In a critical evaluation of prevailing theoretical approaches to the history of colonial education, this study explores the development of African schooling in colonial Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. Educational expansion, and the provision of academically-oriented forms of instruction are seen to reflect the selective acceptance and active pursuit of formal education on the part of the African population, and not resulting from imperial schemes of modernization, social engineering, economic exploitation or cultural domination. Due to the political strength of the European settler communities and the regional economy's demand for mainly cheap, unskilled farm and mine labor, the overall trend of government educational policies was to inhibit and control the expansion of African schooling. In the context of rural decline and restrictive state policies, which severely limited African chances for advancement in the industrial and agricultural spheres, African men and women came to perceive a literary-oriented kind of education as the key to gaining remunerable employment, enhancing upward social mobility, and circumventing the patriarchal control of chiefs and elders. African efforts to expand the network of schools, to gain access to higher levels of instruction, and to shape the contents of education in accordance with their interests mitigated the confines of official segregationist policies and thus came to make a crucial contribution to the dynamics of educational development in all three of the territories.