A Mind-Set Renaissance

“Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.” ~ Anne Sullivan 

The word renaissance finds its root in an old French word that translates into “rebirth” or in the modern French word renaître, which means, “be reborn”. The historical significance of the word is attached to the period referred to as the great revival of learning and classical art in Europe of the 14th century. In its broader definition, it is noted that the European Renaissance finding its origins in Italy, was an era of great intellectual and cultural growth that paved the way for practices, ideas and norms of the Middle Ages to be replaced by those of modernity. Some shifts attributed to the Renaissance include invention of the printing press and weaponry; realism in art captured in the works of the great Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci; booming of trade and commerce; exploration of new continents; the growth of humanism and its contribution to reforming the education system, rural to urban migration; growth of a middle class based on trade and manufacturing et cetera. One of the features of the European Renaissance that enabled the many sweeping changes and growth to occur is the disposition and will of the people to embrace intellectual curiosity and the space to challenge dominant and outdated mindsets.

While acknowledging the many leaps that European societies made during the Renaissance period, it is also important to note that women’s roles were still trapped in the domestic sphere and the great expansion in education was not open to women and girls of that time. It is stated that educated women were viewed as the exception rather than the rule regardless of their social class.

In any case, my inquiry into the word Renaissance and the period itself emanated on a drive to work where I passed under a large banner stretched across one of the new overpasses in our metropolis which welcomed Ethiopians in the Diaspora who are set to visit in great numbers to mark the first National Diaspora Day set for August 16th 2015. In addition to the welcoming message, the banner called upon Ethiopians in the Diaspora to support the country’s growth and Renaissance. This relationship made me reflect on the changes contributing to Ethiopia’s version of its Renaissance period, which includes major investments in infrastructure; rise of the manufacturing sector, burgeoning of the services sector, etc. The 2014 National Human Development Report on Ethiopia by UNDP cites that the source of growth in the country has gradually shifted over the decade from agriculture to services. Such a shift indicates the need for a skilled, educated and professionalized workforce both in the civil and private sector and impresses upon the factors that contribute to that output.

The report defines human development as “a process of enlarging people’s choices” and that “growth must be understood in broad human development terms and expanding individual capabilities, widening people’s choices and creating new opportunities for both income growth and human progress.” While acknowledging the gains made in economic growth over the past decade, the report also addresses some of the challenges Ethiopia is faced with in its ambition to achieve middle-income status by 2025, stressing the importance of leveraging economic growth to promote human development. Behind ambitious national targets is a growing population that is a key resource in meeting said targets and realizing Ethiopia’s Renaissance. Yet, with the challenges faced in governance and the quality of education, I argue that Ethiopia’s Renaissance must also include an intensive intellectual and cultural movement towards shifting prevalent mind-sets.

Supported by growth of humanism (“a philosophical stance emphasizing the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively”), Europe’s Renaissance period encouraged freethinking, inquiry, criticism and inspired confidence in the possibilities of human thought and creation. It is in this space that many of the advances were made. Similarly, the task upon us as an Ethiopian society that is in a transition period is to start embracing spaces that enable a Renaissance of the mind-set to match our economic and social development ambitions. Our institutions, especially through the education system, need to spur a growth mindset that is curious, open and disposed to questioning and dis-incentivize the fixed mindset that is keen on accepting the status quo and as a result acts as a bottleneck or impediment when Renaissance minds are set into motion. We have many ambitious national plans. Behind their realization is a workforce that needs to develop a Renaissance mindset to implement them fully and the foundation of this is an education system and socio-political environment that can spur critical analysis, creativity and diversity in ideas and approaches. Only then can we see marked improvements in human progress to match the income growth we pursue.

Billene Seyoum also blogs at www.africanfeminism.com.