Education as an Agent of Social Change and Determinant of Social Status in Ghana by the Early 20th Century

Term Paper, 2017
5 Pages, Grade: 2

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Human history has it that, the rank of an individual in a particular society depended on certain criteria used in the determination of social class. The continuity and change of every African social structure and of course, individual social status in a society was influenced by beliefs, values and customs of the indigenous people. Before the advent of Europeans into Africa, the social status of class stratification largely depended on political authority and material wealth. Thus, the former focus on those who hold political power and the subjects, while the later emphasis on how much wealth one possess in the form of land, holding of slaves, livestock, prestigious items like gold, and other monetary items like cowries and others. For instance, the social stratification of the Asante of Ghana was primarily determined by the political realm.[1] It was divided into three classes: the royals, the commoners and the slaves. The last disappeared after the abolition of the slave trade which was spear headed by Britain in the first decade of the 19th century as well as the abolition of domestic slavery from the 1900s.

However, upon the arrival of Europeans and their effort to introduce western values into the continent, mostly through Christianity, education, commerce and colonialism, rendered the first determinant (political authority based) of social status insignificant in most semi-westernized societies in Africa. And these led to the emergence of three new classes; the European elite, the educated Ghanaian elite and the wage-earning class.[2] Members of these classes evolved from the mission education system and from economic and political developments, championed by both Europeans and Ghanaians at the time.

After their arrival and establishment, these missions saw to the promotion of not only evangelical activities but also of western education. The greatest and most enduring activities of the missionaries were in education aside of evangelical field.[3] There is no doubt that the missionaries were the pioneers of primary, elementary, secondary, technical as well as teacher training education in Ghana. Their educational activities brought about a phenomenon of social change: their schools and institutions generated a new class of missionary trained Ghanaians like George Blankson, John Sarbah, John Aggrey, R.J. Ghartey, J.P. Brown, F.C Grant, who played an important role in the political movements like the Fante Confederacy in the 1860s and 70s and subsequent products of these institutions have continued to play vital roles in the Gold Coast effort to detach herself from the colonial master.

Moreover, within the educated class, whose membership and power increased with the years, a number of sub-groups evolved. There was first the intelligentsia, all of whom had received western education. Below them on the social ladder were the lower elites, who were predominantly teachers, clergymen, catechists, junior civil servants, and less educated traders. The third sub-group consists of elementary school leavers employed as clerks, messengers, shop assistants, apprentices, and so on. These three groups were to collate as Ghanaian nationalists to respond to ill treatment of the colonial government from the 1930s to the 50s.

Few would disagree with the observation that, the impact of western education in sub-Saharan Africa was perhaps the most important contemporary mechanisms of social stratification and redistribution on the continent.[4] It is not simply reflections of existing patterns of social and economic differentiation, but rather powerful independent forces in the creation of new and emergent groupings based on the variable possession of power, wealth, and prestige. Foster argues that, there is little or no evidence to support the assertion that contemporary African social change will essentially replicate earlier patterns of the Western world, and that a stratification of' social classes have occurred in Africa, at least in the Marxian sense of the term.[5]

As western education spread wider in the Gold Coast by the early 20th century, the few “intelligentsia” rose to an important position in the colonial political and economic sphere. Since occupation from western education was an exceedingly important driver of social change and as such was a determinant of class status in the late 19th and early 20th century Gold Coast. The early elites who got the opportunity to be educated in the missionary schools sees inequalities among themselves. It was a well-known fact that some kinds of jobs were more honorable than others.[6] For instance, doctors, lawyers and other professionals perceived themselves in a higher position than teachers, clerks, catechists and others. These occupations were also one of the best clues to one’s way of life, and therefore to one’s social class membership. Such perceptions affected many other facets of life such as values, beliefs, marital relations and relationship with the colonial government. It was on these grounds that the two political traditions at the wake of decolonization in Ghana emerged. Thus, the United Gold Coast Convention dominated by reactionary lawyers and professionals pursuing their political goal of overthrowing the Colonial Government with conservative and constitutional means which was just a mirage in the history of colonialism and imperialism. And the second being the Convention People’s Party led by Kwame Nkrumah with broader grassroots (who had no or little western education) concentration employing all sort of methods including radicalism to regain independence for Ghana.

It is enormous to note that, the influence of western education on social structure in semi-westernized society like the Gold Coast in the early 20th century was not only the disparity among the early nationalist themselves, but extended to the educated not. In most cases the early elites looked down upon the unlettered folks.[7] The elites placed themselves above their deprived counterparts. They began to adopt western way of life, like adding a European name to their original name or all the same change it completely. Some of them prefer dressing in European outlook and adopted monogamous marriage and ought to see the status quo as low class life. However, some early African nationalists like Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya publicly defended indigenous values such as polygamous marriage and female genital cutting in the 1930s.[8] And he preferred to be with the people than seeing himself above them.

In fact, the introduction of numerical and alphabetical education have profoundly re–organized the social structure of the Ghanaian society in the colonial days and still persist in contemporary times, as rightly asserted by Kimble. Prof. David Kimble whose work focused on the growth of national consciousness and African responses to British imperialism in the Gold Coast demonstrates at least, how nationalism is as old in Ghana as it is amongst several European and American peoples. Prof. Kimble traced accurately the nature and range of Ghanaians responses to British’s rule.

…he interprets 'nationalism' comprehensively and takes it to include (a) opposition to alien control, (b) the consciousness of belonging to a particular African nation (actual or potential), to Africa in general, or to the Negro race, (c) pride in the nation's culture, traditions, institutions, and achievements, (d) awareness of common political rights and responsibilities, (e) an articulate demand for a self-governing nation-state, and especially (j) all forms of persuasion, agitation, and concerted action through which such sentiments are expressed or encouraged.[9]

The emerged new class with their interaction with European merchants further influenced the social strata of the Gold Coast through commerce. In his analysis of class divisions, Karl Marx argued that social class is based entirely on wealth. Commerce provided a new class of its own as a result of the commercial interaction between the European and the local merchants which resulted to the weakening of some of the traditional institutions.[10] Wealth which had hitherto been the monopoly of the old aristocracy began to be acquired by ordinary people, and equipped with this new symbol of power and independence, they irritated under the inflexible authoritarianism of the traditional order. As time went on, conflict begun between the moderns, comprising the new educated elite and the ambitious, increasingly wealthy young men on the one hand, and the old aristocracy on the other. The 1909 Colonial Report on Asante indicated that, “the Asante Organization so powerful in older days still maintains many elements of cohesion, but with the spread of western civilization and more liberal ideas, the inevitable conflict between youth and authority has already commenced.”[11] Ghanaian merchants largely benefited and acquired much wealth from both the slave trade and the legitimate trade as well. These bestowed a higher social status to the local merchants.

It is of no doubt that, by the beginning of the 20th century, western education had become an important driver of social change as well as the major determinant of social status in semi-westernized society like Ghana as signaled by Prof. Kimble in his influential work: “A Political History of Ghana; the Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism, 1850-1928. It is worthy to note that, western education did not only played a vital role in re-organization of the Ghanaian social structure in line with western values, but aided in the disintegration of the traditional Ghanaian society resulting in friction between the traditional leaders and institutions and the emerging new class which still persist to date. (Kimble)


Boahen, A. Adu. Ghana: Evolution and Change in the Nineteenth Century . Sankofa Educational Publishers Ltd., 2000.

Celarent, Barbara. "Rev. Facing Mount Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta ." American Journal of Sociology 116.02 (2010): 722-728.

Debrunner, H. W. A History of Christianity in Ghana. Waterville Press, 1967.

Foster, Philip. "Education and Social Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa." The Journal of Modern African Studies 18.02 (1980): 201-236.

Kimble, David. A Political History of Ghana: The Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism, 1850-1928. Clarendon Press, 1965.

Shepperson, George. "Rev. A Political History of Ghana. The Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism, 1850-1928 by David Kimble , ." The English Historical Review 80.315 (1965): 367-369.

Smith, A. Wade. "Educational Attainment as a Determinant of Social Class among Black Americans." The Journal of Negro Education 58.03 (1989): 416-429.

[1] A. Adu Boahen, Ghana: Evolution and Change in the Nineteenth Century (Sankofa Educational Publishers Ltd., 2000): 102.

[2] Ibid: 103.

[3] H. W. Debrunner, A History of Christianity in Ghana (Waterville Press, 1967).

[4] Philip Foster, “Education and Social Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, 18.02 (Jun., 1980): 201.

[5] Foster, “Education and Social Inequality…” 202.

[6] A. Wade Smith, “Educational Attainment as a Determinant of Social Class among Black Americans,” The Journal of Negro Education, 58.03, (summer, 1989): 417.

[7] Boahen, Ghana: Evolution… 103.

[8] Barbara Celarent, Rev. “Facing Mount Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta,” American Journal of Sociology, 116.02 (Sept. 2010): 724-5.

[9] George Shepperson, Rev. “A Political History of Ghana. The Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism, 1850-1928 by David Kimble,” The English Historical Review, 80.315 (Apr., 1965): 368.

[10] Boahen, Ghana: Evolution… 103.

[11] Ibid.

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Education as an Agent of Social Change and Determinant of Social Status in Ghana by the Early 20th Century
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology
Economic and Social History of Ghana
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Education, Social Change, Status, Ghana
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Halidu Bari Sule (Author), 2017, Education as an Agent of Social Change and Determinant of Social Status in Ghana by the Early 20th Century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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