At about 1990,a professor in the biological sciences at the University of Benin,Prof,Ekundayo,stated to me that those who know what a university is are no longer in the Nigerian university system.
That attitude sounded odd to me.What could Ekundayo have observed from his place in the system to warrant such a counter-intuitive conclusion?The universities were teaching,doing research and awarding both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.Academics were constantly being promoted on the basis of their meeting the criteria for professional growth,publishing articles,and at times,books,with both national and international journals and publishers.What could Ekundayo mean,then, by such a statement ?Was the fundamental purpose of a university not being fulfilled through the carrying out of those activities,activities which demonstrated an engagement with knowledge at several levels in a tertiary system?
Years before Ekundayo made that strange observation ,the man who was to eventually become the first person of African descent to win the Nobel prize in literature ,Wole Soyinka,on leaving the Nigerian university system,if I remember the context well,asserted that all Nigerian universities,only the public ones of which existed at that time,should be closed and should begin afresh,it seemed,from first principles.
This also looked rather radical to me.
TO appreciate thse positions better,it could be useful to read Paulin Hountondji's essay "The Reasons for Scientific Dependence in Africa Today"published in 1990 in Research in African Literatures.
I still wrestle with those pronouncements by Ekundayo and Soyinka..In trying to understand them,I reflect on my experience of what I understand of the strengths and weaknesses of my education at the University of Benin,which began in 1985 and took me through many years of undergraduate and postgraduate study there.I relate it to my own educational vision,which is different,in significant ways from the current globally dominant educational model that emerged in its definitive form in Europe after the Scientific Revolution.I compare all these with with my postgraduate education in three universities in England,and with some reading of histories and philosophies of education.
I am still involved in trying to understand the issues.I think,though,that one would need to rethink the adaptation of the concept of a university in relation to historical and social contexts.One might also need to ask what exactly is a university?Is it an institution that is engaged in the transmission of and research into tertiary knowledge,if we could so describe it?Is that all there is to it?Could such transmission and development take place without significant qualitative growth,leading to what the Nigerian economist Yesufu described in the Nigerian economy at one time in terms of of growth without development?
Some people advocate what they call relevant research in so called developing societies.I have it understood that so far to imply research seen as directly related to what is understood as the developmental needs of the society.The history of scientific and technological development indicates,however,that development issues from different stimuli,many of which were not anticipated at the time of their first emergence.
India is still a country with a lot of poverty,still very traditional,but it has succeeded in developing itself in terms of Western modernity to the point of having the largest number of satellites in space,I understand.What could one learn from that in relation to developmental priorities and possibilities ,in the context of relationships between poverty,economic well being and social growth?
The vexed question of the role of endogenous knowledge systems in education will not go away,such as medical systems that address issues in way that seem to be beyond the reach of Western medicine,even though the endogenous medical system is inferior to Western medicine in many,if not most ways.The example of this I am aware of is bone healing that defeats Western approaches as well strange relationships to animals effected through plants,as the man I saw who plucked out a live scorpion from its hole, placed it on his head and covered it with a cap,claiming that a herb he had ingested made it impossible for the scorpion to sting him,to the harvesting of endogenous herbal and medical knowledge to feed Western medical research...
Then there is the issue of the language of instruction and the relationship of that to modes of qualification in relation to access to education.To start with an example,there was a newspaper report a few years ago of a man who manufactured guns illegally in Nigeria.He had little or no formal education.The police were impressed by the sophistication of his methods.In another context, Ulli Beier,Susanne Wenger and Georgiana Beier succeeded in inspiring and shaping the famous Osogbo art school in Nigeria,many or most of whose members had no formal education but who achieved fame in their artistic careers and even brought up others who grew into international visibility from similar platforms outside the mainstram educational system.
Clearly these people did not use English or any Western language as a central tool in their learning.What could be learnt from that?Are the current educational systems in Nigeria,in other African countries and in non-Western countries making adequate use of the creative potential of the members of the society?Along similar lines,why did so many non-formally educated people,at least in relation to the inventions that made them famous, prove so central to technological developments in the West,from the Wright brothers and the first manned flight to Steve Jobs and Apple.What could be learnt from this,keeping in mind the differences in social contexts within and between cultures?
While reflecting on all these,I nurture a dream.This dream is about an educational system that is not centred on what seems to me to be the fundamental blindness at the centre of the current globally dominant system,a blindness that leads,in my view,to an education for survival rather than for the development of meaning in living.To me,the human race is a lost tribe of creatures who have no rationale for their being that emerges from an understanding of cosmic purpose,if such a purpose exists,no sense of the points before and after their emergence for a brief time on this planet.The time before and after this brief embodiment are in thick darkness.Most if not all efforts at explaining this darkness,to me,are conjecture.
I am interested in the possibility of developing an educational process around the question of the why of our existence,the answer to which,to a significant extent,is best understood in terms of individual engagement and insight,even though other people's perspectives could be helpful.Perhaps a collectively persuasive perspective could emerge,one rooted,perhaps,in the character of the cosmos as it is rather than simply how it is perceived.But while the structure of human cognitive capacities remains as it is,such a collective persuasion or insight is not a possibility,in my view.
Also,while living in Benin-City,Nigeria,I was privileged to encounter,what, at the moment,I will describe as a unique source of energy that is most elevating in relation to the health and inspiration of mind and body.I would love to develop this as a framework for human growth,where cognitive development is understood not only as depending on human effort,but on relationships with forces of nature which facilitate cognitive expansion.I stumbled upon this source of energy at the point where the Ogba river breaks ground for the first time in a forest on Ekenwan Road.Thie energy does not does not power material instruments,its influence is subtle but profound,mysterious but palpable.This energy is described in the traditional understanding of the Bini people, as a spirit,as the expression or the being of an invisible, sentient entity.Even though I have had at least one visionary experience when I had an encounter with a human bodied agent in relation to this space,and who communicated with me,belief in such ideas is irrelevant to enjoying the fantastic power of what is described by enthusiasts of such phenomena in other cultures as a power spot.Similar locations are reported in different parts of Nigeria,Africa,and all over the world.They are often known as sacred groves and forests,and other sacred natural places.
I hope to contribute to a culture of visiting such places,relaxing in them so as to allow an infusion of their sublime and contemplative peace,perhaps experience an opening of consciousness to otherwise unanticipatable realms of knowledge,and correlate this with a culture of contemplation and scholarship,without any relationship to dogma.
Similar aspirations seem to have influenced the development of cognitive traditions in different cultural and geographical contexts,such the earliest sages of India whose work is the Vedas and the Upanishads,the foundations of Classical Indian civilisation.Similar conceptions seem to have been vital to the emergence of Buddhist civilisation in the earliest Buddhist Sanghas,monastic Buddhist communities.They seem foundational to the development of Western education from the relationship between scholarship and Christian monasticism,and they seem to be at the heart of the emergence of the Christian monastic tradition from the hermits of the Egyptian desert,beginning with St.Antony of Egypt.Without Muhammed's regular retiring to the solitudes to seek enlightenment,we would not have what we know as Islamic civilisation.Buddhist civilisation emerges from the Buddha's forest retirement in search of an alternative to the understanding of life he was presented with.The ideals of Christian civilisation have its roots in Jesus's forty day day retreat where he encountered the challenges offered by different strategies in relation to the execution of the mission he was contemplating,a retreat that climaxed what seem to be years of disappearance from public view,in which time that vocation was conceived .This ideal is also related to the contemporary practice of creating havens of scholarship shut off from the bustle of social life,and even the challenges of conventional educational systems,where scholars retire to to recharge their energies,and is echoed in the understanding of the university as an ivory tower,where knowledge is cultivated away from but in relation to the tensions that characterise social life.