By Lasisi Olagunju
EXACTLY 20 years ago, the Kaduna State government, in one single exercise, sacked 30,000 striking workers. What happened thereafter? Nothing – except that the governor who sacked them left office a year after and the workers came back to continue their “service” to the state. That same state has just given 21,780 teachers three months to disengage from the service of the state. They were the ones who could not answer primary four questions set for them by the state to test their competence. These almost 22,000 uneducable teachers about to be replaced in Kaduna will also be back in “service”. Some of them will come back still as teachers; the average ones will be back as the lawmakers of tomorrow, setting standards. The smartest of them will be back as governors or as ministers or commissioners for education enforcing standards. They always come back, outliving their nemesis. You can kill mosquitoes of ignorance a million times, they will always be around if their source is active.
I feel like saying that Governor Nasir el-Rufai is wasting his time trying to wake the dead. I feel like saying that it is a lost cause. El-Rufai said 21,780 teachers failed primary four exams and therefore they have to go. Has it ever crossed his mind that those who failed could, really, be the stupid ones who didn’t know the “smart way” to pass? The 11,000 who passed, scoring 75 per cent and above, who told the corrective governor that they truly earned their pass? And who assured the governor that the fresh ones to be employed won’t be worse than these tragic old hands? Or is he going to recruit his dream geniuses from outside Nigeria? This governor may even be shocked after leaving office. He may discover that those he recruited were the same persons he sensationally sacked. You cannot save the toxic river of Nigeria by damming and scooping out its water. The poison is buried in the source; the course is just the carrier.
“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” Kurt Vonnegut was probably right – especially when you know the quality of your teachers. Nigeria has long died at the hands of its diseased political teachers. Is there any difference between unrepentant teachers with wrong answers and arrogant governors with wrong solutions to societal problems? Afrobeat king, Fela Anikulapo Kuti warned “Teacher” not to teach him nonsense. But if “nonsense” is all that Teacher has, is it not what he will teach? We consciously elect leaders without knowledge, then we say we want a nation of light. Leaders without knowledge will lionize idiocy and ignorance. They always abandon the substance and chase the shadow. I want to endorse the action of el-Rufai, but I’m afraid it is just a treatment of symptoms. The darkness here is a chain. That chain of “nonsense” is what has dragged Nigeria to this desert of nothingness. Failure didn’t start from that set of Kaduna teachers; and it will not end with them. The teachers who failed were taught by teachers who themselves failed. Those ones and the ones before them too owed their ascendancy to a failed system. Teaching is a sacred calling. It is the spinal cord of the society. Any corruption of the system of learning kills the society. No parents want their child taught by teachers deficient in learning. It is like repeatedly washing a new cloth with dirty water. For centuries, the fear of the Kaduna situation had always made geniuses shudder at the kind of tomorrow awaiting them. Some, in history, opted for self-tutorial, seizing their destiny from corrupters of sanity. Roman statesman and orator, Cicero, saw teachers as an impediment to learning. Pupils, he said, “cease to use their own judgment” and regard “as gospel whatever is put forward by their chosen teacher.” When a chain of generations passes through the wrong tutelage, the nation is doomed.
An American student was asked to describe the dumbest teacher she ever had. Her answer: “a Spanish teacher we never heard speak Spanish.” A retired teacher in the United States told the media in February 2008: “As a teacher, it really made me sick to think that I was a teacher who couldn’t read. It is embarrassing for me, and it’s embarrassing for this nation.” Imagine! We’ve all met, at some point, teachers who didn’t measure up to our expectations. But such were very few and far between. But this Kaduna thing is a mass production of tragedy. It is certain that paralysis of literacy is creeping up on the nation. But it wasn’t like this four, five decades ago. So, what happened? Every noble thing inherited from the founding fathers has been systematically destroyed. No fool who could not read and write was inflicted on us as a teacher. Those who taught us were those who went through a rigorous training process. There were teacher training colleges that carried out their mandate diligently. To be certificated by those colleges, you must pass all your subjects – the rule was “fail in one, fail in all.” Only those who passed through those colleges were called teachers. Others were qualified with the adjective “auxiliary.” They were not yet teachers, no matter how brilliant they were. That process has sadly been subverted by a corrupt system that gives teaching jobs as compensation for deprivation. The corruption of the process has systematically destroyed public education. The focus has moved from content to form. There is an ongoing contest among governors for the one who could build the grandest of classrooms. But gilded classrooms can only massage egos of governors and governments. They won’t listen if you tell them buildings don’t make schools. That which will birth a tomorrow of greatness lies with who is employed to teach in our schools and how the teacher is treated.
The teachers who failed in Kaduna were public school teachers. They are likely to have come from the same challenged backgrounds of failure. The elite don’t teach in public schools and their children don’t attend public schools. Even that poor teacher next door has a dream to make sure that his own kids don’t school in the decay of the public space. He knows the quality of the service he renders and won’t make his children victims. It will get worse tomorrow. It can’t get better unless there is a change of course. There is currently a whole class bar in primary education; there is segregation in secondary and apartheid at the university level. The children of the super rich no longer do any schooling here. The middle class is opting for Ghana or private universities. Millions of children of the poor are the ones who suffer teachers without knowledge. They are the ones who struggle every year to be among the five per cent that annually get admission into inexpensive public universities. The remaining 95 per cent are in town, looking for the way out. That way they must find and the society pays for it. You cannot plant onion and reap okra. What you input determines what you get. My favourite author when discussing the hopelessness of Nigeria is the Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah. He warns the black man’s “spring water” against flowing desertwards. The consequence of doing so, he says, is extinction. We run a system that kills excellence; a system that proudly reserves front row seats for failure. It is a system that ignores what you know and rewards where you come from.
A snake will remain a snake even if it sheds its skin a million times. If you like, sack teachers every year in all states; recruit new ones and celebrate them. The next competency test will mock your efforts. Unless a comprehensive reform of values is carried out, in vain are all efforts to force the impotent to perform. There will always be a teacher who would calmly write that a fictitious Dony Teron is the US President. There will always be a Kaduna which is just a metaphor for Nigeria. A dysfunctional system will continue to churn out failures until the cause (curse?) is rooted out.