Cheta Nwanze: Where they burn books, ultimately they will burn people (Y! FrontPage)

Chxta back
The standards of our universities is such that to get a more rounded educational experience, the average Nigerian student needs to go for a Masters degree in the West in what has essentially become a finishing school system.
Where they burn books, ultimately they will burn people.
In 1821 a German writer, Heinrich Heine wrote a play, Almansor where he uttered those famous words. It is quite remarkable that 112 years later, the Nazis burned the original work in a raid on Berlin’s Institute of Sex Research. What is even more remarkable is that the people who burned those books in the name of purity in thinking, eventually went on to unleash what is generally acknowledged to be history’s greatest show of man’s inhumanity to man.
Yesterday, I heard the story of a school principal, who did not want books for the library in his school. Sadly, I made a promise that I would not be writing any names, so you will not be getting that. However, he is the story. The development association in my ancestral home town approached the principal a secondary school there asking to contribute books to the school’s library. His reply was “Anyi ge ji akwuo e me gini?” (We are using books for what?) Hearing that reply, the president of the association asked a follow up question, “Okay, what about donating instruments and laboratory materials for your science students?” The man’s response was, “Anyi a di eme pratical, anyi ne me theory of practical.” (We don’t do practicals, we do theory of practical.) In exasperation, they asked that they donate computers to his institution’s computer lab. His response to that was that even he did not know how to use a computer, so what would the students be using them for. Finally, he was asked probably the question he wanted to hear, which is along the lines of “what do you want or need?” And point-blank he asked them to give him all the money they wanted to use to procure the stuff that they wanted to donate. The man’s refusal to stock his school’s library, his refusal to take lab materials for his students, and his rejection of computers means that he is only interested in the here and now, not interested in providing the kids in his charge with a complete education.
Sadly, the majority of Nigerians born after 1973 (myself included), are the victims of an incomplete education. I can think of a hundred phrases to describe Nigerian education, none of which can appear on a website such as this. It is only a system of education such as that which we practice here in Nigeria that can produce policemen (as an example) who have absolutely no clue of what their constitutional rights towards felons are. AND IT IS THE FAULT OF SUCCESSIVE GOVERNMENTS.
For too long lip service has been played to the education sector in this country, and we are beginning to, starting from our security services, see the effects of that criminal act. Of course it has spread to our political scene, more than half our ‘elected’ officials are literate only in the sense that they can put the letters of the English alphabet together to form words, and make sense of those words, but those same people lack the capacity for critical thinking. Ultimately, this lack of proper education will affect all sectors of Nigerian society.
During colonial times, and extending into the First Republic, Nigerian education was of good standard. At the secondary level, the government controlled a handful of government colleges, which were used as the standard that all other schools must meet to remain in business. A lot of the other schools were run by the Christian missionaries, and their standards were at par with the standards of the government colleges. For example, a child attending Christ the King College, Onitsha or Queen of the Rosary College, also in Onitsha, missed nothing that his or her contemporary who attended Government College, Umuahia gained. Neither did he or she gain anything that the chap in Umuahia missed. Inspectors from the Directorate (later Ministry) of Education went out on a regular basis to access what these private schools were doing, and if standards were found to be slipping, the school was given a warning, then shut down if the slide continued. The Nigerian state also funded as at 1970, six universities at Ibadan, Zaria, Nsukka, Lagos, Ile-Ife and Benin. The standard of these institutions of higher learning were at the time comparable with anything to be found anywhere, and the Nigerian graduate who decided to proceed for more research abroad after his Bachelor’s degree did so on an equal footing with his peers from other parts of the world, and did so simply because the best supervisors for graduate research (as a result of a longer period of academic tradition) were in the great learning centres of Europe and America.
Somewhere along the line the standard fell, and as things now stand, primary and secondary education in Nigeria are in a mess. The standards of our universities is such that to get a more rounded educational experience, the average Nigerian student needs to go for a Masters degree in the West in what has essentially become a finishing school system.
Why did  standards fall so?
Government intervention is solely to blame in my view. At some point in the 1970s, an ‘indigenisation’ decree was introduced, and all private schools in the country (which were mainly mission schools) were seized from the missionaries. Then a rash of universities were established. The government had abdicated its role as standards regulator, and had become an active player in the sector. With the way all things Nigerian are quite unfortunately run, no consideration was given to the need to properly plan for this rapid expansion, neither was any consideration given to proper citing of institutions of higher learning. Instead they were established in the home-towns of whosoever happened to be in power at the time of establishment (Ekpoma is an example of this), and when such a person was swept away from office, either the institution was abandoned to fend for itself (Ago-Iwoye as an example), or a satellite campus was hurriedly established (Abraka as an example). Many teachers who at the same time were civil servants, were abandoned just like the rest of the Civil Service, and of course being human, had to do other things to keep body and soul together. This led to drastically plummeting standards as teachers essentially abandoned the classrooms for more lucrative side ventures. Meanwhile, funds that were meant for schools were diverted to the pockets of politicians and soldiers. Buildings collapsed, infrastructure deteriorated, and student numbers multiplied. At the same time, the Nigerian demand for paper qualification meant that more and more students in their desperation for the jobs that would lead them out of poverty became less and less averse to cheating their way through qualification examinations. A lot of times with the active connivance of their parents, and in many cases with the help of teachers who were simply out to make a buck. Apparently to one and all, government’s direct participation in education has been nothing short of a disaster, and those who can afford it are doing the only logical thing. They are voting with their feet and leaving in large numbers. Despite the recession in the West, flights from Nigeria will be filled to capacity next month with another batch of students going to begin finishing school (sorry Masters degrees). Some will come back home after a year, most will stay for longer, and Nigeria will be the poorer for it.
What is the way forward then?
The first thing that should happen is that the government should pull out almost completely from running education in Nigeria. We can ill-afford several under-funded and improperly run institutions all over the place. We must return to the model of having a few well funded, institutions which act as a standard for others to follow. Autonomy has to be the watch word, especially in the research centres. Personally I would suggest that only the six first generation universities in Nigeria – Ibadan, Zaria, Nsukka, Lagos, Ile-Ife and Benin remain under government control to be massively funded. There is no reason why the Electrical Engineering department at Ife for example cannot be given a grant of a hundred million Naira to use and try and come up with a permanent solution for our power problem. Neither is there any reason why the Legal faculties of Zaria and Benin cannot put heads together to rewrite the Nigerian constitution. The universities which are turned over from government control should be privatised or closed. Not turned over to the state governments because they would only become glorified secondary schools. Those schools that are successfully privatised should be set against each other and against the remaining federal institutions in rigorous academic competition. Let prospective students vote with their applications. School fees should be increased as this would also force quality up. The best who cannot afford the fees should be granted scholarships in a competitive and transparent manner so that only the best get places. Central examinations such as JAMB should be sent to where they belong, the garbage bin. The only central examination worth its salt is the secondary school leaving examination, and that should not be used as an entrance examination for the universities, as that defeats the purpose. Then again, there should be a de-emphasis on university education and an emphasis placed on apprenticeships. Of course there should be proper remuneration for blue collar workers, but that is outside the scope of this piece. We must not forget the quality of our academics.
Frankly, a good number of them are (insert inflective here), and that is fact. Many of them need to go find other jobs where their talents (or lack of) would be put to better use. Unions such as ASUU need to be banned for good. Why should teachers be spending time unionising?
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

One comment

  1. Cheta. Wahala dey.

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