Immediately after the surrender of the exhausted state of Biafra in 1970 and the consequent end of the Nigerian civil war, it was reported that two high school boys in France, Robert and Regis, nineteen and sixteen years old respectively, burned themselves to death and urged many of their peers to follow suit. Interviews with their parents, teachers, pastors and friends revealed the horrifying fact that both of these sensitive students had become so overwhelmed by the hopeless misery of humankind and the incapacity of adults to offer any real faith in a better world. For this reason, they chose to set their bodies on fire as their ultimate way of protest.
To reach a better understanding of this deep-seated malaise and the underlying feelings engineering the crisis, permit me to quote from the letter of a student who had stop studying and was still trying to find a new world. On January 1, 1970, he sent this letter to his mother: “Society forces me to live an un-free life, to accept values which are not values to me. I reject the society as it now exists as a whole, but since I have compassion for people living together, I try to look for alternatives. I have given myself the obligation to become aware of what it means to be a man and to search for the source of life. Church people call it ‘God.’ You see that I am travelling a difficult road to come to self-fulfilment, but I am proud that I seldom did what others expected me to do in line with a so-called ‘normal development.’ I really hope not to end up on the level of a square, chained to customs, traditions and the talk of next door neighbours….”
What a piercing and touching letter! The thoughts of this young fellow, many years ago, seem to me, what many young people feel today. They share a fundamental unhappiness with their world and a strong desire to work for change, but they are in deep doubts about what to really do. They lack mentors among the adult world who will inspire them and propel their vision for a better world. The young generation of Nigerians today, I dare say, is seeking desperately for a vision, an ideal upon which to dedicate themselves, a cause on which to devote their lives, but they are frustrated by the cynicism of a hopeless and visionless society.
My reading of the situation is that we are brought once again to the supreme moment when our collective mental abilities are put to the test. We must put them to work if, and only if, we want a secure, peaceful and serene future for the young men and women of today and tomorrow. Unless we all put our hands on the deck, the future remains a frightening race between wisdom and catastrophe. The signs of the times are unnerving no matter what persuasion one holds about these issues. It has become obvious that the issues raised here are larger than meets the eye. They are symptoms of underlying problems much broader in scope and much more serious than we ever imagined. They re-issue fresh warnings of hidden dangers that lie ahead if present trends continue.
Solving this complexity of problems demands an eclectic model of variables. Our society needs a humble recognition of its roots if, and only if, it wants to survive. As Funke Oduwole argues, we need a high level of sincerity and commitment from our leaders. It is important that our leaders realize that the options before us are stringent. It is either we address ourselves to this challenge or face the risk of great peril. Increased funding of the educational sector is crucial to lifting the academic industry from the jungle of morass and decay.
Merit and professionalism must once again retain their places in the employment of teachers while learning and good character must continually be the benchmark against which sound and integral education should be judged. Schools, on their part, must constantly and continually update their curricula to suit the needs of the times. There is also the need to shift the emphasis of academic compensation from certificate acquisition to good character formation and the acquisition of demonstrable skills and competence. Education, if it is to be proper, sound, integral and authentic, must never rest on pure speculative and theoretical knowledge. It must be goal-oriented, that is, it must be channelled to positive social change, transformation and progress. Without its practical component, theory runs the risk of losing its soul to abstraction. It begins to drift in the abyss.
For students, the concept of dignity of labour must be re-invoked and given its proper place within the academic community. As I observed elsewhere, “The present crop of Nigerian students must muster the will and courage to take advantage of the wide margins of creativity and initiative offered throughout the course of their studies. By persistent work and the use of critical intelligence, young people will gradually wrest nature’s secrets and find a better application for its riches. As their self-mastery increase, they will develop a taste for research and discovery, inventive skill and creative vision, an ability to take calculated risks, boldness in enterprise, and a deeper sense of responsibility in their endeavours.”
Obviously, in today’s highly competitive global society where the partnership of scientific and technological forces have made the movement of big money, ideas, people and information much faster in a manner comparable with the speed of light than in previous generations, the centre of learning is gradually being shifted from the regimented horizons of classroom walls and lecture halls to a boundless intellectual space. For students, this new wave of development signals a new approach to knowledge acquisition that is all-embracing- one that takes into cognizance the new media technologies which are especially of great and indispensable importance for serious intellectual and academic enquiry across the globe.
In his writings, Cicero, the great Roman orator, poet and statesman recorded for posterity what he considered the six greatest mistakes human beings make. The fifth greatest mistake is what he calls “Neglecting development and refinement of the mind, and not acquiring the habits of reading and study.” In present day Nigerian society, this is quite the truth. There is a famous adage that “When you stop reading, you stop living.” Other variations of the adage say that one who stops reading stops leading or starts to die. These are basic truths which no one can deny today.
If we must reclaim the glories of good and sound education in Nigeria today, it must start from a genuine desire to remove education from the regimented space of classrooms and lecture halls. We need to overhaul our sense of what Stephen Covey calls, “The Four Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal.” These are Physical Renewal, Mental Renewal, Social/Emotional Renewal and Spiritual Renewal. Education has to take cognizance of new theories and discoveries in human psychology; we have to understand the varying conditions under which people are able to learn effectively. At the heart of Covey’s four principles lie a basic assumption, namely that a fruitful and successful life is borne out of a combination of variables, not just about learning in the classroom. If I represent his thoughts clearly, I am entitled to say that for Covey, true education implies openness to the plenitude and horizon of human experience in all its totality. It is an education of the body, the mind, the will, the intellect and the spirit.
In the physical dimension of renewal, he speaks about the need to effectively care for one’s body. This entails eating the right kind of food, getting sufficient rest and relaxation, and exercising on a regular basis. Exercise, nutrition, stress management are the key points. A healthy eating habit and regular exercise are all too important to need stressing today. Medical statistics increasingly show today the great havoc that refusal to
tame one’s eating habit and abstention from regular exercise can cause. Any good and sound education today cannot afford to neglect these areas. “There is no real excellence in all this world which can be separated from right [and healthy] living” remarks David Jordan. It is only a living person who can get educated.
In the second dimension of mental renewal, Covey starts with the affirmation that most of our mental development and study discipline come through formal education. But as soon as we leave school, many of these disciplines fall away. We let our minds grow cobweb and we become stagnated. We no longer do any serious reading; we don’t explore any new subject in real depth outside our action fields; we don’t think analytically; we don’t write. Instead, many young people today spend their time watching TV and engaging in trifling and frivolous activities.
Surveys today are showing that many young people spend as much as fifty hours in a week watching television, far more than they spend at work or in activity. That is a dangerous trend. It is true that TV has many high quality entertainment and educational programs. They can enrich our lives and contribute meaningfully to our purposes and goals, but there are many programs that simply waste our time and many that influence us in negative ways if we let them. Like the body, TV is a good servant but a poor master. We need to know how to effectively manage and maximize our time. Our time, the hours we spend on earth are our most valuable asset. It is unrepeatable and irreplaceable. How we spend our time will determine the level of success we will experience. We waste our time when we spend it in unproductive activity or with unproductive people; and this will manifest in our experience. We have to organize and execute our life around priorities.
Effective time management is putting first things first. Goethe will say that “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” A better and more refined way to look at how to allocate time is to speak in terms of investing one’s time rather than spending (or wasting) it. To spend gives a sense of finality, something that will never return. When time is spent, it is gone forever, but when time is invested, there is a return on the investment.
It is clear therefore, from Covey’s analysis that sound and integral education must be organized around a virile study habit through reading, listening and writing. Our society today seems to be going bankrupt of these salient values which have continued to inspire human and material civilization in other parts of the world. Continuing education, honing and expanding of the mind are vital aspects of mental renewal. It is extremely valuable to train and educate the mind. Without such education the mind becomes narrow and eventually closes itself. That is why it is valuable to read broadly and to expose oneself to great minds and great books. There’s no better way to inform and expand one’s mind on a regular basis than to get into the habit of reading good literature. “The person who doesn’t read is no better off than the person who cannot read.”
There is a great speech delivered by William Lyon Phelps, Yale’s Professor of English on 6th April, 1933 during a radio broadcast. He entitled the speech, “The Pleasure of Books”. The one-paged speech is worth quoting at lengths. He begins:
“The habit of reading is one of the greatest resources of mankind; and we enjoy reading books that belong to us much more than if they are borrowed. A borrowed book is like a guest in the house; it must be treated with punctiliousness, with a certain considerate formality. You must see that it sustains no damage; it must not suffer while under your roof. You cannot leave it carelessly, you cannot mark it, you cannot turn down the pages, you cannot use it familiarly. And then, some day, although this is seldom done, you really ought to return it.
But your own books belong to you; you treat them with that affectionate intimacy that annihilates formality. Books are for use, not for show; you should own no book that you are afraid to mark up, or afraid to place on the table, wide open and face down. A good reason for marking favorite passages in books is that this practice enables you to remember more easily the significant sayings, to refer to them quickly, and then in later years, it is like visiting a forest where you once blazed a trail. You have the pleasure of going over the old ground, and recalling both the intellectual scenery and your own earlier self.
Everyone should begin collecting a private library in youth; the instinct of private property, which is fundamental in human beings, can here be cultivated with every advantage and no evils. One should have one’s own bookshelves, which should not have doors, glass windows, or keys; they should be free and accessible to the hand as well as to the eye. The best of mural decorations is books; they are more varied in color and appearance than any wallpaper, they are more attractive in design, and they have the prime advantage of being separate personalities, so that if you sit alone in the room in the firelight, you are surrounded with intimate friends. The knowledge that they are there in plain view is both stimulating and refreshing. You do not have to read them all. Most of my indoor life is spent in a room containing six thousand books; and I have a stock answer to the invariable question that comes from strangers. “Have you read all of these books?” “Some of them twice.” This reply is both true and unexpected.
There are of course no friends like living, breathing, corporeal men and women; my devotion to reading has never made me a recluse. How could it? Books are of the people, by the people, for the people. Literature is the immortal part of history; it is the best and most enduring part of personality. But book-friends have this advantage over living friends; you can enjoy the most truly aristocratic society in the world whenever you want it. The great dead are beyond our physical reach, and the great living are usually almost as inaccessible; as for our personal friends and acquaintances, we cannot always see them. Perchance they are asleep, or away on a journey. But in a private library, you can at any moment converse with Socrates or Shakespeare or Carlyle or Dumas or Dickens or Shaw or Barrie or Galsworthy. And there is no doubt that in these books you see these men at their best. They wrote for you. They “laid themselves out,” they did their ultimate best to entertain you, to make a favorable impression. You are necessary to them as an audience is to an actor; only instead of seeing them masked, you look into their innermost heart of heart.”
It is obvious that Phelps’ reverence for books was not shared by everyone, especially those in Nazi Germany who on May 10, 1933 staged an event unseen since the Middle Ages as young German students from universities, formerly regarded as among the finest in the world, gathered in Berlin and other German cities to burn books with “un-German” ideas.
The point, however, is that the key index of modern civilization, as it is today, cannot be separated from the premium it places on the acquisition of literary knowledge and proficiency. Reading and writing are the great movers of civilization. This is true when we consider the atmosphere against which the print culture emerged in the sixteenth century and how much that invention has done to civilization to greater achievements. When a nation stops reading, it starts dying. When the young generation of students who are supposedly the leaders of tomorrow do not reckon with the habit of reading and writing, their destiny and the collective future of the nation is put
on the line.
The need to develop, cultivate and nurture a healthy reading, studying and writing habit is all too evident today. Here is what William Garden Blaikie says about writing and, by extension, reading: “The habit of committing our thoughts to writing is a powerful means of expanding the mind, and producing a logical and systematic arrangement of our views and opinions. It is this which gives the writer a vast superiority, as to the accuracy and extent of his conceptions, over the mere talker. No one can ever hope to know the principles of any art or science thoroughly who does not write as well as read upon the subject.” George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon complements this when he says, “Writing well is at one and the same time good thinking, good feeling, and good expression; it is having wit, soul, and taste, all together.”
Let us move to Covey’s third principle, namely social or emotional renewal. In this principle, he tells us that our social and emotional lives are tied together and they are demonstrated in our relationship with others. It can be a normal everyday interaction with people. Making people happy, putting a smile on someone’s face, serving others and making them feel important are nice ways of social and emotional renewal. There is a deep security that comes from living interdependently. The meaning and purpose of our lives must be sought outside us. The great cause upon which we devote our lives is something that is higher than we are, something that transcends us. Eldon Tanner says that “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on earth.” Service, empathy, synergy, and intrinsic security are the key words when we speak about social or emotional renewal.
George Bernard Shaw writes: “This is the true joy in life- being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one….I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” Let me offer you Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the former American President’s interpretation of happiness. He says: “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.” The root word for ‘ministry’ is the Latin ministerium and it means service. In the final analysis, happiness consists in serving others.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz seems to offer a taste of irony when in his classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes about this dedication to a cause greater than he is: “Don’t aim at success- the more you aim and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the bye product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” Dom Helder Camara, former Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil speaks of the secret of eternal youth in these words: “The secret of remaining young even when the years have changed our bodies is to devote our life to a cause.” If we desire a change that is at once true and positive for the young generation today, we must teach them by the manner of our lives the true meaning of selfless service and personal sacrifice.
The last principle which Covey talks about is the spiritual dimension of balanced self-renewal. This, he says, is the core, the center of one’s personality, one’s commitment to a value system. It is a very private area of life and a supremely important one. It draws upon the sources that inspire and uplift you and tie you to the timeless truths of all humanity. Stephen Covey says of himself: “I find renewal in daily prayerful meditation on the scriptures because they represent my value system. As I read and meditate, I feel renewed, strengthened, centered and recommitted to serve.” Immersion in great literature or great music can provide a similar renewal of the spirit for some people. Spiritual renewal takes an investment of time. Religious leader David O. McKay teaches that, “The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul.” It is to this that the great philosopher of all times, Socrates adds a complements by saying that, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
In these four principles, Covey pushes us into a new world which is well-known but rarely explored by many. In them, we are given a vision of education that transcends the boundaries of academic theories and pure intellectual and abstract speculation. Education, if it is to be true and integral today, must reclaim the lost values inherent in a genuine openness to the world of good literatures and good people. All young people must start working towards their future with seriousness and sincerity.
Our adult world today needs to be sensitive to what a renowned Nigerian scholar George Ehusani dubs “the global youth culture.” By this, he means a situation “whereby young people of divergent national and social background, living in far-flung corners of the world are united by the same social habits, dress codes, taste for music, and language clichés, and they are fans of the same musical and sports celebrities. The wide distinction that was there between the dress and social habits of young people in Nairobi, San Paolo and Bonn sixty years ago, and the significant difference we had between the kind of music enjoyed by young people in New York, New Delhi and Cologne at that time, have today all but disappeared, thanks to the revolution in Information and Communication Technology that is poised to turn the world into one global village.”
Ehusani says something about what the youths of today feel, and I think his sincere remarks are worth the concluding pages of my reflection. He says: “Today’s youths are often very suspicious of dogmas, often averse to rigid traditions and rituals, and often contesting absolutes. They are generally more existentially inclined. They are hungry for love, for truth and for life, but they often do not want a body of teachings simply rammed down their brains about love, about truth and about life. They are looking for role models or living witnesses to these…ideals. They want to see practical examples of true love rather than read a lofty…treatise on love. They want to see living models of truth among members of the adult society rather than be preoccupied with a grandiose doctrine on truth. They want to see examples of wholesome…life that they can emulate, and not be bored by a lengthy dissertation on…life. They have had their trust betrayed and have been scandalised so often by the hypocrisy of the adult society that many of them have lost trust and confidence and instead have become very cynical and suspicious of all the values, dogmas and traditions that the adult society holds dear. “
We are today confronted with the case of a naked public square which signals the gradual disappearance in just two generations of the religious or metaphysical principles that have sustained human and material civilization for over two millennia. This dangerous and painful turn is penetra
ting into our society today with increasing levels of diffusion and varying degrees of transformation. We can only allow this trend to continue under the pain of great peril. If our submission is anything to go by, then today’s adult world must show the right way to the younger generation. We need people of integrity to inspire us! We need men and women of sound morality to hold out the light for us! We need beacons of hope to lift up the vale of a darkened world! We need men and women, young and old, rich and poor, fat and slim, tall and short to tell us that the future holds out for us the promise of greatness and a worthwhile life and that we can make it! We need mentors to help us champion the course of positive change in our society and in our world! If the society cannot secure the future of the young, the young cannot secure the future of the society. Young people today need to be well-educated. Now is the right time! Tomorrow is certainly going to be too late!