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Côte d'Ivoire - Educational System—overview

french secondary school boigny

The early history of Côte d'Ivoire's educational system is rooted in French colonial policy in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Originally, African colonies were considered a new frontier for missionary work, as well as a source of raw materials and ores. The French government, though officially unattached to religious organizations, welcomed the outreach efforts of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. These groups effectively laid the foundations of primary and secondary education in Côte d'Ivoire and the other colonies that made up the Afrique Equatoriale Française (French West Africa). Today's religious private schools, which still educate the children of the elite, are the direct descendants of these colonial institutions.

As the French intensified their political influence, they also began coordinated efforts to create an official public school system. By 1923, Côte d'Ivoire had a rudimentary network of primary schools in place, The first secondary school opened in 1928. French authorities, however, faced a pedagogical and sociocultural dilemma. They intended the primary school system to educate young Ivoirians in the three Rs(reading, writing, and arithmetics) with the intent of encouraging their entry into the lower echelons of the workforce. Secondary education, by contrast, represented a potential long-term threat: officials worried that further education might nurture a climate of resistance against the established colonial order. Because of such misgivings, secondary education was never developed to its full potential between 1928 and the end of World War II. But since the French also planned gradually to replace their own administrators and officials with native Ivoirians, it was vital to establish an educated demographic base. Accordingly, only the sons of local tribal chiefs were selected for secondary education in Côte d'Ivoire and later sent to France on scholarships for postgraduate training.

The formal education of former president Houphouet-Boigny is itself an illustration of that policy. Born in Yamassoukro, the son of a powerful Baoulé tribal chief, he was educated in private elementary schools and then sent to Dakar, in French Senegal, to attend the prestigious Ecole Normale William Ponty. Later he studied at the Ecole de Médecine et de Pharmacie de Dakar, the first medical school established by the French in their West African colonies. After graduation in 1925, Houphouet-Boigny returned to Côte d'Ivoire, where he practiced medicine while running a coffee plantation. He became mayor of Abidjan, was elected a congressman to the French National Assembly, and was ultimately appointed to a cabinet minister post in Paris.

When Houphouet-Boigny became Côte d'Ivoire's first president in 1960, he favored the elaboration of an educational system that would both democratize and retain most of the elitist characteristics of his own schooling. He chose not to follow the path of radical Africanization favored by Guinea and Ghana, and against the criticism of neighboring African nations decided instead to continue a close alliance with France. Politically, economically, and educationally, that controversial decision handsomely paid off as Côte d'Ivoire became the wealthiest and most literate nation of the sub-Sahara. Since the death of Houphouet-Boigny in 1993, a new generation of Ivoirians has initiated some distancing from French influence and has been more assertive in the affirmation of its African heritage. In a like manner, the educational system of Côte d'Ivoire is gradually adopting an identity of its own, while still solidly resting on its French foundations.


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