By Pius Adesanmi
My teenage cousin called me from Nigeria last week. He had a long list of things he wanted me to buy for him, all cutting-edge models of modern gadgetry popular among netizens of his generation. Somehow, our conversation swayed to his education – he is now in SS1. I told him that we called that Form Four when I was in secondary school. Then he told me he has a flair for “arts subjects” and hopes to be like me when he grows up.
Perhaps it was the flattery, the sudden realization that the young boy considers me a role model or the bit about his flair for arts subjects. I felt this sudden urge to gauge his cultural capital and knowledge base.
I began to ask random questions about books he ought to have read – or be reading – and basic things and concepts he should know in such subjects as history, literature, government, and economics. I drew a blank on virtually every question I asked him, from who wrote Things Fall Apart to rudimentary questions about supply and demand in economics; from who were Herbert Macaulay, Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe to the difference between parliamentary and presidential systems of government.
My discovery was frightening. My cousin is an above-average student who attends an above-average secondary school. He is what you would ordinarily call a bright kid. Yet, outside the diction of cyber gadgetry and cell phones, he knows nothing, has read nothing!
If his knowledge base is so unbelievably shallow in his privileged educational circumstances, what is the situation with the millions of Nigerian children we are preparing as “leaders of tomorrow” in such places as Okokomaiko Community Grammar School, Oranmiyan Community Secondary School, Ajegunle Community UNICEF-Assisted Primary School?
All the questions I asked my cousin were based on the knowledge capital anyone in my generation would have acquired by Form Four irrespective of one’s social status and class or whether you attended private or public school. If, like my cousin, you were in the arts, you were already into Volume Two of KBC Onwubiko’s history textbooks and, also, classics by Adu Boahen and Elisabeth Isichei; in a subject like government, you were already deep into Nigeria’s constitutional history; in literature, you already finished your first Shakespeare and an array of Western literary classics.
In African literature, you were half way through Donatus Nwoga’s West African Verseand other texts by Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Chinua Achebe, Femi Osofisan, and Ola Rotimi. There was even a school competition to determine who read the greatest number of titles in Heinemann’s African Writers Series each term.
In the literary and debating society, you debated such topics as “British Parliamentary system is better than American Presidential System”. You had to go to the school library and research both systems! The school library subscribed to Time Magazine, Newsweek, West Africa, and major Nigerian magazines and newspapers.
I still recall scouring Timeand Newsweek at the school library for a debate on Ronald Reagan. Outside of formal classroom contexts, the reading culture ensured a circulation of such “lighter” texts as James Hadley Chase, Nick Carter, Sidney Sheldon, McMillan Pace Setters series, Mills and Boon.
Break time was for endless school kids’ speculation about what Muammar Ghadaffi would do to those Americans who bombed Tripoli and Benghazi. That was the beginning of one’s resentment of the misuse and abuse of America’s power. We debated the Falklands War, hoping that Argentina would defeat the “bloody British”.
The world news broadcast of the BBC (“This is London!”) and the network news of the Nigerian Television Authority were daily rituals in high school. Only cable stations that show D’Banj, TuFace, Banky W, 50 Cents, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga are in with my cousin.
In essence, we were ensconced in a textual world that made reading and knowledge of the world the cornerstones of our formative years. Nigeria pays a terrible price for the escapist demission of our intellectually impecunious rulers who send their children to school abroad and are, therefore, not affected by the collapse of our educational system.
And to think that my father grumbled endlessly about fallen standards when I was in secondary school! He couldn’t understand, for instance, why elementary philology and Latin had disappeared from the curriculum and he took to teaching me those two subjects at home.
My cousin’s situation offers a tragic window into the contradictions of our national experience. We are destroying our future by producing generations that do not and cannot read.
Since he couldn’t tell me who wrote Things Fall Apart, I didn’t take the risk of asking my cousin about Mansa Kankan Musa. I couldn’t put it beyond him to exclaim: “ah Uncle, his name is President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua o, not Kankan Musa!”
We expect progress from the systematic atrophy of our country’s young minds. If, as they say, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, what does that make a country that wastes minds with reckless abandon?
*Pius Adesanmi is Associate Professor and Director, Project on New African Literature (PONAL), Department of English, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. The piece first appeared in 2009. It is republished here in memory of Chinua Achebe.
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