Educational reform and nation building in Nigeria



I thank the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. AbdulGaniyu Ambali, for inviting me to give this year’s convocation address.

As you are aware, I am not only a friend of this university but also a citizen of this town, by virtue of having served as a National Youth Corper here in 1975-6.

The NYSC year left an indelible mark on my professional life and my commitment to the continuing agenda of nation building. The NYSC at that time was intended to be an experiment, in just the sort of nation building that I still believe is needed in Nigeria, similar to the American Peace Corps established by President John F.Kennedy.

During my NYSC year, General Muritala Muhammad was assassinated. It was a period when Nigerians exclaimed, using the Biblical metaphor, “Then we had hopes that he was the one to redeem us.” And here today, almost 40 years after that event, we are a country still in search of a political redeemer, and a majority of our citizens are praying that the moment of our redeemer has finally arrived.

By all accounts, Nigeria is again at a crossroad, and we are hoping that Nigeria will take a turn for the better, and that 10 years from now, we will be rejoicing instead of lamenting that “we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Nigeria.”

This address is coming at a crucial time in Nigeria’s history.

The first reason, which has been evident for quite some time now, is that our educational system — especially our public educational system — is in dire need of reform, as is our perspective on education. The second reason is that this is clearly a moment of great change in the Nigerian state, a time when true nation building can take place.

With the election of President Buhari and his passing the recent milestone of 100 days in office, it is clear that the electoral process and the political process have both undergone a great deal of change, and indeed are still changing. People who did not feel invested in the state turned out to vote, and many now believe that they have an elected official who is truly there to serve them.

What I hope to propose today is that a similar change take place with respect to our understanding of the importance of education to our nation-building enterprise.

The essential prerequisite for nation building is a cohesive and coherent national education initiative that will articulate the profound idea of a commonwealth for the diverse people of the Nigerian nation. Under the leadership of the Federal Government, this national educational initiative must incorporate the collective experience, history, and tradition of our diverse society — ethnic, religious, regional, gender, and so on. Drawn from our collective heritage, it must build on our legacy of public education going back to the period of
decolonisation, draw on the strong tradition of mission schools that started in the 19th century, build on the legacy of sound

Muslim teaching that goes back many centuries, incorporate indigenous knowledge as an integral part of many of our communities, and acknowledge the important contributions of the many Nigerians who have played a role in the nation’s educational system through private educational institutions.

While such far-reaching initiative must have the confidence and trust of all our people, for this essential project to work it must be led by an enlightened Federal Government. Furthermore, this nation building initiative through education must speak directly to the nation’s educational challenges at every level, in elementary, vocational, secondary, post-secondary, and professional schools. I should add that the complex tapestry of the subject of education and nation building requires that we recognise that we can learn from the experience of other nations, just as they also can learn from us. Given my own current work at Harvard University, I hope to draw on such comparative instances to illustrate how educational reform can serve as an essential nation-building tool here in Nigeria.

First and foremost, when considering the type of educational reform that is necessary, it is important to remember that in Nigeria, access to a good education is a Constitutional right, not a privilege reserved for those who can afford it. However, not all children (especially those who live in more rural areas) have access to public schooling, and even when they do, most Nigerians agree that the standard of public education has been falling steadily since the 1970s. These are both serious and fundamental problems that we must confront and begin to address. If the constitutional right to choose one’s religion were to be denied, I am sure that there would be a national outcry the very next day, and for good reason. By the same logic, I believe we should all care passionately about whether or not our compatriots and fellow citizens have their constitutional right to education protected and ensured.

One solution that many committed and well-meaning Nigerians have found for this problem of a lack of both quality and availability is to use private education to fill in the gap left by the public system. However, private schools are not accessible to the entire population, and if we do not want to perpetuate a cycle that reinforces socio-economic stratification, we must ensure that Nigerians of all backgrounds – economic, geographic, religious, gender, and otherwise – have equal access to a quality education. If only the rich can afford a good education, how will anyone else ever elevate themselves in our society? In addition, private schools by and large treat education as a commodity.

Although this in itself does not present a problem, when too much of the educational burden is placed on private institutions, the idea that education is a constitutional right and a public good is severely undermined. As we all are aware, the private sector has been growing rapidly over the years, and while I appreciate the great contributions that private institutions have made, the fact remains that the public school system should be viewed as the standard and the norm, with private schools viewed as an alternative for those who desire it. Currently, private education is viewed as the standard, and the public system the alternative for those who can no longer afford a world-class education. We need to reform our public educational system so that public and private institutions in our nation can prepare our students equally to become citizens of the new Nigeria.

In thinking about what kinds of educational reforms are needed, it is interesting to consider how we as a nation understand the role and function of education. Perhaps it is because of the commodification of education or the difficult economic situation, but when you hear people talk about why a student should pursue an advanced degree from a Nigerian university or even why it is important to study hard in school, the answer almost always seems to be “so you can get a good job.” While this is understandable, even rational answer, it is also ironic because many of our graduates are not only unemployed, they are unemployable due to no fault of theirs, but because the education system has failed them — their skills are not fit for the economy we are trying to build.

Graduates of tertiary institutions make up 20 per cent of youth unemployment, and this represents a crisis for our country.

These graduates often remain unemployed for upward of five years after graduation. In reforming our educational system, we must search for a new model focused on financial literacy, critical thinking, problem-solving, and entrepreneurship, amongst the other skills that our growing economy demands. By learning and practicing these skills while at university, regardless of their programs of study, our graduates can make
a smoother transition into the workforce.

Let me focus briefly on entrepreneurship as a skill — in the broadest sense. Private universities the world over are including entrepreneurship in their curricula. In some ways, this is the response to the crisis in liberal arts education, where graduates are taught how to think, but struggle with tangible skills directly applicable to their work environments. I believe that teaching entrepreneurship and cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit is necessary for Nigerian graduates if we are to continue with our economic transformation.

Graduates should be able to translate the ubiquitous “Nigerian hustle” into productive development for our country.

Several schools at Harvard espouse learning by doing at all levels — from the faculty to the students. The “Professors or Senior Lecturer of Practice” model brings accomplished individuals to the university based on their practical experiences and demonstration of practical know-how. For example, Shikar Ghosh at the Harvard Business School teaches a required first-year course, The Entrepreneurial Manager. Forbes Magazine named Professor Ghosh, who served as the CEO, Founder, or Chairman of eight technology-based companies before joining the HBS faculty, ‘a Master of the Internet Universe’. Here in Africa, Ghanian Fred Swaniker just last month launched the African Leadership University in Mauritius, aiming to revolutionise tertiary education on the continent by combining rigorous academics with real-work skill building. Students are required to spend four months of every year working with a corporate partner, and during their time on campus they are required to work on real-life projects including starting or leading a company or non-profit organisation.

But if teaching entrepreneurship at the tertiary levels is necessary, it is not sufficient. Granted, practical employable skills like entrepreneurship are necessary for our graduates today to find jobs, but we need to link these skills to our nation-building efforts, and we must do this early in the education of our children. At Harvard College, the administration has responded to this need by stressing how the liberal arts education it provides produces well-informed national and global citizens who are equipped and prepared to make a difference in their country and the world. I heard a similar message about the purpose and value of education in the mission schools when I was a boy.

We must remember that our schools are intended to produce effective citizens, and not merely replenish the labor force. As a result, I do not think we can divorce our current educational crisis from any of our other national crises. The school should be an arena in which we train our leaders of tomorrow for the roles they will have to take in civic life. In other addresses I have identified many areas in which we need to improve efforts at nation building in Nigeria (such as national narratives, symbols, traditions, and programs like NYSC), but I believe the place where this must start is in our schools as of course in the home. If our schools do not educate our children about their civic duties and responsibilities to the state and about the state’s responsibility to them, should we really be surprised when the social contract between the people and the government breaks down?

This is a crucial time to address this issue for demographic reasons as well. We all know that Nigeria is the most populous country on the continent, but we are also an incredibly young population, with more than 60 per cent of our citizens under the age of 25. This means that even if we had sufficient educational infrastructure in the past, it would still need to be revamped so that we could meet the growing needs of our people.

So, reform of our educational system is essential, not only because education is a constitutional right and because it is crucial to producing a well-informed citizenry, as I have argued, but also because if we do not educate our children, someone else surely will. More than ever before, our children are flooded with information that exposes them to different ways of thinking and being. While this certainly can be a blessing if they are taught how to engage this information critically and constructively, it can also be very dangerous. There are currently many different alternatives that present themselves to our children, and none presents a more dire warning than Boko Haram currently does.

The government has been rightly praised for the work it has done through its Deradicalisation Programme of captured Boko Haram members, and one of the major observations of those running the programme is that Boko Haram clearly took advantage of the fact that these people lacked quality education. Whether it was simple religious knowledge and awareness or more nuanced logic and reasoning skills, the government workers have explained that once they manage to give former Boko Haram members these tools (albeit with a great amount of work against significant resistance), these young people are easily able to see the group for what it is.

Allow me to read a direct quote from one of the programme’s participants: “I shed tears when I realised I had ruined my life.
All my younger brothers are married with children but I’m not married and I have no child. So now I’m looking at how to start my life afresh.”

Although we can justifiably place blame for this situation at the feet of men like Muhammad Yusuf and Abubakar Shekau, we should also look in the mirror and realize that a bit of education in prison was able to make this man realize that Boko Haram had ruined his life as well as the lives of many others. Would it not have been easier to provide this education beforehand so he would not ruin his life, so he could contribute to the nation, and so a group like Boko Haram would not gain as much support and wreak as much havoc as it has on our fellow citizens? I would argue that we will pay for our children’s education now or we will pay for it later.

While paying for it now may entail hard work and sacrifice, he price will be much higher if we allow the situation to escalate. Better to buy an ounce of prevention now than a pound of cure in the future.

Thinking specifically about what kind of educational reform our nation needs, an important component of it has to be the exposure of our students to strong moral training, regardless of the specific classification of their schools, public or private. The benefits of doing so cannot be gainsaid, especially the many social woes we can prevent. When I think back on the celebrated tradition of the mission schools, I realise how hard it is to separate the first rate intellectual education that we received from the strong moral and religious education that these schools also provided. I am not advocating that all school become evangelistic endeavours in which teachers advocate for one world view over another.

Quite the contrary, but our country as well as the world at large is increasingly pluralistic, and people of different religious backgrounds need to be able to understand and communicate with each other effectively. For this reason, perhaps, we need this type of education in multicultural competency more than ever. In other words, what I propose is that all schools provide students with a solid grounding in the major religious traditions that surround them. In this way, they will not fall prey to misinformation and prejudice, but can learn tolerance and understanding, and play their part in creating a national ethos of religious co-operation.

As the common saying goes, “knowledge is power,” but without a strong moral education, how is one to know how to wield that power? Consequently, I think we should not be surprised when we see some leaders who do not seem to uphold the moral standards we would expect from important offices. At Harvard College, every student is required to take at least one course in the field of ethical reasoning. The goal is not to impose a particular set of morals on them, but rather to equip them with tools that will help them face ethical and moral problems and situations in the future. It is not enough that our schools merely produce intelligent citizens who possess a wealth of information, for what good is a masterfully designed ship without a rudder? Instead, we must help our students to develop firm moral compasses that will guide them for the rest of their lives.

While the school curriculum must play a central role in this process, I believe that strong personal examples have an important part to play as well. The “do as I say, not as I do” approach has been proven time and again to be ineffective, and I know that the examples set by many of my teachers – who were exceptionally upright individuals as well – made a permanent impact on my understanding of what it meant to be a mature and responsible adult. Students learn much more from educators than simply their lessons in the lecture hall.

Our personal examples can serve as a powerful force in positive moral instruction and reinforcement.

While I have identified several areas in which I believe the school system can and should make changes, I also believe it is a grave error to assume that the improvement of educational opportunities in Nigeria, and especially the revival and maintenance of our public school system, is the responsibility of the government alone. Regardless of whether our own children attend public or private school, we should all be highly invested in a robust school system that can ensure a better future society for the sake of our children, and also in our own self-interest as well. We are all citizens of Nigeria, and by virtue of being citizens, we are all stakeholders in public education.

• Olupona is a professor of African and African American Studies, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and a professor of African Religious Traditions,at Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University

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