History faculty member Mary Dillard has made six research trips to Ghana. On her most recent visit, she was having lunch outside the government archives when a man sat down on an adjoining bench.
“He was a teacher at the school across the street, and started talking about the history of secondary schools in Ghana and how important they had been for girls’ education. He said you never find that kind of thing written about. I thought, this is really true.
“Historians stumble into stuff all the time. It doesn’t just come from being in the archive. It comes from conversations when you say, ‘I’m here doing this project,’ and somebody says, ‘Good, because nobody’s written a book about that.’ Or says, ‘Funny that you mention that. There used to be a school right down the road and they got rid of it.’ And you think, something like this existed and is gone now. Why?
“Access to schooling can be taken for granted in the United States, but that’s not true in Ghana, or most of Africa. Many scholars focus on girls’ education as an indicator of economic development. Girls are usually the first ones to be taken out of school or kept from school because they’re expected to work and help provide for their families. So, if there used to be a girls’ school in a location and it no longer exists, I wonder why. Could the community not sustain it? Were there not enough girls who could even go to school? Does it reflect a hostility to girls’ education, even if education is viewed in so many parts of Africa as crucial in enabling social and economic mobility?
“I think that’s one of the best parts of being a historian—helping answer questions that can make a difference in influencing and informing people’s attitudes. People know this history. They just don’t always get a chance to talk about it.”