OF DONS AND DUNCES… by Nengi Josef Owei

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THOMAS GRADGRIND was never, at any time, a man of breath and bone. Nor was he a man of blood and tissues. He never walked the earth. The fellow was just one of those grotesque creatures who dripped off the pen of the famous English novelist, Charles Dickens. Somehow, Gradgrind became too real to inhabit the pages of books only. He became, so to speak, larger than fiction.

That was because Gradgrind had ideas. Some of this immortal lines ring out in the following proposition: “We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact!”

That word – fact – was his darling, and he was as obsessed with its sound as its meaning. Of course, only a freak bent on exposing his lack of imagination, only a misfit of the Industrial Revolution could carry on like that. Only a parvenu thoroughly hooked on Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism could gibber that way. And our good friend, Gradgrind, was a perfect specimen.

Utilitarianism, we recall, was the magic policy which wrote England into history as the first nation to become industrialized. The long word meant that men are economic creatures motivated by self-interest.

It meant that all institutions of government, of the church and law, should be tested to see if they contributed to “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.” That test, however, was conducted with a ruthlessness that left the working population severely bruised and mercilessly sapped.

Gradgrind was Dickens’ way of illustrating the extreme enforcement of this policy with regard to education. So much taken up with the precision of the steam engine invented in the eighteenth century, English men of the Gradgrind mould began to form the minds of their infants upon a similarly faultless exactitude in figures, logarithms and mathematical combinations. In one word, facts!

It became a fixed notion that human nature, unpredictable as it is, could be measured with a rule and weighed on a pair of scales. It was believed that facts alone led the way to prosperity and material advancement. Facts and money. Money and facts. Whichever way you placed them, they meant one and the same thing. These things alone dictated the relationship of man to fellow man.

That was how the cash nexus, as Carlyle termed the phenomenon, became enthroned. Among other tensions and pressures of this sort, Dickens caught the grim cloud of the times even in his title – Hard Times. The book deserves another reading.

Hard times have been with us here in Nigeria, and no one can yet predict correctly for how much longer. The cash bond is waxing stronger every day. There is the ruthless utilitarian streak even in the smallest transaction with your spouse or neighbour. And nothing appears to help the matter anyhow.

Even so, ideas rule the world. Civilisation is what it is today because of the quality of ideas which have endured through the ages. Society continues to realign itself to seminal ideas, which gain prompt and lasting popularity in the minds of men. And the university is the nursery where ideas are nurtured into full bloom.

Alas, the song on the lips of everyone today is that university education has suffered acute denudation in Nigeria. Nothing has fostered this unfortunate view of the university as a prehistoric temple better than the current reality of hopelessness threatening tertiary education.

The committed intellectual, attempting to cope with societal and domestic problems, has to contend with the additional aggro of working with inadequate tools. Dons have suddenly become dunces.

Facilities are clearly obsolete and in short supply. Research grants are virtually non-existent, leaving lecturers with methods of teaching which must have been in vogue round about the middle of the eighteenth century.

Rote knowledge has been sustained through the xerox culture, so much so that the coarse intellectualism deriving from this has led cynics to dub the university as merely a “Ministry of Certificates.” All the hard thinking, as things stand, has been done by Aristotle through Karl Marx. The result is that students become certified dunces as well.

In the ivory towers, you couldn’t be sure if the dons are not advocating a system of teaching constantly fashioned toward monetary gain. It is as though we are back to the era of the Jackal when every subject, every discipline, every text amounted to an academic bible of ultimate financial value by which you must abide until you hit target.

Today, the methods of wholesale assimilation employed at kindergarten are carried over to the university with just a trace of variation. Now the difference between a pupil chanting nursery rhymes and an undergraduate mouthing assembled facts and theories lies only in the name. One is recitation, the other research.

And because decorum, civility and discipline have been traded for cultism, vanity and hedonism as the sacred tenets governing the university polity, lecturers can no longer act in loco parentis. And because this is an age when power, rather than wisdom, is respected, when the buffoon is granted audience over the sage, when immense tools of laxity and ignorance are poised to destroy university life in its entirety, the future appears bleak.

Indeed those who aver that the pen is mightier than the sword need to rethink their time-honoured proposition. The pen may have lost its potency, after all. And there is probably no better test ground for this than Nigerian institutions of learning.

What makes the matter worse now is that the pen, which is the primary symbol of education, is becoming hard to acquire. Students may go into the examination halls alright, but the financial permit to let them sit and write, threatens to remain scarce. The story is that the National Association of Nigerian Students is poised to do battle again.

The main grouse of the Association is that fees in tertiary institutions are at the point of going through the roof. Some university gates are already shut even before they had time to swing open. Government says it was a mistake that it had to pay for education in the first place. Government says it is high time university authorities sourced funds to run their affairs. The point is well taken. But how many students can meet the bill in a session, and for how many sessions? I wonder.

Even so, it is possible that university society will regenerate, and a new breed may well emerge to annul the present decay. This is the seed of hope that must be planted when government and ASUU arrive at a consensus.

Copyright. Pope Pen. June 30, 1996

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