#ThoughtivityOpinion: The Problem With Nigeria’s Educational System

To start with, this is not a post to argue against the “Nigeria needs to first update/adapt its curricula so that they align with our current local needs and local-global labour market trends and  that the Nigerian educational system’s currently grappling with more fundamental issues hygiene conditions for students, lack of water/light ” So please if I sound reactive it is not my intention to sound that way. I just believe it is sometimes good to have some perspective on issues that we discuss

One day, some years ago when I was in secondary school, a woman came to the school fuming and raging about her son’s performance. Her complaints were that the boy’s grades had been steadily dropping and that he had acquired a lot of bad habits that he didn’t have before he started attending our school.  The mother’s belief was that the principal and the teachers had not fulfilled their responsibilities to her son and so she was going to give them a piece of her mind before she withdrew her son from the school.

The Principal waited for her to rage until she became hoarse, then calmly said to her: “Madam, our school opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 2 p.m. every weekday. Your son is a day student, which means he spends only six hours out of twenty-four hours in a day at school. I hope you realize that your son spends three times as much time at home every day than he spends in school, and that is excluding weekends. So madam, if your son has any problems, you are three times more liable for them than we are. I will instruct my teachers to watch him and I will keep an eye on him as well, but I and my teachers are not going to become his substitute guardians because that is your job.  You pay us to impart knowledge to him not to baby sit him.” The woman, now contrite, had no option but to admit that the principal was correct and to apologize for creating a scene.

When we rail about dilapidated structures, untrained teachers  and outdated  teaching methods and curricula as the problem with our educational system, like that woman, we are blaming formal learning institutions for what is,  fundamentally , a societal problem. I am not arguing that teachers need to be well trained, motivated and renummerated and our curricula updated, what I am infact arguing that no matter how much money we pump into our institutions of formal learning, no noticeable change will occur until we address the thing that is really wrong with our educational system — our society itself.

To illustrate my point here are a few simple questions I wish to raise. How many Nigerian parents have time read bedtime stories to their children? How many have time to take them on excursions to  places like zoos and botanical gardens where they can relax yet show the children educative stuff at the same time.  How many encourage their children to read for leisure? Nigerian parents will rather pay a nursery school thousands of naira to do that job for them. The average Nigerian parent believes that “give your children a sound education” only means “pay their school fees ”.  Thus we keep giving more and more money to schools to do what they are not meant to do and then we complain that these schools are useless because of the belief that if we somehow pay them enough money, they will become effective babysitters who will teach us/our children life skills that we are too busy/lazy to learn/ teach them.

 To those people who constantly complain: “How is this thing I am learning in secondary school/ university going to help me succeed in the real world?” I am sorry, but the function of the school is to impart knowledge to you, not to teach you how to apply said knowledge, you have to learn that on your own. But like that mother in our example, we have all being conditioned to believe that everything we need to succeed in must be learnt in the six to eight  hours at school, that what we do for the remaining sixteen to eighteen hours that we are out of it has absolutely no consequence at all and what we will become. That is why we blame formal learning institutions for our problems. The frank truth is this, any coach with a paper certificate in the FC Barcelona academy can teach Lionel Messi the basics of dribbling, but it is Lionel Messi himself who must try the trick of dribbling past six players to score a wonder goal. That is what creativity is. Creativity cannot be taught. You can update curricula, build new buildings, and line up every lecturer over 50, shoot them, and replace them with 25-year-old fresh graduates. You will not still find a solution to the problem of creativity that our institutions of formal learning currently have.

That brings me to the Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the two most popular go-to names for motivational speakers/writers when said speakers/writers want to use out of context facts to support half-assed theories about how useless the educational system is. For instance, they often neglect to mention that what Bill Gates did for the first few years after he dropped out of school was to crash on his parents’ couch, eating free food, and not having to pay any bills while he programmed. In other words, his parents were paying for the education he was giving himself, even though they didn’t really understand what he was doing. Now how many Nigerian parents can do that for a child who dropped out of school on purpose? Same goes with Mark Zuckerberg.  People keep forgetting that  Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Havard, an Ivy League school in the US and one of the best in the world, a school He wouldn’t have even gotten into in the first place if he was a dullard. What happened was that both Gates and Zuckerberg saw that the education they need to become big cannot be learned in school, so they dropped out to pursue it. If we keep making such a big deal out of them being dropouts, then we are making the mistake of thinking all education starts and ends with formal learning, and that is the problem with our educational system, the more money we pump into our schools will be the more we demand that our institutions of formal learning squeeze blood out of stone, and the more we do that is the harder they will crash and burn.

Now to the subject of squeezing blood out of stone. In Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, which I attended, there is a course called PHL 101 (can’t remember its exact title now, it’s being a while). Every fresher in the Humanities (Arts and Social Sciences) has to do the course. At the time I was there,  the course was taught by Dr. Dipo Fashina or “Jingo” as he is known (You can use it as test of if someone actually attended  OAU from at least between the nineties till around 2010 or so. If the person doesn’t know Jingo, then his OAU certificate might be fake).  Part of the content of PHL 101 is a topic called “Arguments against the Existence of God”. Before every class,  Jingo would say

“I am not saying you should not go to your fellowships and shout Hallelujah! or Allahu Akbar! after this class, but for the time we are going to spend here please let us keep our arguments and rebuttals related to the topic of discussion. In other words, no preaching about your god or trying to use your holy book to refute an argument made against your holy book, allowed.”

Needless to say in spite of his warning we still had some “brothers/sisters of God” and some Muslim Alfas with their  obligatory thick beards attempt to hijack our class and turn it into a preaching session about their respective gods anyway. Now that I look back on those classes in retrospect, I can finally understand how frustrated Jingo might have felt trying to teach critical reasoning to students who stubbornly remain close minded to any argument that leads them to question their religion. It is easy to blame teachers for all the problems, but when the very nature of our society is stubbornly resistant to anything that attempts to question our “cultural and religious values”, what do you expect our institutions of formal learning to do? How can said institutions create well-rounded students in a society that is deliberately designed to hamper them? Many people send their children to religion based primary and secondary schools where they are taught “our religion, good” and “everything designed to question our religion, bad.” and they somehow expect them to go to university and turn out to be a Socrates, an Albert Einstein, or a Bill Gates. Then they complain that the educational system is bad. Do Nigerians think formal western education is magic or what?

It is not just religion either, whether we like to admit it or not our culture is designed to stifle creativity. In Nigeria, a child who asks too many questions is frequently ignored or made to shut up. A young person who constantly asks older people why things are the way they are is viewed as disrespectful and recalcitrant. We constantly tell our children to “shut up” and “sit down” at home, yet we somehow want them to go to school and return as creative genius rocket scientists, and then we identify the “educational system” as the problem because we cannot see the magic.

Once again, my contention is not that we should leave things the way they are, or that the teachers in our institutions of formal learning are all geniuses and perfect people (although I know a particular one who is, idc idc). What I am arguing is that even though revamping schools and pumping money into institutions,  is a very important step to the solution we need, it is only a small step. The big step must come from the wider society. We must address the very nature of our own society and question our very own culture, tradition, and religion. However that is a more difficult problem to address, so let us just blame everything wrong with our educational system on those unmotivated and untrained teachers, those dilapidated structures and that outdated curriculum instead.

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