Are Universities Still Universities?

Fifty years before universities came into existence, children were taught to read and write at home by the slaves of the owner of the house – much the same way we abandon our children to house helps today. The only difference between the house helps of that time with those of today is that while those of the time in question were older men who were versed in a lot of family history and etiquette, our house helps are usually from the village and are illiterate. As the boy or girl taught by the older slave grew older, his entire life would revolve around family values, etiquette and a certain kind of thinking. In fact, all formal learning was restricted to music, dexterity with the harp and physical training and with learning to live an active life, whether it is in participating in local festivals, taking part in sports and preparing to go to war. If the young adult had any problem, he went nowhere but to his family and its inbuilt institutions. He could not think for himself. If that young boy or girl was able to follow the rules and regulations of his community as laid down for him or her by his family, he was seen as a holy and religious person.

But in the 5th Century, the idea of the uomo universale, the universal person whose thinking went far and beyond his village and community began to emerge with the emergence of professional teachers called Sophists. These teachers brought another kind of education – in politics, rhetoric and philosophy – accessible to those who could afford to pay for it. The Sophists swam against local tide. In brief, they taught their students that ‘morals, traditions, beliefs and myths were not a fixed mass of doctrines to be handed on unchanged and without question from generation to generation, but that these things were things that could be analysed and studied rationally, and if necessary, to be modified and rejected’ (Finley, 1968).

One of the Sophists was Socrates Sophroniscus. He was already 70 years old when the Supreme Court took of Athens slapped a charge on him. The charge against him was that he was not only corrupting the minds of young Athenians; they alleged as well that he was not as holy as they would want a person polluting the minds of the young should be.

Before and during the trial, everything seemed to have conspired against him – physically Socrates was not good to look at, he was not a six-footer and was not even good at public speaking. But he was a veteran with pocket groups and was a good debater. He often said that he had personal demons that ministered to and gave him insights into things and issues. Again, before the jurors were done with his case, every Athenian was aware that the alleged mis-education of the young for which Socrates had been put on trial was mere conjecture. The city was actually looking for a scapegoat (exactly the way we are treating our lecturers now) to hold responsible for the many misfortunes that had befallen them: in the Peloponnesian war with Sparta Athens had lost men and materials. It was a scandal and a catastrophe from which the city never recovered. However, the story behind the Socrates story is not the story of how he decided to drink the cup of poison and die instead of recanting on the new ideas and new methods of thinking he had introduced to his students. The point in all of this is to draw out the uncanny similarity in the life of the one of the very first lecturers in the first university with the lot of our university lecturers today. The sacrifices that they make today is no different from that that Socrates made, and this is why I am embarrassed when people accuse them of being unpatriotic and that they should reconsider their stand on their strike. I am upset that people are saying that lecturers demand monies for handouts from students before they pass them. Isn’t that a shame, especially when you consider some of the stories you might likely read in the sequel to this write up? Let me ask some of these people: Has any of the key officials of government given up their allowances, or salaries or perks as sacrifice for the trouble in the universities? But why should they? Nigeria makes trillions of dollars annually. At the beginning of every year, certain people at the executive sit down somewhere and decide how these monies are shared among the executive, judiciary and the legislative arms of government. While they are it, ie spending monies on themselves and using state funds for the maintenance of the white elephant of that institution called democracy, sensitive institutions like the universities are left to rot.

There was dynamism in the growth of the educational system after Socrates. Two of his most prominent students, Plato and Aristotle took off and started similar groups like their teacher’s and before long, young people the world over gathered under modern Sophists and thus began a universal system where society basically trained its future leaders, captains of industry and its masters of culture and literature. That’s why when you think of schools like Cambridge, Princeton, Yale and Harvard nothing comes to mind but excellence. But its not the same when you think of the University of Lagos, Ibadan, Nigeria – its always a gnarled dimension – it’s a place where politicians pick up girls old only as their own children for one-night stands, to the extent that quite a lot of these politicians, knowing what they do with these girls prefer then to ship their own children to universities abroad – and by ‘abroad’ I hope you’ll not be thinking only of Europe and America? My extended definition of ‘abroad’ is Ghana, Liberia, Porto Novo and Cameroon. And then, the unfortunate thing with taking children to schools abroad with monies that should have been used to develop the universities here is that these children will eventually come back here to want to perpetrate the rot that their parents have started. It’s a national shame, especially as this led us to a junction where nobody respects any degree from Nigerian universities.

I am going to tell you three or four stories about our universities. These stories are personal accounts of my experience as a university undergraduate. My plan is to use these stories as a periscope of what universities once were what they are now and what they should be today. I’m just trying to contribute my quota on the ongoing problem between Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, and government.

One fine morning, I was walking down Sapele Road in Benin City. As I made to take a detour from the central hospital towards the NUJ Secretariat, I walked smack into an armoured tank. It looked like a grotesque cobra set and ready to pounce on a young antelope lounging by. I was not to know that police high command had intercepted Intel that students of the University of Benin were on the streets fighting the government of Ibrahim Babangida over his introduction of the Structural Adjustment programme, SAP. Quite from instinct rather than of whim, I decided to turn back and head home. But behind me, a horde of students had gathered strategically at the entrance of the street. Armed with cudgels, placards and stones they chanted, SAP MUST GO, again and again. And inch by inch they advanced on the armoured tank. Suddenly, a shot rang out. And another and another. Before long, the whole of the street was covered with tear gas. I jumped into a ditch and crawled on my belly until I made it to the Airport Road close to his majesty’s palace. I made it home – just. I was not an undergraduate yet.

One day, myself together with my fellow students heard that one of our Prof had just returned from sabbatical leave from Canada. We were happy – happy because as a student, it was a privilege to be taught by a prof. Profs are the quintessential eggheads per excellence – academically and otherwise. The myth surrounding them is that they kn

ow too much about their subject, and if they downloaded that knowledge on you, your life can never remain the same. With that kind of enthusiasm, we knocked on this Prof’s door and she beckoned us in. As we entered inside her office, she didn’t look like someone about to settle down for work. Rather, she was packing her things. This was in 1990 and it was my first year in the university. Our spokesman welcomed her back and said that we were looking forward to receiving her lectures. ‘Don’t welcome me…’ she said, a big frown on her face. ‘Don’t, please…I can’t stay here…sorry. Where I’m coming from, I have an office twice the size of this – it is fully air-conditioned. I also have a computer. What they have offered me monthly to teach there is 200 times what I get here yearly…if you were me what would you do?’

Some years after that Prof left, there was another strike. The issues were the same – poor salaries, poor incentives, poor conditions of teaching, poor everything. So we stayed home for nearly three months. While home, I took to writing and learning how to use a manual typing machine – that type you have to insert a piece of paper with your carbon paper in between and push back to the left hand side to continue with your typing. And one day, I was in our sitting room listening to a news item about the negotiations being made to end the strike. Some Oyinbo people were involved. The reporter interviewed the official of government first. The man said something about government effort to bring back the lost glory of the universities and return the universities to where they used to be. But the Oyinbo man was upset after listening to this government official. I still remember his exact words: the emphasis here should not be on returning your universities to what they used to be but on taking them from what they used to be to what they should be today.

What the universities used to be? What are they now? I will answer this latter question with Johnny’s story. Johnny (not real name) was an engineering student at the University of Benin. When everyone goes home on holidays, he would hang around the university campus doing menial jobs. He slept in the empty classrooms because he couldn’t even afford to go home on those holidays. If he did, he wouldn’t even have the money to come back to school. Whenever the money he made doing menial jobs finished Johnny would scavenge and eat leftover food from the many bukaterias that dot the campus. The girls at the bukateria who gave him the ‘food’ simply lumped the leftover porridge, okro soup, rice and beans together. A grateful Johnny would fall to. He became a graduate this way.

But how were the universities before they became this Johnny? Many of the people who attended university just after independence are in leadership positions today. They tell such incredible stories of their times as undergraduates. First, they say that there was a laundry and meal system that took care of them. Every weekend, they would simply pack their dirty clothes to a registry where staff collects those clothes, washes and irons them. They say that even though the food was not free, it was greatly subsidized to the extent that undergraduates then used to invite their family members to school to help consume the food the undergraduates are unable put away. At the point when they graduate, a car, house and a job with a fat salary would be waiting in the wings. They also said that they were flown from country to country to do refresher courses.

PS. If you’re a young person reading this last paragraph and wondering if this is real or a fable, I suggest you look for someone around you who is 50 or above who attended university in the early 70s and interview them. There are many people who have said that at independence, our population and the population of our universities was not bursting at the seams the way it is today. Yes, that’s true. But back then we didn’t even have petrodollars. All we had was cocoa, groundnuts, rubber and palm oil. Those things are still there, together with the petrodollars. Should I tell you what we should do with the petrodollars instead of sharing it in Abuja?

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