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Professor researches education

Anna Boarini | Thursday, April 7, 2011

Peace studies Professor Catherine Bolten, an anthropologist by trade, has focused her research on the state of education in post-war societies, specifically Sierra Leone.

“I started out working as an apprentice for a medicine man studying ethnobotany in Botswana 15 years ago, Bolten said. “When I went to Cambridge for my master’s I wanted to study AIDS, but after I made a very good friend from Sierra Leone, they convinced me I would be better off studying war and resources.”

In 2003, Bolten made her first trip to Sierra Leone. The West African nation had recently ended a ten-year war. While the conflict had a number of causes, it was widely attributed to the struggle over diamond resources.

“The war wasn’t actually fought over diamonds,” Bolten said. “Young people were calling for democracy and end to the corrupt state — many factors converged in this war.”

Her three-month visit was academic in nature, as she hoped to lay the groundwork for her PhD. While there, she decided to go to the city of McKinney because of the reputation the city had in Freetown.

“People in Freetown really badmouthed McKinney,” Bolten said. “They said that the people there were helping the rebels during the war and that ex-combatants still lived there.”

When Bolten reached McKinney, what she found was a city that had been stigmatized and marginalized for many years. Due to the environment people were living in, they had very flexible relationships and morals, Bolten said.

“People could justify not helping others or shelving relationships because they could barely help themselves,” Bolten said. “Once they could take care of themselves, it was a trickle down effect of development.”

The greatest problem Bolten observed was the state of education, which was in disarray at the end of the war in 2002.

“There was a youth crisis,” Bolten said. “Here you have a person who is 34 years old but has not fulfilled all the tenets of adulthood, like education or getting a job. They’re in limbo and they don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”

To help solve the youth problem, the government adopted a national curriculum to be taught in all schools, both public and private.

Problems persisted as the new system was ineffective at creating competent workers out of the students, who found few jobs awaiting them after leaving school.

“They are buying into this idea of education, applying themselves in school, but there are no jobs,” Bolten said. “They expect the government to give them jobs because the government expects them to be educated.”

Through her research, Bolten will take a critical look at these failed developmental and educational programs in an attempt to determine why they are implemented despite their shortcomings.

While Bolten is returning to Sierra Leone in 2012, she is also hoping to draw insight from a faraway and unexpected locale — Glasgow, Scotland. Drawing on similarities between the state of education and employment in Sierra Leone and Glasgow, Bolten hopes to approach the issue from a new angle.

“This will be a complimentary perspective,” Bolten said.