“THE LOST ART OF SELF-EDUCATION” BY AYO OLUKOTUN

“Libraries raised me. I do not believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students do not have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days for 10 years” – Ray Bradbury

The other day, Ms Modele Sarafa Yusuf of Channels Television interviewed the Pro-Chancellor and founder of Afe Babalola University, Are Afe Babalola. One of the interesting details that struck this writer was the display of Babalola’s curriculum vitae on television. It reads as follows: General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (by correspondence); General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (by correspondence); LLB (by correspondence).

This unusual CV suggests that one of the country’s top notch legal luminaries is a self-taught citizen who did not have any formal schooling in the sense of sitting in a classroom beyond primary school level. This feat, it should be noted, was somewhat common in Babalola’s generation and for some decades after it; bringing to the table the question of what exactly has happened to erase self-education from the national landscape. Institutions of learning are proliferating; we now have over 125 universities. Yet, standards are outrageously low, while quality education remains an elusive goal.

Part of the problems as the opening quote by celebrated American fantasy, horror and science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, suggests, is the undue emphasis on formal education in which being taught replaces learning and the adventure of informal education. Leaf through the archive and you will find that many of the world’s outstanding scholars, writers and inventors were largely self-taught, having, like Bradbury, dropped out of school because of poverty. The list is a long one; it includes American writer, Herman Melville, author of the magnificent Moby Dick; Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago, who dropped out of school at the age of 13 but won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. There also is Gilbert Chesterton, influential English writer, who famously quipped that “without a gentle contempt for education, no man’s education is complete.” Talking of contempt for formal education, there is another group of geniuses who had formal education but like the foremost literary theorist, Terry Eagleton, who studied at Cambridge, maintain that their formal education was a waste of time. Recall too Wole Soyinka who, when admonished to take a doctorate by his colleagues at the University of Ibadan retorted scornfully, “Who will supervise it?”

This writer does not intend to minimise the benefits of formal education if for no other reason than that I earn a living by dispensing “education” in the formal setting of a university. However, it should be obvious by now and given the descent into what we may call certificated illiteracy that any serious reinvention of our educational system must step back in time to recapture the lost virtue of self-education and lifelong learning. Before amplifying this further, I crave the reader’s indulgence to enter a short take.

“The recent bailout to states owing arrears of salaries by the Federal Government may have its good sides, but I would have thought that bailout should be preceded by a diagnosis of how and why the recipients got to the prison and mess where they are”. The Speaker is Prof. Dipo Kolawole, a former vice-chancellor, University of Ado Ekiti. The occasion was an International Conference on “Issues and Challenges in Africa’s Quest for Development” organised by the Faculty of Administration, Obafemi Awolowo University on Wednesday and Thursday. Putting to work a contingency arrangement, the faculty defied a siege on campus by the Non Academic Staff Union by relocating the conference to Hotel DE Treasure in Ile-Ife.

As the Dean of the faculty, Prof. Taiwo Asaolu, observed, the international conference constitutes an attempt to resurrect a scholarly tradition begun by Professor Bamitale Omole, the current vice-chancellor of the university, who as dean of the faculty eight years ago, organised an elaborate international parley of the same kind. Kolawole explained in his address that Africa will not develop in any meaningful sense of that word without getting right such matters as leadership failure deepened by followers who celebrate criminals as heroes, poor security architecture, badly eroded educational systems, weak governance infrastructure as well as endemic corruption of government. One of the controversial issues raised at the conference concerns the divorce between knowledge workers and policymakers with some wondering whether policies and politics avail themselves of insights generated at forums like the conference. This of course remains an open question especially in the light of increasing searchlight on the Buhari administration regarding the nature and direction of the “Change” agenda.

To get back to the discourse on self-education, it should be clear that the current feverish search for degrees and diplomas at all costs without the corroborating amenity of self-education on the part of students is a dead end. The story was told of how a first class student from one of our universities struggled to pass courses at the postgraduate level. One of his lecturers, baffled by this paradox, commented that the student was only “a good examinee”, who obviously never enticed himself to undertake any serious reading outside of his lecture notes. In other words, a healthy emphasis on informal and lifelong education would have better prepared the student for graduate education and in addition for traces of original thinking.

The reason the older generation of Nigerians represented by Babalola could educate themselves sitting at home is because they cultivated independent study habits which did not rely on classroom instruction. At another level, the virtual absence of a lifelong education culture despite the Internet generated information outlets explains the gap which employers have found between the brandishing of several degrees and the capacity to cope with the peculiar challenges of the work place. This of course is not a problem peculiar to Nigeria but it is deepened by the lack of self-education habits on the part of our youths.

Have you wondered, to take another dimension of the problem, why there is such a huge gap between our academic community and the professions? Why for instance do our mass communication departments not invite distinguished journalists to teach courses in say, print journalism or editorial writing, as is the case in several other countries? In the United States, the tradition of appointing “professors of practice” seeks to remedy the defects of a formalised educational culture devoid of exposure to the real world but such notions are alien to our own system frozen in autocratic mediocrity.

A creative adoption of self-education will ensure that our professionals, many of whom are crusty and out of tune with modern trends refresh their skills through programmes of lifelong learning. Indeed, it is suggested that henceforth, the licences of our professionals should be renewed, subject to their showing evidence of having acquired up to date knowledge. A university lecturer who relies on classroom notes that are two decades old cannot be expected to have much educational influence.

It is time to revisit the values and virtues of self-education.

Copyright PUNCH.

3 comments on ““THE LOST ART OF SELF-EDUCATION” BY AYO OLUKOTUN

  1. COMMENTS BY PUNCH READERS

    NV Danmola

    When I was in Secondary School, I developed a few mathematics equations (including one of Gauss’ equations in number theory) and physics equations (for radioactive decay) entirely independently, while working on my own — privately. I did not major in Maths, neither in Physics.

    Indeed, the concept of “self taught” (autodidact) education in Nigeria is one that is almost lost. We are too hung up on paper qualifications and all manner of “certified this” and “certified that”. If you are not a “certified this”, no one would bother to know what you have to offer.

    Now the beauty of it is that, people who are self taught, who achieved proficiency/competence in a given discipline are typically people with a strongly independent mind. So, even before you reject their “certificate-less” claim to proficiency, they are ALREADY EXPECTING IT, and have planned out a contingency plan accordingly.

    To your surprise, that same person will go ahead of you and beat both you and your company on your own turf.

    One reason we don’t see such happening very much in this country is because people with such talents usually leave the country to work in Europe or America, where there is far less emphasis on what papers you have, and a healthy interest in the “living proof” you can make of yourself. In other words, if you can demonstrate what you know, and can do, nobody cares about papers (except, of course, the usual work permits and immigration stuff).

    Fixing our educational system will require us to go back to first principles. One of the most productive habits of the advanced countries is that their educational system actively looks out for prodigies, gifted people and geniuses. Such people of unusual and exceptional intellect are carefully “extracted” and taught in a special way. That is, faster and more rigorously than other students.

    These “special people” typically form the pool of talents from which the government takes from when ever they need the intellectual muscle to carry out some very critical national assignments e.g. developing nuclear bombs, rocket engines, space satellites, advanced software programmes, intelligence gathering, data analysis, forensics, diplomacy etc.

    Those men and women we see on TV currently negotiating the Iran nuclear deal are not all the main people involved. Those ones are politicians and diplomats (who are also smart). But behind the scenes are the scientific geniuses whose duties it is to critically analyse the technical details of the proposals (on both sides), to ensure that their own negotiating team has the best understanding of the scientific basis of the documents they’re reading and negotiating.

    What do John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov know about uranium enrichment and heavy water and centrifuges? The head of the US technical team that looks through the proposals, from a US point of view, is a renowned nuclear physicist, and a certified genius for that matter (don’t ask me his IQ)! Such people are not shown on TV, but they’re the brains behind the negotiations.

    Why am I saying this? If you’d like to find the best talents (gifted people) in the country, then you must pay attention to those on the “other side” of school. There are many who prefer to teach themselves at home than go to a boring school and take boring lessons and write boring exams. Ask Bill Gates why he dropped out of Harvard (he was sleeping in class).

    From academia to industry to the arts, there are people who have unusual talents, who genuinely find formal education to be “too formal” — meaning boring. Diving into the books and reading (and experimenting) to self-proficiency is usually their preferred way to go. If we must discover our nation’s best talents, we must also look in the direction of autodidacts.

    Self education is a lost art in this part of the world.

    Wogu Power

    Just the right message for the right generation Prof…
    You have hit the nail on the head.

    John Uwaya

    Prof, thank you. Government policies which are now out of tune with realities of the time, brought Nigeria to where she is today – ‘sakabula’ education. Among those policies are criteria of quota or catchment area for admission into federal higher institutions as well as need to reflect federal character when filling vacant positions in the federal civil service and in the now extinct parastatals. In all those cases, all that mattered was to acquire a certificate no matter how.

    But with privatization of erstwhile government parastatals and computerization of administrative processes, employment opportunities are getting fewer by the day. But many have neither realized that nor known that our society as part of the global economy is getting more and more capitalistic fueling a contest of survival of the fittest. Hence, talk of graduate unemployment by graduates who are good at nothing because they erroneously thought they were reading for others.

    Neither is our polity helping matters with filling of political offices predicated on brandishing of certain certificates and zoning or rotation as criteria. So, to fix our educational system, our polity must emphasize productivity and not mediocrity. I believe true federalism would do the trick instead of waiting for another thirty years for a political messiah or strongman as opposed to emphasis on strong political institutions counseled by President Barak Obama.

    sakabula

    I would like to contribute to this discussion because the subject resonates with me as an individual.I would like to point out some factors not completely omitted from the above report.Nigeria of today is different from the Nigeria of yesterday.The Pre democratic dispensation icons of this country is similar to that of any nation including the founding father of America(Benjamin Franklin was self taught). There was no known institution in their days,and even the few available were cumbersome to be admitted into.The few who were driven in the direction of academic contemplation found alternative means to develop themselves,same with merchants and industrialist.(Rothschild,Carnegie and John D Rockefeller). The writer should not have narrowed his article to the academic field alone.For example the late Arisekola did not attend LBS(lagos business school) or HBS (harvard business school),yet he excelled as a merchant cos of his internal drive and coupled with his intelligence which i would like to regard as innate,he rose from the scratch to became a national figure respected by presidents and venerated by governors.
    Autodidacticism is mostly a product of circumstances of the time in our quest to excel as humans.(We live in the age of convenience and social media distractions).
    I believe until we begin to lay more emphasis in cherry picking known talents and give them a platform to thrive majority of our geniuses will exist and depart this world as paper tigers.What we will keep having is the young man describe in the article above,smart in a bookish way in his chosen discipline and empty in general knowledge.
    Higher institutions themselves are not innocent of this anomaly they gladly talk about today for the sake of publication.Else why can’t all the vice chancellors not come together to put up a proposal to scrap jamb which delays most people in gaining admission in this part of the world after they have met the requirements of waec?And as if that is not enough post jamb another albatross of the future generation.With them knowing fully well if they were to face such measures they gladly support today most of them will have their bsc probably at age 40 or more.
    The human minds develops at a rapid rate once you hit the age of responsibility.It assimilates easily anything thought or learned cos the human specie knows that it’s survival depends on it either as a reward or consequence.Therefore self education is essential in academic and non academic endeavors as trade and commerce.
    Until universities starts laying more emphasis on skills and emotional intelligence more than academic intelligence society will not see reason to adjust.A situation where polytechnic graduates are considered not qualified is not acceptable,and even universities practice same.They will rather employ you as a lecturer with bsc and masters than employ someone without it.And we see such mentality as the standard practice in the society instead of considering competence and personal enlightenment and passion in the chosen field.I know a drummer who teaches African studies in America yet without certificate.His lectures are more of practical than the bookish aspect of the subject.Same with dancers.
    Therefore in order to promote self education our universities must be the starting point.Discover talents withing and outside the four walls of the schools and manage them.Give them prestigious responsibilities which shows they are respected more as a result of competence than paper qualification.Pay them rewarding wages and watch society follow suit.
    In conclusion i met a young man in osun state during globacom rally who is a thug and a cultist.They came to disrupt the rally so they can get paid.After engaging him for few minutes i discovered a treasure trove of intelligence locked within this young man awaiting expression.He was a student as at then of obafemi awolowo university 5 years ago.I collected his contact information and kept in touch with him for the future.He’ll make a good special adviser to any govt in power cos he was functioning in that capacity to goons who politicians use to their own selfish advantage.I could recognize the stuff he was made of in a short time and regarded him for who he is not the tout he came with.And that brought peace to the rally.(i was not on glo’s pay roll but a mere observer at the said rally) in 2009 precisely.
    Formal education and self education which includes spiritual education are forces that when combined together you will have the finest of humans who is an object of admiration and veneration in the society and the world at large fit to hold prestigious offices and effect the change we need.
    Another example is our dear president without the bogus certificates,he has done much in less than two months in office than what a PHD holder has done in five years.And i said this cos under the watch of a PHD holder i lost hard earned monies in tunes of over 10 million naira to the ministry of education which i can’t ever get back again when the public was invited to bid for capital project.I was given award letter and till date it is come today or come tomorrow.Things like this can’t happen when you have a leader who is smart in a bookish way,and also smart in a self taught manner alike.
    Education you gain from higher institution for a duration of four years or as the case may be in other discipline five years is mostly adhered to by students for the sake of passing examination and getting good grades,but self education is to make a living and weather the storms of live,and it is for a lifetime.Hence self education is a more potent way of learning cos it is for life.

    Like

  2. MORE PUNCH READERS

    .I am impressed with the piece by Prof Ayo Olukotun on The PUNCH back page of Friday, July 10, entitled, “The lost art of self-education”.

    Until the early 70’s, l believed there were more people in self-education than those in formal schools. The luxury of radio and TV lectures were not available then, yet many wrote and excelled in Ordinary and Advanced levels GCE and Cambridge exams through self-education.

    Since revered statesmen like the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Afe Babalola cut their teeth in education at home, we need to go back to the basics, to reverse the decay in our education system.

    Pastor Taiwo Ekun-ode,

    Sango Ota, Ogun State,

    +23480590528.

    Just to underscore what Ayo Olukotun wrote about, there were public libraries at Ibadan in the 1950s and 1960s that made certain things possible.

    Without those libraries, I would have been in a different occupations by now, as I sold meat on the streets, and served as an apprentice to a bricklayer. I tried my hands at several other things, just as Afe Babalola would.

    When I dropped out of high school after two years- details already recounted in my memoir, Counting the Tiger¹s Teeth, the library enabled me to prepare for the GCE O level (London), for a diploma in salesmanship, a diploma in journalism, all by correspondence.

    There was also an efficient postal service. Letters were brought to your house. A few used their houses to create collection points for letters. Chief Lana, current Olubadan, had one in front of his house where letters were put in an open box.

    Toyin Falola,

    Department of History, The University of Texas at Austin,

    Austin, TX 78712-0220, USA.

    Like

  3. Pingback: The lost art of self-education – Uthman Shodipe

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