Humanities also offer solutions

11Jan 2021
The Guardian
Humanities also offer solutions

In his remarks at a meeting with the students of Kankara Science Secondary School released from captivity recently, President Muhammadu Buhari said something in passing that is worth pondering about the philosophy of education in Nigeria.

By Kayode Komolafe

The meeting took place on the second day after the 344 schoolboys kidnapped by armed men in Katsina state regained their freedom.

Among other things, the President said the Kankara boys were "lucky" to be in a science school with a brighter future of "getting jobs" unlike their counterparts who would major in "History or English." The President seemed to have a dim view of the future of students interested in the humanities.

In terms of career aspiration, you could imagine what the impact of the presidential statement could make on a girl or boy in another secondary school in Katsina state planning to study History or Linguistics in the university.

More than 15 years earlier, Buhari's predecessor, President Olusegun Obasanjo, made a similar statement in a different context. In a radio chat, Obasanjo responded to the question of a caller on youth unemployment with an instructive anecdote. The story goes like this: a relation approached Obasanjo to help secure a job for his son. The former president asked for the Curriculum Vitae (CV) of the job-seeker and discovered that he was a graduate of Sociology. Characteristically, Obasanjo told the young man point-blank that "any one going to the university to study Sociology or Mass Communication has wasted his life."

The contemptuous reference to the liberal arts and social sciences by Buhari and Obasanjo at the various periods is a different thing from the rational idea by universities about the proportions of students admitted to study science-based courses and the liberal arts. What is on display here is simply a perverted concept of education for all-round human development.

The imperative of huge investments in science education and research should not derogate training in the humanities. Come to think of it, the bankruptcy of policy is such that apart from the rhetoric about science education there is hardly any evidence of budgetary investment in that direction. Science education is not immune to the policy malaise of lip service paid to quality education at all levels. Students are admitted to study science courses in schools without equipped and up-to-date laboratories. Graduates of computer science are produced without computers.

For instance, after the dust of kidnapping must have settled it would be interesting to inspect the Government Science School in Kankara to know how much science is actually being taught in that place. It would be good to know the quality of teaching and the age of the equipment available for practical studies in the science school.

This facile pursuit of science without humanity is in sharp contrast with the trends in North America, Europe and parts of Asia. An aspect of the much talked-about brain drain is that it is not only doctors, nurses and engineers that are being attracted to the developed world where their services are needed. Universities in those places also attract our poets, historians, philosophers, writers, political scientists, sociologists literary critics and artists. In recent times a lot of books have been published about Nigeria by those institutions abroad. Some Nigerian writings and writings about Nigeria have been consumed more abroad than in Nigeria itself. Departments of African Studies are developed in universities in other lands more than in Nigerian universities because of this contempt for humanities. Other societies value these scholars in humanities and their products who are the objects of denigration and insults from government officials and other members of the elite. Those other societies know precisely the importance of humanising scientific progress for existential equilibrium.

With presidents like Buhari and Obasanjo having this mindset that studying humanities is a useless venture, the strategic error in the formulation of education policies for national development could be imagined.

The statements by the two leaders are a poignant advertisement of the severe limitation of policy in the education sector.

The emergent questions are many in the situation. What's really the purpose of education?

What is the conception of development on the part of those who make policies? What is the consequence of failing to see the importance of humanities even for scientific progress to be meaningful to life? What will be the outcome of the development of machines without an organic engagement with humanity? There are questions to be asked about the technicist conception of human progress.

The condescending mindset about humanities is an old phenomenon in the policy arena in Nigeria. It informed the removal history from the curriculum of elementary and secondary schools at a time. Even in some universities, history has to be cojoined with international relations to attract students to the department.

Such was the moral violence done to the intellectual development of a generation of Nigerians by policymakers with a warped sense of education. School curricular were vandalised by those who were deluded about the dynamics of the global scientific revolution. Indeed, the ugly harvests of such a policy of ignorance have been huge. A student in the Faculty of Arts of the premier university, the University of Ibadan, walked up to a professor with a pointed question: "Who is this Zik?" The student was, of course asking about the great nationalist and the first President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Ironically, the Ibadan School of History acquired a wide international reputation among scholars many decades ago with pioneering and monumental works of Professor Onwuka Dike and his colleagues . Recently, eminent historian, Professor Akinjide Osuntokun, recalled the story of students in Ogun State who knew about Obafemi Martins, the famous footballer, and not Obafemi Awolowo, the first premier of the old western region now "restructured" into nine states.

Today's policies are discussed without any reference to similar ones made barely 30 years ago. Pundits make statements ex cathedral on economic problems without any sense of the economic history of the country. In the needless heat generated about securing grazing lands for cattle, hardly does anyone remember that decades ago ranching was part of agricultural policies not only in the north; but also in the southern parts of the country. Ranching as a more efficient and modern solution than designation of grazing routes had been developed by some policymakers in the past who had a better idea of wholistic development.

The contempt for history is such that even keeping official records on ceremonial matters is treated with levity. Hence a prominent figure could be awarded with the Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON), the second highest national honour, and 30 years later he could be kindly considered for the honour of the Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR), which is some steps below the GCON !

Keeping records as raw materials for writing history is not considered important because no one is planning to produce future historians, anyway. The job of the historian is not deemed to be a worthwhile one. This is despite the proposition by another great historian, Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi, who drew the link between development and the study of history. Ade-Ajayi said that a nation pursuing development without the understanding of history is like a driver of a vehicle without a rear-view mirror. The risks of travelling in such a vehicle should be obvious to the driver and the passengers alike.

For clarity, the prejudice against the humanities exists in other places. The only difference is that unlike here, the problem is being grappled with in scholastic terms. The English philosopher, Simon Blackburn, reported his experience in his smart book, Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. The book is a useful guide even for the general reader on thinking about human existence and problems. At a point in his career, it was the lot of the professor to encourage his students who expressed worries about what they would do with their degrees in philosophy on graduation. Degrees in philosophy are not as marketable as degrees in chemical engineering or software engineering. By the way, in Nigeria the job market is full with graduates in humanities and science-based disciplines alike, which is an indication that the socio-economic problem of joblessness has deeper roots than studying humanities. Well, Blackburn told his students to respond to those who wondered what was the place of a degree in philosophy in the job market something like this: students of philosophy are studying "conceptual engineering." They study the structure of ideas and interaction of concepts which are basic to all areas of knowledge. After all, a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) degree is awarded in the faculty of engineering as a proof of learning.

In all human endeavours clarity of ideas is basic to making progress. The philosopher as the engineer of ideas is important in getting various departments of human life imbued with clarity of thinking as the basis action especially policies implementation. Many policies have failed because of the poor quality of the thought-process informing their conception and implementation.

The production of knowledge in the realm of the humanities is even more urgent given the multi-dimensional crisis facing humanity. Here lies the essence of bolstering the training of some students in humanities.

The solution to the moral dimension of the crisis facing humanity cannot be found in any laboratory. Neither is it a job for robots. Software engineers are yet to develop the apps for strictly human solutions to problems.

Take the coronavirus crisis as an example. Some of the derivative questions in the management of the crisis are not all that scientists alone could answer definitively. In places where vaccines are being considered for approval, the board is not composed of only virologists, immunologists and epidemiologists. Siting with the scientists for a judicious and balanced consideration of issues are also ethicists. The ethicists are there for a philosophical bearing to the issues. The public health atmosphere is replete with a lot of bio-ethical anxiety. Hesitancy about vaccination has religious, historical and moral bases. These are not problems to which the scientists can find solutions in their laboratories. There is no algorithm that bio-statisticians could employ to solve the human problem. It is a matter for those trained in the humanities to think about such problems.

Similarly, the moral challenge of the climate change crisis is as huge as its science. The deniers of climate change are not hinging their arguments on science. The campaign against activities endangering the human habitat has to develop some moral muscle in addition to the scientific argument. There are life issues that the efforts of the technologists are better coupled with those of poets and playwrights for societal understanding.

In any case, Nigerian leaders are certainly behind times in insisting on promoting the false dichotomy between Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) on the one hand and the liberal arts on the other hand. In his book, The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal arts Will Rule the Digital World, Scott Hartley calls a major in the humanities or social sciences a "fuzzy" and a major in computer or hard sciences a "techie." Hartley is a venture capitalist and a startup adviser to organisations. He was a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the White House. He makes a strong argument for the necessary complementarity of science and humanities as follows: " ... .Bridge-building fields of study have been created already... Psychology, linguistics and neuroscience come together to make cognitive science.

Sociology and civil engineering have been combined in urban policy, computing and design have been combined in data visualisation, and psychology and computing have been combined in the usability research. More such explicitly fuzzy-techie majors should be fostered, such as combining philosophy and engineering into "design ethics," anthropology and data science into "data literacy," sociology and statistics into "human analytics," literature and computer science into" narrative science.." and law and data science into "predictive regulation... "

Yes. The Buhari administration should design school programmes to make Nigerian students to be fully part of the scientific age. Conscious efforts to develop the humanities should complement these important efforts at promoting science education. This is necessary for equipping today's students to retain the control of themselves as human beings as they navigate the uncertain life of the future.

QUOTE

"The solution to the moral dimension of the crisis facing humanity cannot be found in any laboratory