Education: Building Something on Nothing

The philosophy of the school room in one generation is the philosophy of government in another — Abraham Lincoln

When I was much younger and the middle class was in no danger of extinction, many in the neighbourhood had a “Papa” figure – one whom the little kids were in awe of, not necessarily the generous type. He was always well dressed, matched his colours well and, above all, he was always neat. Every kid dreamt of having “Papa” as his second father.

But his kids complained the most. It was not easy being Papa’s child but we couldn’t care less. In Papa’s household, you had to wake up early to polish his shoes, your mum’s and your older ones’ if they had to leave home in cover shoes. You had to sweep the entire house and always be there on time to watch him wash his car so you would take over when you get a bit older.

It was always a pleasant sight to watch Papa speak with other parents. You could sense the pride in his voice that came from communicating in a most eloquent manner. Some words we heard first from Papa included bunkum and nincompoop. The biggest threat a parent could ever issue was, “I will tell Papa you are misbehaving.” No kid wanted to lose his friendship. The easiest way to fall out with him was to perform poorly in exams or, even worse, neglect school.

As we grew older, so did Papa and his stories. He would say that, with what the system has turned into, you would need to reach the zenith academically to better his “Standard 7” quality-wise.

Now as a full-grown adult, I see the Papas of this world as the personification of what our system used to be: a time our public schools gave quality education not only academically but in all other required facets. I wonder how many teachers bother to scold or punish their pupils for appearing dirty. I would certainly have run into trouble with my parents and Papa if I didn’t wash my uniform. The same public schools most Nigerian leaders attended are where they won’t send their kids today, and no one would blame them because we all want the best for our wards. But there is a snag: it’s their fault the schools are what they are today. The most logical reason one would give for the decadence of our education system is that, over time, our leaders have neglected the basics and adopted the wrong approach to education.

Governments have worried about buying books, chairs and tables (which are insufficient in almost all cases), granting scholarships and building new blocks of classrooms. But I ask: Who will teach the students? Teachers — that is where the priority should lie. Everything adds up to naught if the teachers still teach their pupils nonsense (Apologies to the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti).

With most of their parents illiterates themselves and worrying more about putting food on the table and paying bills, the bulk of the responsibility lies with the teacher to educate them, but what we have today are teachers who can barely construct two error-free sentences themselves. Teachers who barely understand the psychology of the child and are non-inspiring, to say the least. When one listens to the excuses given by these teachers, one can’t help but hate the system even more because, to be fair to them, they raise valid points. Public schools have become hideouts for Indian hemp-smoking miscreants and also defecators. Kids are forced to learn in classrooms filled with the unpleasant smell of Indian hemp and human faeces. A majority of the students can’t afford the recommended books; and, even when books are distributed to students, they are hardly sufficient; yet, there are no libraries available to them.

The elementary and secondary levels of education are the moulding grounds. Most habits, beneficial or detrimental, are inculcated at these levels. If a child grows up to speak impeccable English, be articulate, confident or to love to read and learn, then, it was so moulded at these levels.

We have spent almost a trillion naira on education in the last two years; it grabbed the largest chunk of the 2013 budget for the first time in our history, yet we have nothing to show for it. Realistically speaking, it is not the pass rate that matters but the quality of the education acquired. Anatole France once said, “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” I have seen graduates who can barely speak fluent English.

With the money we sink into this sector, there is no way anyone would rationalize any paucity-of-funds theory.

The most important step in revamping this sector is to make the teachers’ take-home pay more attractive as this will attract the right applicants. Then, more importantly, we must get capable persons to separate the wheat from the chaff – select the best hands. Being a teacher entails a lot. Only a professional values the psychological wellbeing of kids and its importance in their education. After this is successfully done, we can then focus on infrastructure, learning materials and scholarships. All schools must have good libraries, functional and well-kept toilets as well as at least one computer for students to be taught with. The authorities should be more adequately monitored as neglect of their duties usually gives rise to the common enemies – insecurity and poor maintenance.

If we keep on doing the same thing over and over again, we will keep on getting the same results. With the right exhaustive approach to education, the sector will no doubt regain its lost glory. Carl Rogers once said, “The only person who is educated is the one who has learned and changed.” If we don’t change, we will continue building something on nothing.

— By Umar Sa’ad Hassan, a lawyer based in Kano.


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