Nearing 50 years after independence, Nigeria has not reached far in the intellectual world of books. How much can we truly claim to be our own and not a pale imitation of the left-over of the Anglo-American world? While no limits can be set to the expanding world of knowledge, can we claim to be reasonably self-sufficient in the basic educational needs of our schools and undergraduate courses, tailored to our needs and interests? What has been the progress in the regional languages, which provide the staple diet for over 90 per cent of the school population? The world of books is a microcosm of the country at large, a huge paradox where islands of high intellectual excellence coexist in a sea of mediocrity with thousands of graduates without communication and comprehension skills of the most elementary kind after twelve years of schooling and at least three of college life. Where have we gone wrong?
Publishing in Nigeria has a symbiotic relationship with the educational structure, simply because books are a luxury and are bought to fulfill a basic need. All the fuss and fury that we see when another Nigerian writer in English hits the jackpot in the West is just window-dressing for an infinitesimally small English speaking minority. It is not the real picture where lice lurk in every nook and corner of the book world.
Begin with the schooling system where the foundations are laid for all later development in science, technology, medicine, the arts and humanities, and the professional courses. Basically, two factors are responsible for the rapid decline of standards. First, the numbers — with a population of a billion and more and still growing, this would be true for just about everything — that make management so much more difficult. Second, the rapid erosion of all languages, the regional languages as well as English. Of course there are other factors like the relevance of courses to our lives and needs, the quality of teachers, educational facilities available and so on. But the hub around which the school system revolves is the numbers and language or the means of communication.
In the last two decades, school numbers have trebled with an estimated school population of over 200 million (sadly, precise all-Nigeria figures are not available) in the three main boards of education, the state boards of school education, the Ministry Of Education and the tiny little board of the Nigerian Council of School Education (NCSE). To begin with, if we leave out the state boards which account for 90 per cent of school education and concentrate on the MINISTRY and the NCSE, the picture that emerges is somewhat as follows. ministry and NCSE schools are what can be safely described as elite schools. They have much better facilities, better paid staff and all the infrastructure such as libraries, science laboratories, and computers in classrooms, that make for a good school. But something has been going hopelessly wrong and a rapid decline in standards makes many school-leavers inadequately equipped to face the rigours of the world outside. At least, part of the reason for this is numbers.
In every major English speaking school of any worth, there are at least four sections which means 200 students in each class. No teacher or a group of teachers can provide individual attention to this number. They simply run through the syllabus and hope the student or the parents and/or the private tutor will fill the gaps that are inevitably left in the hurry to cram information down the throats of the young learners. And this is not all. In some metros like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, big schools have started three shifts — morning, afternoon and late evening — which triples the number in each class. Of course, no one teacher or one group of teachers handles all three shifts; there are separate groups but this means there can be no standardisation. Generally, the better (or richer) students get the morning shift, the weaker (and poorer) are shuffled off to the afternoon and late evening shifts. The assembly-line approach to school teaching has led to a sharp decline of standards which is reflected in the tests for admission to elite institutions like engineering and medical colleges. No institution worth its name admits students on the basis of school-leaving results. They hold their own tests.
Quite apart from the numbers and the emphasis on ‘facts, facts, facts’ without any attempt to relate the information to practical, everyday problems, something has to be said about the syllabii and the examination system, or rather the kind of questions that are asked in school leaving examinations. Broadly, the syllabus is divided into three sections: two languages, English and the regional language; social studies that consist of history, geography and civics, and the sciences which include mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and computers. Give or take a little, this is also the syllabus of most school-leaving examinations in other countries, and, therefore, nothing is wrong with the content. What goes wrong is the emphasis that is placed in the regurgitation of facts rather than applying the facts to the test of real-life situations. Examining bodies like the WAEC and the NECO and the apex body, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), are well aware of the problem but are quite helpless to do anything about it.
The reason? A school final examination must cater to the lowest common denominator of the mass which means levelling down questions to simple yes or no answers that can be checked by computers! (Here again we go back to the numbers syndrome.) Understanding and application are out because this would lead to lower pass percentages that again could have unpredictable political fall-out on a fragile educational system. Therefore, ‘play it safe’ is the golden rule; no critical questions and no critical assessments.
The consequences are all there to see. The school-leaver is hopelessly equipped for higher studies and the colleges have, therefore, to complete the job that the schools ought to have done. What this means is that our schooling which should equip us with the basic tools of communication and comprehension is really completed after 14 years instead of 12 as it is made out to be. Push this time scale further, and you can figure out why our graduate student takes five to six years to qualify as a semi-literate.
If the health of the elite schools is not much to talk about, what happens in the state boards of education where the vast mass of the school-going population goes, can well be imagined. And it is not just a question of coping with numbers. Ill-equipped schools, poor quality of teaching, a high drop-out rate because of parental indifference, pose a big problem. Between the state boards and schools there is a clear class divide. The former are very poor cousins of the elite institutions with all that it implies. What we get from the state schools is too pathetic in every sense of the word.
The baggage of an ill-prepared school student is now taken over by the universities. You would imagine that the pressure of numbers would diminish in higher education but this is emphatically not the case. The same numbers pass on to the colleges, give or take a little. And the reason for this is simple; the school-leaver is unemployable and has therefore to “park” himself in a university for three years or more before getting out in the big, wide world outside. Sadly, because the foundations are so weak, the university experience does not prepare him for the challenges of the market outside. With increasing privatisation and computerisation, where jobs are given because you fulfil a need, the condition of the average Indian graduate will worsen in the years to come.
And yet there are students coming out of the decrepit educational system that are world class by any standards. How does this happen? Is it an act of God or some other miracle that cannot be explained b
y simple cause-and-effect calculations? The answer can perhaps be provided by the silent middle class that has realised that the ‘knowledge industry’ will be the big thing in the coming decade. The investment this class has been making in the knowledge sector is unbelievable; better books, private tuition, home computers have become the tools to beat the system. The middle class knows that it has to ‘figure it out itself and that neither state nor society would be of any help.