Nigeria News

Public Education: Local Challenges, Global Lessons

The “Quo vadis” question? ”Where are you going?” is a powerful one. It is often asked at a critical moment in one’s life or the life of a nation, or on a new journey of discovery and uncertainty. Perhaps the most famous “quo vadis” question is recorded in the apocryphal Acts — the imagined encounter between Peter and Jesus after the Resurrection. Peter was apparently running away from what would be his own martyrdom in Rome. When Jesus appeared to him, Peter asked, “Quo vadis?” “Where are you going, Jesus?” Jesus responded that he was returning to Rome to be crucified again. Peter felt ashamed of his own cowardly retreat, and thus encouraged by his Master’s bravery, Peter retraced his steps, turning back again to face his gruesome death at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero.
 
Today, I intend to focus on our own Quo Vadis question. It is Nigeria’s question. Where are we going in public education? “Where are we as politicians, educators, parents, and students taking Nigeria?” I will draw possible answers to these questions from our global community, from other lands, particularly from places I have visited as a wandering scholar, teacher, and intellectual in the past few years. I contend that the crisis in public education today is not unique to Nigeria. Other nations face similar challenges, particularly the so-called developed nations. But we developing nations differ from the so-called developed nations in our approach to solving the problems of educating our young people.
 
Granted, it can be discouraging to realise that although many scholars, writers, and policy analysts in this country have addressed the challenges confronting our educational system — in books, learned journals, newspapers, and unpublished speeches, we have paid little attention to the solutions they propose. So it is easy to wonder if one more talk, like the one I am about to deliver, will be merely another exercise in futility. But we must not remain silent. Like Peter, we must turn around to retrace our steps, to meet the crises and challenges head on.
Although, I am alarmed at the apparent decline of all levels of public education in Nigeria, I am particularly concerned with the condition of primary and secondary education, which has suffered visible neglect. Secondary schools are largely under the control and purview of state governments, and they are not collectively represented by an interest group like the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that could put pressure on the government to advocate for their interests. In the past, parents were very much concerned about the welfare of these schools. But today, parents seek other options: namely private schools, which are now thought to provide the kind of quality education that public schools cannot provide.
 
I would like to offer a few basic premises concerning the role and responsibility of the nation-state in formulating the national education system. The Nigerian state, as custodian of the country’s educational system, must educate present and future generations of Nigerian children and youth, irrespective of their background and social standing. The Nigerian constitution actually makes access to education at all levels a constitutional right. A well-defined national primary and secondary school system should not be a privilege. It is essential to the building of Nigerian society. Our elementary and secondary schools are critical institutions that socialise and acculturate our children and our youth formational citizenship, which is essential to the concept of the Nigerian nation itself.
 
Clearly, I believe in a strong public education system. But it is important to reflect briefly on the value of private schools as well. I applaud well-meaning Nigerians who have established private schools and for-profit institutions to meet the needs of the growing population seeking knowledge. But for them and their intervention, education in this country would have been even worse. I am proud to say that I am connected with several education entrepreneurs and Christian philanthropists who are natives of this town, and I applaud their good work.
 
However, we must agree that private education is not the answer to our national educational crisis, because at best private schools will be within reach of a bare minimum number of qualified candidates– whose qualification is largely a function of their socio-economic advantage. The majority of the citizens, particularly those in the rural areas and those with lean bank accounts,  still lack access to education. Strengthening our public school system will enable us to revamp access to quality education nationwide, helping us to achieve the “just and egalitarian society” that is promised to all Nigerians by the Constitution.
 
At present, without such a public educational system in place, it is very likely that the Nigerian public lacks the education to understand the harm that can occur when a culture of illiteracy takes over our national lives. How can we expect a citizenry that has been denied a quality education to see the advantage of supporting investment in public education? But they are not the only ones to blame for our current situation, in which both our perception of public education and the policy surrounding it are deficient. Even educated Nigerians have somehow come to believe that the public as an enterprise is not worth investing in, forgetting that the Nigerian society at large will suffer grievously if any of its members are deprived of the advantages an education can provide.
 
Let us focus for a moment on why Nigerians who were unable to achieve much at home succeed in American and European educational systems. The reason has little to do with the individuals themselves, and much to do with the society at large. In a recent bestseller, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America”, Yale professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, argue that a number of immigrant nationalities, including Nigerians, perform better than other groups in America, and they go on to explore the reasons for this trend. We, of course, rejoice that for once, Nigeria is associated with progress and high achievement in America rather than the 419 and drug issues that have defined us for so long.
All available statistics point to the declining state of Nigeria’s secondary education system. According to Nick Clark and Caroline Ausukuya’s essay, An Overview of Education in Nigeria, Nigeria’s population is not only the largest in Africa, but also among the youngest — 63 per cent of its population is less than 24 years of age. Increasing numbers of children cause a greater demand for primary and secondary education. But at present, only 44 per cent of qualified candidates are absorbed into secondary schools, a sobering fact, especially because at present, Nigeria has at least 128 universities.
Without good training at the primary and secondary levels, we cannot produce competitive students for our universities. The quality of secondary education, particularly in public schools, is a major part of our problem. Witness the repeated reports of cheating and fraud among students taking secondary examinations such as JAMB, WAEC, and SSCE. What this indicates is the decreasing caliber of students entering Nigerian universities today. Why, we must ask, has public education failed our students to this unthinkable degree?
 
First, let us address the historical background to the evolution of secondary education in Nigeria. By most indications, the advent of secondary schools coincided with the colonial and mission stations. Very few private schools existed in those early years; they were nowhere near the number found today, although the superior quality of many of those schools cannot be questioned. At the time of independence in 1960, both government and mission schools had standards for preparing young students to enter our universities, even when those universities were still attached to British colonial centers of learning. Various religious organizations, particularly Christian associations, adopted different approaches to train young students, preparing them for citizenship and leadership positions in the future. Although free education was the norm in a few places, particularly the southwest, where free education was not available, costs were relatively manageable, at least before the 1980s, when the explosion of the population overran the professional and pedagogical capacity of the schools. As the economy collapsed, the necessary resources dwindled; as corruption increasingly stepped in, the idea of a quality free education for all was dashed.
 
The mission schools put in place a system that anchored liberal education in moral and religious values and produced graduates who were widely seen as the ideal future leaders of the nation. In the southwest region, for example, at St. Louis’ Secondary School in Ondo, Gboluji Grammar School in Ile-Oluji, CMS Grammar School Lagos, and Christ’s School Ado-Ekiti, to cite a few examples, young minds were immersed in civics and moral education. Nothing was taken for granted in the training of boys and girls. Frivolity was punished; tardiness was reprimanded. Similar standards were upheld in communities, in state-sponsored schools, and in a few not-for-profit secondary schools established by philanthropists and community leaders.
In addition, the teachers who taught our young people in the 1960s and 1970s had benefited from strong liberal arts training, which is not available to graduates today. The present products of Nigerian universities are not adequately trained to perform in the workplace. Staffing a school with professional teachers involves more than recruiting fresh graduates from liberal arts universities. Our current graduates have not been provided with proper training in teaching, curriculum development, and pedagogical skills. Our secondary school curriculum today must be completely revamped. We must return to a 1960s model, where for the first few years, students complete basic mandatory courses  irrespective of their areas of interest or focus (humanities, social sciences, language arts, mathematics, and the natural sciences). We must reinstate the higher school certificate programme, HSC, to prepare secondary school students for entering the university.
 
What would an individual do with N10 billion stolen from public funds? Such wealth is meant to pay the pensions of hard-working diligent public servants. But just as troubling as the behaviour of our politicians is the passivity of our citizens. We have seen no national protest against our corrupt politicians and their civil servant collaborators. Under our leaders’ watch, millions of Nigerians go to bed hungry because of the greed of perhaps even less than 5 per cent of us. We can recount an endless list of their vices, but it is sufficient to say that we have established our case beyond any reasonable doubt. One begins to wonder why, despite Nigeria’s rich human capital, Nigerians seem to be behaving like uninformed illiterates, as is evident in the numerous faulty commissions of enquiries enacted to investigate various national crises.
 
As a young man growing up in this town, I remember the late Premier of the Western Region, S. L. Akintola, who came to campaign for election of 1965. Chief Akintola, himself a master of Yoruba rhetoric, performance, and language told a story about an ancient Oyo Egungun (masquerade). Many believed in his power to bring about blessings. They trooped out to welcome him and to pray for the good things of life, children, prosperity, and good health. Akintola mentioned that the people of Ile-Oluji prayed precisely for water, electricity, and a hospital. After prayers were made to the Egungun, the masquerade asked them to stretch forth their hands. Akintola instructed the people to do likewise. Aided by his drummers, he dramatised the old story of the Egungun’s performance, bursting into dance himself by announcing,  Gbogbo e, gbogbo e, lowo e lo wa,  which means, “everything you want is in your own hands.” He pointed to their hands, “Your outstretched hands will cast the vote to bring you what we need: water, electricity, and a hospital.”
 
Similarly, through our own hands and our own efforts, we elected into office qualified and unqualified officials. Through our own efforts, we carry the heavy “Ghana-must-go bags” stuffed with money from corrupt politicians who buy our votes. Our own hands must now stop Nigeria’s corruption and build up an educated public.

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