A recent Unesco report confirms that poor funding, inadequate facilities and outright criminal neglect of education take their toll on quality in one of Africa's richest countries.
As a Basic Eight or Junior Secondary School 11 student, my last child, a ten-year-old girl studies fourteen subjects at school. This is about the same number of subjects she studied in primary school. Only last week, she told me that a fifteenth subject, music, has been added to the list. At her age, I still had two years to leave primary school. The real gist here is that today, Zeenat studies 100 per cent more subjects than I did up to the mid-1970s when I left post-primary school.
Viewed from this angle, the impression one gets is that today's school going children have greater capacity to learn than their parents and grandparents. Aside offering more subjects than their parents, today's school going children do not have to worry about such ol' school subjects as Nature Study and Hygiene; right from primary school, they have to contend with, among others, introductory technology, integrated science, European languages such as English and French, at least one Nigerian language, ICT, fine art and computer studies. Quite often, I wonder how ten-year-olds are saddled with so much at school. What with extra lessons and summer schools which children are made to endure even during holidays when they should be cooling off!
On a personal note, I wouldn't touch summer schools with a ten-mile pole even if it is for free. But then, this is not a thumb down for extra lessons and summer schools which some parents consider a rip off anyway. It must also be conceded that there are parents who see these as a way of keeping children much longer away from home while they, the parents, run around to make money. My grouse with extra lessons and summer schools is the fear that it denies children the opportunity to relax and allow the brain to ventilate. Let's put it straight: there is nothing wrong with extra lessons and summer schools except that there is a growing fear that we are unduly overloading the brain of youngsters.
And the fear is becoming even more palpable. As I write these lines, I am reminded of the pathetic case of three young graduates of Nigerian universities who achieved instant even though ignoble stardom when they failed to answer questions which my 'illiterate' grandmother would tackle with relative ease. News has it that none of the trio who are undergoing their mandatory one year national service prescribed for Nigerian university graduates could name two rivers in their country, Nigeria, or mention, without stuttering, three of the 36 states that make up their country and their capital cities.
Now let us break this down: two of the three musketeers are graduates of electrical/electronics while the third, a female, read geography and geology. All three are graduates from a university of science and technology. A close scrutiny of their registration details showed that the three were enrolled at the university between 2005 and 2006 and graduated in 2011. What this means is that they spent between five and six years for the four-year programmes. Such extended stay is not unusual as they could have been victims of a system that allows institutions to shut down for more than one academic session.
Three years ago, another graduate, this time of a federal polytechnic, who was on national service made the news when she could not fill out a form and could not even answer simple personal questions from visiting top government officials. Further checks by embarrassed officials fingered the lady's husband who was a lecturer at her alma mater as the benevolent god that cracked her nuts for her.
Our guinea pigs only serve to remind us of what has become the seemingly irreversible rot in Nigeria's educational system. And let no one delude themselves that it started yesterday. It is just that these days, people shrug off cases of half-baked university graduates, some call them 'millennium graduates', as one of those things we have to learn to live with.
Way back in 1981, one young man on national service in Maiduguri in north eastern Nigeria had a six-month extension to his service year as punishment for failing to name three state governors! The red flag is up the moment supposedly educated people advance such pedestrian arguments as 'English is a foreign language' or 'My line is economics, not politics' in an effort to excuse crass ignorance. Of course, there are celebrated cases of judges who 'banished' lawyers from appearing in court on account of a poor grasp of the English language.
For obvious reasons, many Nigerians will be wondering, not without justification, why our guinea pigs should not be alone. Many who are averse to reading will, with relative ease, roll out names of people in other climes who dropped out of school to become some of the richest people on earth. But why go far? Back home, many draw inspiration from and point at people who made it without having to go school. Others, like our guinea pigs, will be greatly amused at the hoopla surrounding the drama: after all, some of their contemporaries, without breaking any sweat, became stupendously rich within three years of graduating and completing national service.
This may not be the thinking of governments at all levels. Problem is that their inability and/or unwillingness to arrest the rot send clear signals that the list of those who see no direct link between education and development is growing.
- Abdulrazaq Magaji, journalist, author and former history lecturer, is based in Abuja, Nigeria.