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Bartels@100: A life dedicated to education

It is a true privilege for me to speak at this occasion and I would like to thank Dr. Arkutu for organizing this splendid gathering in honor of a man very close to my heart.

The presence of so many distinguished guests is testimony to the remarkable contribution Headmaster Francis Bartels has made to so many of our lives here, and indeed the lives of so many people on this continent and far beyond.

Unfortunately, Headmaster Bartels cannot be with us today. Let me therefore begin by sending him my very best wishes to Paris where he is celebrating with his family.

Were he here with us today, he would undoubtedly shake his head at me still calling him “Headmaster”. But that is what Francis Bartels is to me and what he shall always remain.

Most of us can point to a teacher who changed our lives. In my case there can be no doubt that that teacher is Francis Bartels. Each day takes me a little further on the road he helped to pave. Each day I look back in gratitude.

Like so many of you here, I first met Headmaster Bartels in the classroom.

I was one of a group of boys who sat on the floor of his office for our weekly lesson in spoken English. Back then we were not yet aware how much more we would take away from this class and its teacher than just vocabulary and grammar.

But we were certainly already taken by him.

Today, over 55 years later, I can still remember the respect Headmaster Bartels commanded by the sheer force of his personality.

I can remember his never-tiring efforts to broaden our horizons. To encourage us to open our eyes, speak our minds, and engage with the issues of the day and the world at large while never forgetting the traditions and values of our own society.

And, of course, I can remember the many times when he called me into his office to tell me off.

Headmaster Bartels was as a teacher should be. From an early age he dedicated his life to education – the cultivation of the mind and character – first of himself, later of others.

As a result, he taught from the heart, not merely from books. He inspired thought and encouraged doubt, allowing us to discover ourselves in the process.

For Headmaster Bartels, education was about the formation of character rather than the mere transmission of knowledge. The mind was not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited.

And ignite he did. In order to nurture our interest in the world beyond Mfantsipim, he often brought in prominent people to speak to us and never ceased to direct our attention to the political situation of the day.

It certainly helped that Ghana during the independence struggle was a particularly rich stage on which to gaze, and my memories are of an exciting, eye-opening, formative period in my life – not least because the struggle succeeded.

Given such encouragement to look beyond one’s immediate environment, it is hardly surprising that so many of us followed the Mfantsipim tradition and ended up in public service. In my case, the fire he ignited certainly played an important part in my decision to join the United Nations in 1962.

But his influence did not end there. During my 45 years at the UN, there was not a single day when the skills he had taught me did not stand me in good stead and help me cope with the demands of my job. Whether at my first posting at the World Health Organization, or at my last as Secretary-General, the wise words of Francis Bartels stayed with me for my entire career.

Caught in endless rounds of meetings, I often thought back to one particular occasion when the headmaster called me into his office to chide me for leading a hunger strike in protest against the school canteen. He told me that I would not solve problems with such an attitude and should have come to him first to discuss the matter “man to man”. I never forgot that lesson, and have not led a hunger strike since.

Headmaster Bartels and I have stayed in contact and even 40 years after I had left his guardianship, he would occasionally call me after a particular speech to say “well done”. It is hard to convey how much these calls have meant to me.

The headmaster’s interest in his students did not end on graduation day. He followed everyone’s progress closely and always expressed his joy and pride at the professional achievements of his former charges.

Nothing could better sum up the teacher Bartels than the inscription beneath the bust dedicated to him by some of his grateful students. It reads “He sought to make us greater than himself”. He certainly set the standard high.

But Francis Bartels was, and continues to be, so much more than a teacher.

He was a man of positive change long before President Obama championed the term.

Whether as President of the Conference of Heads of Secondary Schools or the Ghana Association of Science Teachers, whether as Chief of UNESCO’s Africa Division or as University Professor in Nairobi, his mission was to improve the state of education in Africa.

No doubt, he even managed to squeeze this mission into his time as Ghana’s ambassador to Germany.

Unsurprisingly, the path Headmaster Bartels has taken, the affection he has shown to his students and the passion with which he has championed African education, have not gone without official recognition.

Among many other honors, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Ghana. In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II conferred the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire on him.

Such has been his remarkable life and impact that I could easily spend the rest of this speech talking about his qualities and achievements or his impact on me. But this would do Headmaster Bartels an injustice. For it was the future, not the past, which has always been his prime focus.

So as we celebrate his centenary today, I intend to follow his lead and look ahead.

I want to reflect, with the shining example of Headmaster Bartels as my guide, on the crucial importance of teachers to Africa’s people and societies.

The tremendous value of education to the individual and to society at large is now widely appreciated.

To the individual, in the words of the English poet Joseph Addison, education “is a companion no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy. It is a friend at home, an introduction abroad, a solace in solitude, and an ornament in society”.

Less poetically, but no less true is that education is the great equalizer of our time. It gives hope to the hopeless and creates chances for those without.

Its broader importance is equally evident. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.

In Ghana we have seen great progress in education. Since Francis Bartels presided over the Conference of Secondary Schools in the 1950s, this country has seen the number of schools rise from a handful to over 12,000 primary schools, over 5,000 junior secondary schools, and over 500 senior secondary schools.

At the time of independence Ghana had only one university, today it has five.

Thanks to sensible government policies, targeted spending and the support of international partners, Ghana is well on the way towards meeting Millennium Development Goal on universal primary education – at current trends perhaps even as early as 2012.

But, the same is unfortunately not true for our continent as a whole.

At this very moment, tens of millions of children receive no formal education at all. Over 12 million girls may never enroll in any type of school. And over a third of our fellow Africans cannot read or write.

Disparities linked to wealth, gender, ethnicity, language and location are holding back progress in many countries.

Halfway through Africa’s Second Decade of Education, “Education for All” remains a distant dream.

Unfortunately, the global economic crisis has now made it even harder to realize that dream. UNESCO estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa faces a potential shortfall of several billion dollars in financing for education.

But it is a dream that must be realized. Not only for the sake of individuals, but for all our sakes. If we continue to exclude vast sections of our fellow human beings from the opportunities arising from education, the world will remain not only less just, but also less secure. Africa’s vast promise will also not be fulfilled.

This continent has enormous human potential and education is the means to set it free.

But for this we need more teachers like Francis Bartels. It is true that books are important, pencils and blackboards are important and so are chairs to sit on. But if there is no motivated teacher in front of the chairs, if there is no one to write on the blackboard and to convey values and knowledge, Africa’s potential will not be realized.

The importance of teachers is self-evident. They are one of the main pillars of a sound and progressive society. They bear the weight and responsibility of shaping and directing the minds of the next generation. No one is born a good citizen or able leader; it is teachers who foster them.

But while being one of the most important professions in the world, teaching does not get the recognition it deserves. In the developed world, young people do not want to become teachers anymore. In most developing countries, the profession does not attract as many qualified and ambitious people as it should because it is poorly remunerated and full of challenges. As the American Professor Jacques Barzun recognized “Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition”.

We need to regain that tradition. We need to regain it for the sake of all those teachers that do their work under challenging and uneven conditions marked by a lack of bare necessities.

We need to regain it for the sake of the many children, particularly girls, who are still excluded from quality education. If we are ever to recruit the 4.5 million additional teachers UNESCO estimates are needed to ensure equal access to education and inclusion of the marginalized, teaching needs to become an attractive profession again.

The goal of “achieving education for all by 2015” runs a risk of becoming unrealistic if we do not move fast in terms of recruiting and improving the working conditions of our teachers. Across Africa, and indeed the developing world at large, we need to enhance investment in education systems, encourage private initiatives, and initiate major institutional and policy reforms to place education at the center of development plans. We also need to do more to harness the potential of exchange programmes with our international friends and partners, particularly in Asia from where I have just returned.

But we also need to regain that tradition for the sake of Francis Bartels. He has already dedicated his life to education in Africa; it is now up to us to support and honour those that continue his mission.

Let me end by again turning to Headmaster Bartels directly and in deep admiration and gratitude wish him: Awoda pa, awo.