By Owei Lakemfa
IN the primary school in the Lagos of the late 1960s, pupils were taught three key subjects; arithmetic, English language and social studies. For the third subject, we had two primer books on the lives of great people.
We memorised some of the stories. I recall the part that read “Cecil Rhodes was born in 1853…” The primer had the photograph of Rhodes peering at us. I carried the memory with me and the beautiful story of the great man into my late teens. You can imagine my shock when on further readings I discovered that Rhodes was essentially an international criminal who seized large parts of Southern Africa including Botswana and looted their minerals.
In 1890 with an army of five hundred mercenaries, he seized present day Zimbabwe which along with Zambia was renamed Rhodesia in his ‘honour’ Three years later, the Rhodes mercenaries in Zimbabwe massacred the people, completely seized their lands, colonised them and stole their minerals. This was in addition to the gold and diamond they had stolen in South Africa. I realised that De Beers Mining Company he established, was founded on the blood of Africans and that he should be charged posthumously for crimes against humanity.
So why was Rhodes presented to impressionable Nigerian school kids as a role model?
Worse, is the story of Sir Francis Drake which we were also taught. He was presented as a great and courageous man. We were taught that he was so good a soldier that when news came that the Spaniards were attacking, rather than scramble to his post, he continued the game he was playing, finished the game before going to finish off the Spaniards.
As it turned out, such a cow boy story we were told was a lie, and essentially, Francis Drake was a pirate who attacked ships especially Spanish ones on the high seas and looted their contents. That far from being a role model, Drake was actually a marauder who swept through the Caribbean, maiming, killing, looting and committing arson. On some occasions, he burnt down entire towns.
There is no doubt that the British and Spaniards were at war in the 16th Century when Drake operated, but he was more a business partner of Queen Elizabeth I who secretly sent him on some of his pirate missions, and on his return, they shared the loot.
It was therefore not surprising when in 1581, the Queen abroad the Golden Hind ship, knighted her business partner, and he became known as Sir Francis Drake. So why were post independence Nigerian children taught that this pirate was a role model?
Doubtlessly, there were stories of true role models taught such as that of Helen Keller the deaf and blind girl who rose to become a prolific author. She made the world realise that those with disabilities are not idiots and do not need to be dependent on others. One of her famous quotes is that “ Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.”There was also the quite inspiring story of Mahtma Ghandhi.
To me, of all the issues on education currently being debated in our country, including access to university education, expansion of existing facilities, merger of tertiary institutions, funding and standards, the most fundamental is content. What is the content of the education we expose our children and youths to? Is it one that colonises their minds and make them think like the mother colonialists wanted Africans to; what Franz Fanon called White Skin, Black Masks? Or is it one that enables them to think freely and be patriotic within a globalised world?
In other words, obtaining certificate should not be the sole purpose of education. Establishing private schools including universities cannot simply be for profit, and certificates should not just be a meal ticket. All societies should have a stake in educational institutions because their products are off loaded on the society.
Education should not be a commodity to be bought and sold like a can of milk or a fairly used car; it is not what should be traded on the Stock Exchange where share prices change like the British weather; education should not be sacrificed on the altar of market forces. Education is not necessarily about literacy, but about building the total human being.
Education should not be rote learning where students are brought up like parrots to repeat what the teacher has taught, or a series of memory verses to be recited on demanded. It should not be like the banking process in which the student is a bank where the teacher deposits his teachings and the student is required on demand to produce what has been banked in his memory.
Paulo Freire, the famous Brazilian lawyer and educationist who tore the banking system of education to shreds, argued that for education to be meaningful and relevant, it should concentrate on the social environment of the student. He posits that the fundamental part of learning is that the student understands the social context and reality in which he lives and will work.
Freire adopted the Socratic method of education in which the student does not take or accept on face value what he is taught. Students, he felt should question what they are taught, free their minds, and should be receptive to ideas which in the first place they should interrogate.
Freire did not see the teacher as an oracle that is all knowing, but as a human being who should be humble enough to learn even from the student. He saw education as a two-way traffic in which the teacher is also a learner.
Education is the bedrock of society, but a half, or badly educated person can be injurious to society. Like
Alexander Pope, the English poet argued “A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again”.