Teach Children Well; Don’t Teach Them Nonsense ~ BY Oseloka Obaze
Remarks by Mr. Oseloka H. Obaze, MD/CEO Selonnes Consult, Undelivered Remarks At 2018 UNESCO World Philosophy Day Conference Hosted by the Department of Philosophy, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State On 15th November,2018
Many years back as a student I took several classes in Philosophy and have since read several philosophy books, but I am by no means a philosopher. Yet as a lifelong student, I continue to appreciate the relevance of Epistemology (study of knowledge), Metaphysics (study of existence), Politics (study of force), Ethics (study of action) and Esthetics (the study of arts) in our everyday life, more so in politics and governance.
I have chosen to focus today on attendant consequences the evident decline in the teaching of Civics, Ethics and Morality in our school. This choice is in tandem with my sustained advocacy to reestablish the teaching of History in our secondary schools, which I am glad that the Federal Government acceded to in 2016. Accordingly, the title of my remarks today is: Teach the Children Well; Don’t Teach them Nonsense.
In his 1986 hit song, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense”, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Nigeria’s renowned musician and philosopher king, pointed to a societal dilemma; the emerging contradictions in governance and society and the expanding trust gap between the government and the governed. In lampooning our failing national educational standards, he underscored the role of Nigerian teachers as the symbol for the falling standards in all facets of the Nigerian society.
Some thirty-two years later, nothing seems to have changed. The Nigerian society continue to fail because the national student population haven’t learnt well; and perhaps so, because our teachers have been teaching them “nonsense”. Clearly, as can be gleaned from our prevailing experience, the teachers and the students subsist in dissimilar categories and are on parallel missions; at least Fela thought so.
Conflicted Role of the Academics in Nation-Building
Today, in our country Nigeria, which is fraught with challenges of globalization, we are immersed in far more greater contradictions, most of which are no longer addressed or interrogated intellectually. Historically, the academe is where ideas are planted, nurtured and transplanted as regulations and policies. But that has changed. Our present disposition reflects the conflicted role of academics in nation-building. As much as we pretend to, we have stopped using Philosophy that “tools of logic and reason to analyze the ways in which humans experience the world;” and to evaluate our lives and our national challenges. Consequently, the nation continues to fail its people. The reason is twofold: there is an expansive growth of intellectual confusion both scientific and philosophical. This ties in very much with the acknowledgement of “generic errors of mainstream economists” – and other social scientists, I might add – “as they have affected public policy for decades.”
Life’s imponderables and ethereal concerns aside, we live in a world of raging incompatibilities and incongruities. It is, therefore, clear to me that addressing our prevailing global challenges must begin with a common mindset; one which is knowledge-based more than resource-based. How do we begin to tackle the clash of civilizations, poverty, religious extremism, herdsmen conflict, violent insurgencies, climate change, the rise of post-truth and fake news and political extremism coupled with elite and government unaccountability, without having honest intellectual conversations about such challenges? As the Nigerian nation rots away, one may ask: Where are our eggheads?
Clearly, the erroneous notion persists that the rise in fake news – which represents willful distortion of reality – is one of the most pressing challenges confronting nation states. Sadly, fake news is the new normal and our inescapable reality. Still fake news gains progressive currency due to the zing of incessant news, even as fake news pits delusion against reality. However, while we hold endless workshops and seminars on how to combat fake news, very few of us stop to ponder the nexus between fake news and our vastly altered society, in which civic education, ethics and morality are no longer taught as underlining values and ethos of good education and precursors to good citizenship and leadership.
Let us pause for a second and consider why every secondary school and every tertiary institution has a guiding motto. Universally, school mottos are accepted as defining philosophical exhortations. Consider this, the motto of the University of Buenos Aires is “Argentum virtus rubor et studium” (Argentine virtue is strength and study); that of Hunan University in China is “Seeking truth from Facts and Daring to Be Pioneers”; and that of the University of Ghana is “Integri Procedamus”, which simply means, “Proceed with Integrity.” Indeed, in nation-building the philosophical relevancy of university mottos cannot be glossed over.
But then we also need to ask ourselves; how many schools and teachers in Nigeria still strive to inculcate the values of their institutional motto into their students and graduates? If the motto of a university is “To Restore the Dignity of Man” or as the case may be, “Discipline, Self-reliance and Excellence,” does it not follow that the students, staff, faculty and alumni of these institutions must abide by these creeds in their everyday undertakings? Can anyone on the faculty of this esteemed university publicly go against UNIZIK’s values, philosophy and mission, which prescribes, “that knowledge should be propagated and disseminated to individuals without let or hindrance” and further underline the need to “use teaching, research and public service to solve social problems” and still expect to keep their day job?
Nonetheless, there exist a tangential but far more insidious challenge in Nigeria. It pertains to abetting skewed governance and its vagaries. As I stated clearly in my recent book, Prime Witness, “In life and Statecraft, there comes a time when delusion meets with reality.” In Nigeria, that time is now. Governance as we now have and know it, is largely predicated on superficialities. There exists a near absence of concretization of those tenets of democracy that add fillip to good governance. In the absence of such evolution, change becomes transient, if not totally halting as is now the case in Nigeria.
Evident as this challenge is, I strongly believe that our present national morass has been exacerbated further because our educators — teachers, scholars and pundits alike — have failed in their collective duties to explore fully, the nexus between bad governance, the all too pervasive rise of fake news and our much-diminished emphasis on ethics and morality in governance and in public life. This is not strictly a philosophical issue. It is a challenge that is cross-cutting and thus impacts on all academic disciplines as it does all walks of life. It is also germane to grasping how we dutifully accede to or circumvent the so-called acceptable global best practices, when our vested and personal interests are at stake. Lest we forget, it was academics that validated and upheld military’s anti-politics for years, legitimating military rule by accepting appointive positions in government. Our unaccountable national elite are equally complicit, given that they have “continuously placed vested interest and enlightened self-interest above national interest, even in matters of universal virtues.” It is the national elite, including our university teachers — and I do not exclude myself from the elite category – who sadly, in pursuit of their vested interests and by their actions, “indorse democracy’s uncertainties” in Nigeria.
Erosion of the Value of Teaching as a Vocation
I remain of the view that of all the renowned vocations in history, only three stand out as demanding strong feelings of suitability and worthiness. These are medicine, teaching and clergy, in no order of importance. About teaching, here is the upshot: Are we still teaching? Are we still debating? Are we still interrogating prevalent causes, challenges and societal conflicts to determine where and when there is a paradigm shift? Do we still seek answers and cogent solutions from within the academia to national challenges? Are we still vested in advocating leadership with responsibility, as well as Christianity with responsibility? The truth is that we are confronted with deep erosion of the value teaching as a vocation. I will illustrate my point shortly.
Of all the emerging governance trends, despite our collective consternation with the so-called “change” mantra, one fact is clear, even as it seems axiomatic. “The whirlwind of change, whether on balance positive, negative or indeterminate, has rocked societies, and those societies have often found their political equipoise, such as it ever was, battered or even shattered as a consequence.” There is near consensus that governance in present day Nigeria has deteriorated in the extreme at all levels, despite promises of change. In response, rather than seek solutions via rigorous inquiries, we resort to prayers and ad hoc solutions masked as academic treatise, but which, represent nothing but escapism and merely highlight the “absurdities of society’s clichés and their illuminating and subjugating powers.”
Still change remains a constant – and therefore, imperative and inevitable. There is no other choice. Accordingly, Nigerian youth have been inundated with the notion of change; such change representing a positive alternative. We routinely advocate youth empowerment, push various enable-youth programmes, youth creativity, youth leadership and entrepreneurship, yet we don’t teach our youth the responsibilities that come with everyday challenges and aspirations to leadership. Whereas we support #Not-Too-Young-To-Run, our corresponding emphasis on morality and ethics has at best been perfunctory. And we wonder why Nigeria is eternally in a crisis mode.
With our diminished emphasis on ethics and morality, comes a diminished emphasis on integrity in private and public enterprises, more so in governance. We seem to forget – all too conveniently, I may add – that building a reputation of integrity and reliability happens by establishing a consistent track record of sound decisions and hard work; and that no amount of financial inducement or fleeting temptation is worth its undoing.
Accepted that the academe is not the fulcrum for making national interest decisions, but it remains the agenda-setting bastion, that offers the enabling environment for trenchant debates and discourse that compel enduring public interest policies. Teachers unlike clerics are not supposed to be proselytizers, yet they represent in every sense, influencers, formators, and mentors bequeathed with entrenched values and a keen sense of history and thus, are indisputable molders of prospective leaders. Far from playing indoctrinating roles, teachers by vocation, conduct and practice, ought to help shape future purposeful leaders, while challenging societal prejudices, injustices and bad governance.
It is quite understandable that members of the academia are routinely drawn to non-academic engagements and consultancies in the private and public sectors. That is as it should be. The other reason, of course is obvious: such opportunities keep them away from the vagaries of academic politics. As we have been told, “Academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low.” Nonetheless, the assumption remains that the academia, will always add fillip to formulating cogent public policies and good governance. Regrettably, quite the opposite has happened. From within the academia we confront an unprecedented level of acquiescence, hence, unquestionable vicarious responsibilities.
There is no discounting that the incremental decrease in media literacy, is relative to academics no longer offering assertive written positions on critical national issues. This is a result of many within the academia abandoning being engaged in the discourse of vital national interest issues, opting as it were, for self-preservation and alignment with their political identities. Such disposition, dynamics and optics often translate to substituting rigorous analyses with gratuitous non-scientific, non-empirical assessments and rhetorical framing that unsurprisingly default to partisanship. None is so prone to that challenge than assessments of governance accomplishments or the failings of any political leadership. Evidence abound of swansongs led by academics in praise of leaders of Nigerian national and state governments, despite glaring evidence of their under-performance and failings. Even presumed independent polls conducted by in-house academics for think thanks and media houses, now reflect subjective values and precepts, if not outright bias. This is so since poll questions are trolled by academic consultants to reflect their political identities and produce determinate responses.
In this post-truth era, nations and states are increasingly at risk of warped evaluations of their leaders, especially when loyalists and partisans weigh in. Invariably, the contentious challenge becomes, whether such value-laden assessments are based on perceptions or realities. While realities are tangible and can be measured or benchmarked, perceptions are often based on emotions and at best, on comparative measures that use less inferior or qualitative accomplishments as the validating basis. Consequently, Nigeria’s academics cannot be absolved of responsibility for the poor educational socialization in ethics and morality of our students and the pervasive youth degeneracy.
What the culpable and complicit academics tend to overlook, is that good leaders often compete against themselves and the high measures and goals they have set out to accomplish. In contrast, leaders who are members of the “hollow elite” and “narrow elite” and who indulge in make-believe and hype, focus more on public acceptability, sloganeering and the contrived belief that they are accomplishing tasks, even if the resultant efforts amount to no more than shambolic actions. Academics that support the latter tendency, risk like the leaders, accusations of being duplicitous in both intent and approach. Their near-ideological disposition does not only contribute to political incomprehension, but indeed, supports the impenitent deployment of empirical analysis -a purely academic tool – and the use of “language, for the dubious purposes of virtue-signaling and in-group bonding.”
Good governance regulations work elsewhere, but not effectively in Nigeria. Why? Simply because more often than not, extant regulations are captured by vested interest. These same vested interests kill public policies and upend regulations put in place to create order and development, and malign public institutions. It’s troubling that increasingly some of those in the academia have been found wanting in this regard. I will illustrate with an extra curricula activity that continue to occupy the interest of some academics.
It is hardly incidental that in our democracy, leadership and core assignments for electoral activities devolve routinely to academics. By convention and practice, INEC’s leadership – the Chairman, National Commissioners and Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) – have largely been drawn from the academia. So too, INEC ad-hoc staff. Regrettably, the overall performance of academics engaged in electoral duties in Nigeria has been considered subpar relative to due diligence, compliance with extant codes and assurance of credible and transparent elections. Diminished ethics and morality in carrying out these tasks manifest easily in the face of cash and in-kind inducements by vested interests. Discernibly, public confidence in those academics deployed to electoral duties remain appreciably low.
This explains in part, the expansive rise in the cash-for-vote phenomenon, and INEC’s seeming inability or unwillingness to tackle the scourge, even though it violates extant electoral and criminal laws. Comparatively, one is left to wonder, if the circumstances and outcome would be different were such assignments given to members of the clergy, lawyers or accountants, who unlike mainstream academics, are bound by certain professional and vocational ethics. Inevitably, the question needs to be asked: Do Nigerian academics who feel underpaid and under compensated in their vocation of choice, consider electoral assignments a one-off basis for pecuniary recompense?
It is disconcerting that our students are consciously aware of some academics scrambling to be selected for electoral duties and understand why they do so. For the academics it’s the so-called “harvest season.” If our youth cannot learn ethics and morality from home and from schools, do we expect them to learn such from our national public space which is progressively dominated by dissonance, distraction and precepts. Today, our students are being schooled in the art of inconsistency, disloyalty, expediency and perfidy by our political leaders. Unfortunately, they cannot seek solace in our institutions of higher learning and those responsible for their tutelage, due to ongoing de-emphasis on moral foundation and absence of moral language and shared morality. Consequently, Nigeria’s academia cannot be absolved of the poor educational socialization in ethics and morality of our students and the pervasive youth degeneracy.
We have just witnessed a season of unprecedented political defections. It all seemed normal and business as usual. We are now well beyond intermittent political cross-carpeting, orchestrated by policy disagreements. Indeed, it is a pure case of historical irony, that those PDP poster boys whose arrival in 2015 undergirded APCs ascendancy to political power, would by their collective departure in 2018, seek to upend APC’s political fortunes. Such happenstance is a classic reminder that in love, war and politics, all is fair. It also affirms the enduring relevance of General Moshe Dayan’s doctrine of geopolitical standardization and balance: “We have to teach the Syrians that the same road that leads from Damascus to Tel Aviv also leads from Tel Aviv to Damascus.”
In leadership, we are frequently confronted with stark choices: the bolstering and the malevolent. Juxtaposed in the Nigeria context, the two possible scenarios represent a Catch 22 option; heads you lose, tails you lose. The reason is obvious. Politics for us remain a zero-sum-game that consigns relevance to only the victor and his adherents. Under such circumstances, the curious mixture of high principles and low motives like political expediency, becomes extremely enthralling and confounding.
Don’t get me wrong. We have been advised that “unflappability is a rare commodity on modern politics. So is careful deliberation.” As such, it must be acknowledged that some universal assumptions subsist. Undoubtedly, politics is still about numbers and alliances; replete with strange bedfellows. The reality, however, is that some academics as opinion leaders have succeeded in altering political communication by deviating from fundamental theories of communication. Now the efforts to deliberate on critical national issues is much diminished, amid flurry of negative headlines and a barrage of negative stories. One is cognizant also, that often we are subsumed and griped by profound and intimate sympathy for our political leaders, based on sectarian, ethnic, ideological and traditional emotionalisms. Relatedly, the tendency to catastrophize moments in history has expanded. We need to admit, that nationally, profound lessons are unfolding. Some of these lessons, which we tend to shrug off reflexively are deeply unsettling and unpalatable. Paradoxically, we can trace their trajectory back to our falling standards in education.
Now permit me to bring my views closer to this revered environment. Gratified as we may be, and as much applause as we may render, we know that our tertiary institutions are experiencing profound moral crisis. Grossly underfunded as they are, and as politicized as their leadership tends to be, and with the massive proliferation of half-baked upstart institutions, some of our public and private tertiary institutions are in truth no better than post-secondary schools of yesteryears. They lack infrastructure as well as sustainable, productive and harvesting capacities; and being mostly half-baked, churn out half-baked and functional illiterates in the name of university graduates.
In fact, this would plausibly explain why a Nigerian university graduate and Youth Corper when asked on a YouTube video, what she would do if infected with “Vertebrae”, could not distinguish if “Vertebrae” was an infectious affliction like HIV/AIDS and Leprosy, or part of the human anatomy. Similarly, when another university graduate was asked what she will do “if her boyfriend infected her with Sarcasm?” responded, “I will try and get treatment and I’ll quit the relationship.” Comical as this is, it is painfully and tellingly tragic.
If we are embarrassed of our graduates, as we ought to be, we must equally be abashed of our tertiary institutions and some of teachers; and rightly so. While it is not my intention to engage in collective condemnation or broad generalization and indictment, we are conversant with the terminology of “sorting” – that all to pervasive fee-for-grade and sex-for-grade culture and practice. Those academics in the extreme fringe, who dole out grades for cash, sex or other forms of gratuity, contribute by their unethical behavior to our institutional and national malaise.
The basic consensus exist on what constitutes good education; it is an unqualified preparation for life’s journey, not just in a vocational field of choice, but as a generality. Hence, while good education, not necessarily qualitative education, makes a university graduate employable; today, the general refrain, even within the academia is that our graduates are mostly unemployable. It is beyond debate that most of our university graduates are not employable in Nigeria, and certainly less so in our globalized, market-driven and knowledge-based economies dominated by cybernetic revolution and the rise of artificial intelligence.
But here is the paradox. The very Nigerian youth who are half-baked and thus ill-equipped to self-actualize and realize their fullest potentials as graduates or entrepreneurs, are the very ones who excel in our pop culture, through disingenuous escapades, including fake news, cyber scams, cultism and all forms of confidence trickery. They are the cultists and Yahoo Boys, the sojourners and protagonists in a new socio-economic sphere where ethics and morality are considered null and void. They are redefining how we live, operate and relate to one another. They have undercut our trust level among individuals, corporations and the society at large. These characters, whom should only enjoy the adjectival qualification of being “dubious and dupes”, continue to fare well even as institutional rejects. They exert undue peer pressure on their fellow youths becoming for some role models; and blackmail adults, including teachers, parents, businessmen, congregations and corporations.
While their peers elsewhere think of SMEs startups, Implements SGDs, combating climate change, volunteerism and setting conceivable, achievable and measurable goals, our nonconformist youths think of how to hit jackpots on Bet9ja, Surebet247, Bet365Naija and other gambling outlets. These societal misfits masquerading as students or unemployed graduates flourish, because our society and educational institutions have failed them and because Nigeria’s partisan media complex and the universal “social media has thrown up entirely new opportunities for reality distortion.” The stark reality as we are told by Kenya’s Prof. Patrick Loch Otieno Lumumba, is that “those who have ideas have no power and those who have power have no ideas.” But lest we forget, conventional wisdom has it that the worse form of ignorance is not necessarily the inability to read and write, but the inability to assess the full implications of our actions and inactions expeditiously. I believe our academe still has a critical corrective role begging to be played in this regard.
Nigeria remains a multi-sectarian and secular nation. Whether we like it or not, political and personal integrity and credibility will forever remain tangible in our daily undertakings, be they public or private. We cannot escape the logic and characteristics of change. But we must remain mindful that history of unheralded revolutions stands on the pedestal of one inescapable parameter: “Revolutionary upheavals, which saw the participation of not only political actors but also portions of the rural population, brought about wide-reaching changes in the political and social order. Revolutions established new institutions and practices, built new communities and created new forms of identity.”
It seems plausible, and I suspect so, that a cursory glimpse into Nigeria’s geopolitical, socio-economic, ethnic, cultural, religious and academic landscape will indicate a high prevalence of the revolution-stoking variables. Certainly, we can attest to the emergence of new, even if strange institutions, and confusing practices, shifting stratification and dialectics as well as new forms of identity. These can only suggest that we are on the course to a revolution, even if the exact timing remains indefinite.
I am constrained to conclude these remarks still on a somber note. As I said at the outset, Fela was right in demanding that our teachers should not teach our children “nonsense.” Those in academia, especially those who truly understand the essence of common good, justice and equity have a non-negotiable responsibility to teach our children well and by example. They cannot recuse themselves from advocating ethics, morality, integrity and credibility; but they will only succeed if they live and act what they preach. We must, therefore, strive to transcend precepts in our teachings. To borrow the wise words of Prof. Mulumba, “our universities must have umbilical cord with industry and society, otherwise they will remain Ivory Towers where knowledge is pumped into the minds of young men and women.”
At this juncture, I believe that borrowing a few lines from the lyrics of the 1970 hit song, “Teach Your Children” by Cosby Stills and Nash will be quite apt:
You who are on the road; Must have a code that you can leave by; and so, become yourself; Because the past is just a good-bye. Teach your children well; Their father’s hell did slowly go by; And feed them on your dreams. The one they pick, the one you’ll know by. Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry; So just look at them and sigh. And know they love you. And you, of tender years; Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by; And so please help them with your youth; They seek the truth before they can die.
In closing, and by way of going forward, let me stress that we must of necessity reflect on how well as individuals or a collective, our teachers have contributed to nation-building by teaching our children well and not teaching them “nonsense”; or by offering them courses, education and degrees that will presumably gain them employment, but will not ground them sufficiently, or help them in seeking the truth or for that matter, prepare them well for life’s journey. I thank you for your kind attention.