A CASE FOR THE REVIVAL OF INTELLECTUALISM IN NIGERIAN ACADEMIC COMMUNITIES – PART 1

By Bamidele Salako

Being text of a speech that was NOT delivered at a Nigerian tertiary institution during said school’s annual Students’ Week because the students preferred to have a week full of reveling less any form of intellectual engagement

Today, I continue my miscellany of ramblings with a speech I was supposed to have delivered at a higher institution during its annual students’ week, a speech that failed to see the light of day because the students, paradoxically exhibiting the kind of disposition that spawned this treatise, balked at having to sit through any form of intellectual involvement during the week. Hard to blame them – this discourse shows why.

The Advanced English Dictionary defines revival thus:

First, as bringing again into activity and prominence (a resurgence or a revitalisation)
Second, as an evangelistic meeting intended to reawaken interest in religion.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”
The same dictionary defines an “intellectual” – the noun – as a person who uses the mind creatively; and “intellectual” – the adjective – as “associated with or requiring the use of the mind.”
Connecting these three definitions, we could describe my appeal for the revival of intellectualism as a clarion call for the enthronement of intellectualism (which is the use and development of the intellect). You could define intellectual revival as the bringing again of intellectualism into prominence or the resurgence of intellectualism.
And then, we could take it a step further by defining our meeting here today as an intellectual meeting intended to reawaken our interest in intellectualism and by extension, professionalism – an experience that legendary reggae artiste, Bob Marley, alluded to in his timeless number, Redemption Song, as an emancipation from mental slavery. He sang: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”

I often listen with envy as older people discuss the intellectual vibrancy that characterised the academic communities of Nigeria in the 50s, 60s, 70s and even the early 80s. I attended secondary school in the 90s and luckily, still managed to experience some of that intellectual vibe, albeit the dying embers of scholarly fervour, thanks to the quality of school that I attended – it was a private school – Crescent International Secondary School, Kano. It was owned by a Pakistani man and was arguably the best secondary school in all of the north in those days. It was where all the children of the northern elite could be found at that time.

By the time I got into Bayero University Kano (BUK), in 2001, to study Biochemistry – one of my many clueless and aimless excursions during a long spell in the valley of indecision, what I met was the carcass of a glorious past. What now baffles me is this: that that which I call a “carcass” far surpasses, in substance and style, the complete disintegration bordering on abysmal that typifies our academic institutions and academic life in general today.

Whereas schools would have been places bustling with intellectual debates, research, theorising, ideas incubation and generation and knowledge sharing – they have become, rather pathetically, production lines for unimaginative zombies called graduates who can’t think for themselves or make good use of their minds or contribute meaningfully to national discourse and development. Our campuses have descended from the lofty height of being intellectual storehouses and conduits of true life-transforming knowledge to being entertainment spots and club houses for students who don’t know why they are in school to start with.

This is not to say that entertainment and partying are not good in themselves, if only they are taken for what they are – namely refreshing escapes from the exertions of work and intellectual engagement. The problem is when entertainment and partying become enthroned and are given pre-eminence and priority, becoming the primary preoccupation of students within the academic environment. If only our youths would devote the same amount of vigour, time and other resources that they did to entertainment, fashion, movies and partying, to academic rigour, then we might proudly proclaim that the future indeed belonged to the youths. Alas! The reverse is the case and unfortunately so.

It is on record that the amount of information and knowledge generated in the last one hundred years of our existence far surpasses all of that generated in all of the thousands of years before then. And so, even though today, we are blessed to be part of a generation with an abundance of life-transforming information, knowledge and technologies at its fingertips, yet, no generation of youths has been more crassly ignorant than ours. All the blackberries, i-Phones and other smart mobile technologies that otherwise would have served as potent instruments for the revolution of our minds through targeted information consumption and knowledge cum skill acquisition are simply tools for chatting frivolously and downloading movies, porn, and music. Information consumed is at best, the latest celebrity gossip, sensational news item or newest fashion trend in town. Any attempt to access intellectual material online is driven by the compulsion of a school assignment which would at best, be plagiarised.

Once upon a time when students engaged one another in intellectual debates on political, economic and social theories, ideologies and issues: Once upon a time when students were receiving an education so they could enter the world as agents of social reformation and transformation – students who were fired up with a passion to leave an indelible imprint on their generation: What we now have are students who are in school primarily for one purpose – the certificate – so they can get a job and join in the endless survival game.

And so this unfortunate situation we find ourselves in as students in 21st Century Nigeria begs the question – Why are you in school?

First of all, let me put it to you that you are not in school to make money. If your purpose for coming to school is so you can make money, you’re in the wrong place because you don’t need to go to school to make money.

You don’t even need to have gone to school to be awarded the highest academic honour of Doctor of Philosophy in any field. Dr. Cletus Ibeto, a billionaire businessman, who runs a conglomerate of businesses with interests in multiple sectors of the economy, does not boast beyond a primary school education, yet, such are the giant strides he has taken in business and personal accomplishment, that one of Nigeria’s leading higher institutions of learning, the University of Nigeria Nsukka, awarded him with an honorary doctorate degree. He’s just one of many examples about how you needn’t go to school to make money (Dangote is one and such are some of the richest people in the world). All you need is a good business sense, a healthy dose of street-smartness, dexterity at what it is you do (whether buying and selling, singing, fashion designing et al) and to be a hard-worker. You don’t need a first degree for this.

You’re not even in school so you can get a job when you’re done. School was originally designed to help you sharpen your inborn talents and potentials and passions into skills that would be deployed in various forms – whether in public or private enterprise – fundamentally for the greater good of society. School was structured to help you nurture and embrace your calling in life. In embracing that calling, you are bound to find personal fulfilment, wealth and happiness. And even where wealth is not a direct reward for your noble efforts, the value you bring to people around you through your work and the amount of goodwill you enjoy will not be quantifiable in material terms.

To my mind, school was instituted for two broad reasons:
1.) For the organisation and formalisation of learning. It provided a kind of structure to the learning enterprise. So, you had the formation of different branches of knowledge into disciplines – Medicine and its support casts (Biochemistry, Dentistry, Nursing et al), Architecture, Engineering and its many divisions (Building, Computer, Civil, et al) and so forth. These are then further broken down into curricula.

2.) For the sustenance and development of the disciplines. In other words, schools were to push the boundaries of knowledge with research so that ground-breaking discoveries are constantly being made to confront the challenges faced by society in the areas of healthcare, media, politics, the economy and so forth. These innovative findings are then added to the already existing body of knowledge in the related disciplines. And that is why we are able to have people like Adrian Smith and co. (William F. Baker, George J. Efstathiou and Marshall Strabala) – the architects who designed and constructed the 2, 717ft. architectural masterpiece called the Burj Khalifa – the tallest structure in the world; we can have people like Bill Gates who found Microsoft – a revolutionary enterprise that has changed life as we know it and greatly influenced the way we work (Note: all that Bill Gates became, he attained by way of 10,000 hours of exposure to and programming of a mainframe computer over a period of time in his high school days and not necessarily because of the theoretical scientific gobbledygook taught by teachers in class). It was a passion for him but school provided the enabling environment and the wherewithal for the development of that passion into a world-changing, history-making enterprise. Because of school, we can have professionals who build the cars we drive, the microwave we use in heating our food, the multi-purpose communication gadgets we carry, the professionals who report the news and many more.

Schools were to be hubs of inspiration armed with cutting-edge knowledge, equipment and inventions in various disciplines. In fact, it was hard not to be inspired and motivated to become an inventor, or a best-selling author or a well-rounded professional in your chosen field when you are coming out of an intellectually charged school community where half of your lecturers are responsible for the latest invention in that field, the latest workable model or theory in some other field, the latest best-selling book in another field and so forth.

Schools were to serve as a supply line for the production of inspired professionals armed with relevant skills that would ensure the growth and development of the disciplines – in the arts, in science, in literature, in technology, media et al, professionals who through their work, can continue to innovate. This innovation is crucial to the progress and development of society. Imagine a world without the internet, without aeroplanes, without cars, without televisions, without newspapers, without books, without your mobile phones, without your laptops – then also look at the tremendous advances that have been made in the design and functionality of these various inventions over time. It is hard not to find one higher institution of learning or the other in saner climes where one ground-breaking public sector or private sector-funded research or the other isn’t going on.

But what we have here in Nigeria are schools that have missed their way – the entire essence of their existence completely compromised. Schools have become the epitomes of boredom and fruitless laborious academic drills that count for little in the real world. In fact, rather than boosting and harnessing the creative talents of students and helping them to discover their calling and mission in life, schools seem to be doing the exact opposite. They give you a bunch of definitions, theories, rules and regulations and stifle your creative abilities rather than practical hands-on training with trailblazing technologies and techniques that would better prepare you for the professional demands of the marketplace. They put you in a straitjacket and feed you with dogma and stereotypes that narrow your perspectives about how the world works and your role in it.

Now we have teachers for whom teaching is merely a means of livelihood rather than a sacred calling by which the wheels of growth and development in society keep grinding. It is nigh on impossible for you to give what you don’t have.

Read Part 2 here: https://securenigeria365.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/conversations-with-dele-salako-a-case-for-the-revival-of-intellectualism-in-nigerian-academic-communities-part-2/

(The first part of this speech was originally published July 10, 2014 on Securenigeria365.wordpress.com)

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