurry of minor disciplines and specialized courses…The trend cannot be reversed by force-feeding students with some-of-this and some-of-that across the branches of learning. Win or lose, true reform will aim at a consilience of science with the social science and the humanities in scholarship and teaching. (p.13)

My point is that Africana studies can become the discipline to which all other disciplines come in search for a more integrated way of learning. It can become the new great temples of Kemet, to which the great scholars troop  for training. The supreme advantage of African holistic pedagogy is its recognition of the whole. The whole is holy.  It is the one dictate that we must follow in every endeavorPerhaps, said best by Na’im Akbar (1994), “We then must learn to differentiate only for the purpose of unifying.  We must learn to differentiate to understand the nature of the whole” (p.26).  African holistic pedagogy teaches teachers how to recognize and utilize and pursue the whole in the classroom.

Nyansapo is an Adinkra symbol, from the Akan people of West Africa.  The symbol has  several adjoining proverbs.  Chief among them is the proverb that states : “A knot made with wisdom can only be undone by a wise person, and not by a fool .” This symbol and its proverbs are apropos when referring to African holistic pedagogy, because it is a system of teaching and learning that was wisely designed and subsequently suppressed.  It is a practice of teaching that can only be redeemed by a diligent insider.  Outsiders may view this way of teaching and learning and assume it to be of no value. 

A. Oppong Wadie, Ed.D. Co-Director Aba Educational Consultants

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