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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Education in the North (3)

Re-Educating the North (3): Basic Requirements

This is the concluding part of our discussion on the subject. Or do we now call it a follow up to the first two articles? We earlier promised to discuss the six requirements of learning as enumerated in the Arabic book Teaching the Student Learning Skills popularly known as Ta’limu.

This refers to the genetic ability to assimilate, retrieve and use knowledge wisely. Generally, man is gifted here. We do not intend to blow our trumpet in this regard. The problem only lies in our collective failure to create the right environment for its expression.

We seem to have lost our craving for knowledge. Not even in western education, we have equally declined in our effort to master the literature of Islam. However, our lack of interest is more evident in western education. The old excuse of its ‘extraneousness’ is no longer valid in light of our acquaintance with it and the socio-political imperatives of our contemporary history.
A better reason could be found in the failure of the second generation of our educated elders. They failed to give us the conscientious leadership that will generate the economic growth required to accommodate graduates in various sectors. In the absence of such benefits, most parents are no longer keen in the education of their children. The poverty of the underpaid majority of workers, coupled with the high level of unemployment, has led to a sharp decline in motivation particularly in the past two decades. The schools themselves are dead, and there is little sign that those responsible for revitalizing them are ready, or even competent, to do so. Parents simply see the whole thing as a farce. And that is precisely what it is, as far as public schools are concerned. Patronizing private schools, on the other hand, is difficult for the average Nigerian who official statistics have recently shown to be living under poverty. Finally, assume that the child manages to have some sort of qualification, he has to face the vice of nepotism. Hardly do we have any regard for merit. Presently, preference is based not on your competence but on the your godfather. If you are ‘lucky’ to have one, then life will be smooth riding. Otherwise, you could be the best in your class but life will still be frustrating.
For education to be revived, we need to reinvigorate our motivation for it at least through a conviction of its worldly value i.e. the improved quality of life it promises. Improvement in the economy coupled with better wages, good management of resources and preference to merit will go a long way to serve as motivators. This is the responsibility of both parents and government. Parents must inculcate in their children the virtues of knowledge such that they can chase it with all interest, relentlessly. Government on its part must create the environment that will make children visualize, in various forms, the translation of such virtues into cogent social and economic benefits.
Even adults should know that the best way to improve their socio-economic status is through knowledge. (Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, is neither a politician nor a director of a ministry!) After fulfilling the basic requirement of graduation from a higher institution, they must continuously study to keep themselves abreast with new developments and discoveries in their fields of specialization. This will make them compete in ideas and practice with their counterparts all over the world. I must confess that very few of us, if any, live to this expectation.
Lastly, knowledge is the gateway to piety, the one and only requirement to eternal bliss in the Hereafter. What else could be a better motivation?

Acquisition of knowledge, more than any other thing, requires a formidable blend of patience and consistency. Our forefathers used to describe learning as Farkonka madaci, karshenka zuma. This is more so today when hardship and discipline are eschewed by the society in general. We think pleasure is only attainable with accumulation of wealth.
A cardinal objective of learning is excellence. As stated by the late Dr. Taha Husein, this will not be achieved by listening to the shallow ideas of simple storybooks and novels, nor to the superficial presentations of events or their analysis in the media. Excellence in scholarship, he emphasized, requires the training of the intellect on how to withstand difficult and consistent drills in digesting, assimilating, critiquing and improving on the intellectual output of both predecessors and contemporaries from all over the world.
Therefore right from the inception of their educational carrier, we must refrain our children from wasting their time watching TVs or roaming about the streets aimlessly. Books should be their only companions. They must also learn such skills like typing, languages, computers, and so on, early in life. This could be done at home during vacation, for example. Exceptional students are those that walk an extra mile to substantially improve on the little that was taught in the classroom. This is attainable if we will take the pain of planning their daily schedule and making sure that they adhere to it. We should also know that the challenge before them is greater than that of their southern counterparts. Apart from expecting them to master western education, they must at the same time attain erudition in Islam. It could be onerous, but not at all impossible.

For learning to take place, resources are required to meet some obvious demands. The child or student requires sponsorship for his maintenance and to offset other costs of learning. The teacher should also acquire, or be granted, the adequate resources necessary for his independence in order to protect his honor and that of the knowledge he harbors. Others are the acquisition of books and equipment for both teachers and students. These primary demands must be met first. Building structures, which are of secondary importance, have of recent consumed the largest portion of our educational budget at the expense of the primary demands. But when we look back at the school that produced the pioneer educationists and administrators in the North, the Katsina College, these structures were conspicuously absent. All they did was to combine the little resources they had then with determination and achieve unimaginable heights just at the ordinary level.
The North today is complaining about scarcity of resources. The truth is that what is currently spent on education is only on paper. Otherwise, where is the result? In fact, it has too much, that is why it can afford a waste or loot. And unless the area of resource management is fully reengineered to become purely result oriented, nothing in education will ever be achieved. Politicians and administrators are persistently ruthless in this respect. As we saw in the first segment of this series, governments in the North can still sponsor education comfortably if they are willing to manage what they have, honestly and efficiently.

Guidance of a Teacher
With acumen and resources, the next logical requirement of learning is the teacher. Through a teacher, a student acquires, with ease and within a short time, a body of knowledge that could not have been acquired except with great toil. The guidance of a teacher is not only a necessary shortcut but also a means of guaranteeing continuity in understanding between the past and the present.
The teacher that is in position to give this guidance must certainly be learned in his subject matter himself. It is unfortunate that most of our teachers today do not meet this requirement. Presently, all it takes to be a teacher is a certificate that might have been forged, bought or stolen from someone. Even the genuine one hardly guarantees the qualification of its holder because the awarding schools are in most cases substandard, with no facilities or qualified staff. After teachers are employed, no workshops are prepared to update their knowledge, just as there is no requirement for the teachers to defend their qualifications periodically. I often wonder if teachers who are not proficient in English themselves could teach their pupils anything tangible in western education.
Government has to address this problem. As a precondition to good remuneration, teachers must be made to pass a qualifying examination into the profession to the satisfaction of their employers. This qualification must be reviewed periodically by making them sit for assessment examinations at say every two years. Also there has to be on the job training programs that will update their standard in line with new development throughout their period of service.
A teacher must be committed to his profession and be found upright in conduct. Whoever chooses to teach must know that his interest is not accumulation of wealth but in the pleasure of imparting knowledge. He has the best legacy to leave behind. He should find consolation in building people and the nation in general at a time when others are preoccupied with temporal goals. He is the embodiment of virtue. For this he deserves our respect:

Stand up (in respect) for the teacher
He is almost a Prophet

Finally, a teacher does not have to be the formal one we meet in school. Parents, particularly mothers, could be the best teachers to their children. Why the ongoing craze for nursery schools with educated mothers at home? What would be said of a father that cannot even spare half an hour to teach his children something they did not understand well in school?

Knowledge cannot be bought outright in a shop. It has to be acquired over a period of time. Considerable patience to impart it is required both on the part of the teacher and the student. But if we note that it is the only imperishable asset one could have, then no time should be considered too long for its acquisition.
Students today are rushed from one level to another without necessarily qualifying for such promotions. Rushing them will only complicate matters for teachers at higher levels and results in waste of resources. Government and parents have to ascertain this. Quality control through what education managers call ‘measurement’ should be given the primary recognition it deserves. Once the foundation is strong, the structure above becomes sustained easily. Where students sit for SSCE and fail, parents should encourage them to sit again and again until they pass. This is better than their resort to gossip assemblies by the roadside or their becoming a liability for life.
Another problem is the present confusion called curriculum that fails to take into cognizance the linguistic shortcoming of the northern student. Imagine a child in class one being taught social science, art, health education and other rubbish when he cannot even write his name or understand a sentence in English. I will prefer that our children be drilled only on speech, reading, writing and arithmetic in the first four years. Whatever science they are required to learn at the primary level, it could be taught during the last two years.

I do not believe that our governments, going by their nature and history, are in a position to help us out of this predicament. As a way of overcoming the problem, I am beginning to believe that we need to ignore the government and take the bull by the horn. The wealthy owe the community the essential service of opening private schools. Their presence, not withstanding their disadvantages, will do more good. Non governmental organizations and communities will immensely help by organizing subsidized private or neighborhood schools. When the chips are down, they can fall back on their old devices. There is nothing in primary education that cannot be taught under a tree or in a zaure. I a glad to mention that some have already taken the lead. May God bless their effort! I intend to discuss their effort in detail in the near future in this column, God willing. Let this be augmented by some effort at home, with every educated member of a family spending some time teaching the children. The foundation can be built this way.
Can’t we also assist our sisters in turning our houses into centers of child education? Government can continue to waste its billions on whatever and however it wishes.
As a final note on the series I would like to say that, as students we could only advise our people and government. Of course, we may attempt to apply it to our families or communities within the scope of our limited resources. However, there is no doubt that the ultimate burden of accounting in the Hereafter for the resources of the whole society and its governance rests on the shoulders of our leaders. They prayed for the positions that they presently occupy and their prayers were answered. They cannot claim ignorance or incompetence. To people like them, the famous al-Motanabbi once said:

I have not seen a worse shortcoming
Than the failure of the able to accomplish

1 September 1999

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