Under circumstances most normal, I would rather stay clear of the emotions and analyses that President Obasanjo's statements have stirred up about which disciplines help Africa to advance. His statement---real or distorted---strikes at the roots of our everyday obsessions about the "ideal"; "the pure" and "the best." In secondary school, in the 1970s, our friends who chose to study Science courses, at Swedru Secondary School, esteemed themselves better than those of us who took to the Arts. There was a mundane undercurrent that the "smartest" studied science. And so were those who went to read Law and to study at the School of Administration at the University of Ghana, Legon, and how they viewed those of us who went to study Classics or chose the Drama School. There is a "disciplinary particularism" in the way we as humans conceive of knowledge and its application. And our tendency to create hierarchies to distinguish and to demean runs through our perceptions not only of "Science" and "the Arts", but also of knowledge gained from the Oxfords and Cambridges; Yales and Stanfords and knowledge acquired by the thoughtful others in the "Elsewhere Community" of the equally learned. There is something about us that Obasanjo has echoed and we need to dissect it and not dismiss him.
Had I not heard prominent intellectuals make similar statements and had I not read, in print, the same indictments of particular disciplines by prominent academics, I would have dismissed the president's as the musings of the deranged. In the hearts and minds of some--even if it is not uttered by mouth---a feeling exist that some disciplines are irrelevant to the larger purposes of Africa and they need to be de-emphasised in our thinking about the continent's fortunes. Some government officials in Africa have gone as far as to suggest, even if obliquely, that such disciplines be excised or purged from African academic curriculla.
In the days of structural adjustment in Ghana, some officials of the Economic ministry, in their marketing of IMF policies on radio and TV, called for the dissemination of more technical and scientific knowledge in Ghanaian schools than ideas emanating from the Arts and Humanities. Though they were not blunt in casting aspersions on non-technical and non-scientific disciplines, their particularist conception of knowledge was clear. They seemed to suggest that there are some disciplines that may be "useful" and others "useless" in the affairs of state and nation. So l tend to see Obasanjo's statement in the context of a broader, often silent, debate about which forms of knowledge pass for the ideal in time. And such thoughts have taproots in the darkest chapters of human history when some humans began to classify living organisms into the useful and useless; the lives worth preserving and the "life unworthy of life" [read Disciplines unworthy of Disciplines]. Obasanjo's statements may be misinformed, but they form part of a continuing human penchant for differentiating. Here, the Nigerian President has opened the lid of a brewing concoction.
There are famous scholars who have made similar statements, but in such a nuanced way that the sting is muted than sharpened. They have taken direct and oblique swipes not at Sociology and Mass Comm, as Obasanjo did, but at the relevance of History as a discipline, and historical analyses as a pathway to progress in Africa. For example, in his book, AFRICA IN CHAOS, the eminent and venerable George Ayittey writes:
"It is true that the past must be studied to provide guidance for the future. But a mind deeply obsessed with the past is captured by it. Such a captive mind is incapable of cogent analysis of present and future issues" [AFRICA IN CHAOS, p.42].
Here, one can infer a dismissal of the discipline of History in the search for solutions to problems by an eminent academic in a more nuanced and sophisticated way than a foot soldier like Obasanjo was capable of doing.
Let me be clear. I am not taking a swipe at George. I am putting our deliberations on "Useful or Useless Disciplines" in broader perspective and suggesting that Obasanjo is not the only one who has a classificatory view of disciplines.
Obasanjo's indictment of mass communications and sociology may be similar to another argument in George's book that "A growing number of African intellectuals are now deemphasising historical and external factors and looking inside Africa itself for the true causes of the crises and solutions." [AFRICA IN CHAOS, p45].
Those "African intellectuals" may share the same feelings that Obasanjo expressed publicly about "approach" and "paradigms." In that regard, it may be time to discuss, seriously in our forum, Obasanjo's expression of the private thoughts of many in Academia and public policymaking. And, I think we are doing that here.
At a conference organized on 12 October 1995 at Hofstra University under the theme "Africa 2000," prospective participants were advised that "All papers should focus on, or at least prominently discuss, the immediate future faced by Africa. Thus papers dealing with historical events, for example, would not be appropriate unless the thrust of the discussion related the historical context to an understanding of the present or immediate future." [AFRICa IN CHAOS, p.46].
The parameters of an academic conference may be different from a president's musings over the directions of social policy. But there is a convergence here between Obasanjo's interest in "the present" and the particular disciplines and kinds of analyses that address current problems or move a nation forward. Before Obasanjo spoke, many in academia and policymaking have raised questions about the relationship between particular disciplines and the current needs of nations. Here, the concern may not necessarily be about the disciplines themselves [History; Sociology or Mass Communications], but rather how their practioners apply their crafts to address current concerns. The Hofstra conference organizers may have crudely raised this important point about the relevance of particular disciplinary analyses to problem solving at a particular period in time.
George captures this complex interplay between disciplines and societal needs when he comments on the Hofstra conference announcement that:
"Traditional conferences on Africa have featured speaker upon speaker who perorated passionately about the iniquities of colonialism, the slave trade and Western imperialism. The Hofstra conference sounded a call for a paradigm shift, making it clear that papers dealing with such historical factors would not be welcome." [AFRICA IN CHAOS, p. 46].
So Obasanjo may be merely echoing in public what is being debated in private about "paradigm shifts." If we look at the landscape of American Universities, we see the absence of particular disciplines and the presence of others that came about in the wake of the Civil Rights struggle. Today, Black Studies; African and African American Studies; Africana Studies and others are being assailed in all directions by disciplinary particularists. Funds are being cut from such disciplines and programs and faculty hiring prospects are dimming. That may be a subtle suggestion that in the world of obsession with the technical and scientific----all in the name of becoming like Singapore, Japan and Taiwan----, the humanities and social sciences are becoming species most endangered. It is only recently that such important disciplines as Women's Studies and Aging Studies have started to make their mark on the search for an understanding of ourselves. Leaders who see computers and technical expertise as the ONLY meaningful knowledge in the 21st Century may have very little knowledge themselves about knowledge itself. They should deserve our sympathy, and they should be informed that there are many branches of knowledge and each of them plays a significant role in our search for solutions to problems.
Three days ago when the University of South Florida signed a technical cooperation agreement between itself and the Nigerian government, I asked the Nigerian representative, herself a Sociologist, whether she shared her leader's position that her discipline is obsolete and irrelevant to Nigeria's development. Her view of what Obasanjo meant was different from what is being assumed here in our forum as the President's outright rejection of particualar disciplines. The representative noted that the president was merely urging citizens of his country and indeed Africa's students and teachers to be "computer-literate." If that were true, Obasanjo is not far from reality.
As new equipment in classrooms and new modes of instruction supplant the use of chalk, and make power-point presentations the new icons in classrooms, any teacher who is incapable of using a computer to teach may be seen by his or her students as a fossil fit for somewhere else other than the present. Historians like myself have been put through intense computer training and on-line course design and instruction by our Center for 21st Century Teaching Excellence, that I am acquiring other new and useful skills that are enhancing my classroom experience. If the Nigerian leader meant to encourage African teachers to retool their teaching approaches to suit current trends, as his representative suggested, (and the Nigerian government would provide the training and resources), then let us not deride the Nigerian leader for he speaks truth to power.
But if his statement meant to transform his nation's curriculla with the objective of deemphasizing Sociology and Mass Communication, then the Nigerian leader may be part of a group of people in whose minds classifications; construction of disciplinary hierarchies and notions of the supremacy of some analytical models still exist. These thoughts about what is best, beautiful, useful, irrelevant, from a historian's perspective, are part of the human obsession with the ideal. And this notion of an ideal discipline, analyses and an ideal pathway to progress resembles some of the terrible things once glorified in human history: the "racially pure" (now the "disciplinarily relevant"). Obasanjo has provided us something to think about: the roots of our everyday obsessions. Here, an African leader's obssession with ideal disciplines that offer the ideal way to progress. I disagree with him if he meant the latter. I share his views if he meant the need for African teachers and students to be literate in computer use. But regardless of what he meant, I, as a historian, see his sentiments as part of what is already being debated in the minds and hearts of some, and what has formed part of our "modern" notions of the pure and ideal.