Iruka N. Okeke, Assistant Professor and Branco-Weiss Fellow of the Society of Science. Department of Biology, Haverford College

Having only learned to appreciate the strength of a liberal education
after being erroneously steered in the direction of a professional
degree, I can only hope that President Obasanjo’s comments will not
misinform a whole generation of our country’s youth. I’ll give our youth
the credit of being able to discern valuable advice and I will not go
into other frightening implications of that unfortunate statement since I
feel that we have had many sound contributions from previous respondents.
Instead, I plan to toy with a more speculative line of thought.

If President Obasanjo’s comments are to be taken seriously – and although
I loathe to admit it, there are others who think along similar lines –
then “useless disciplines” might include other social sciences, the core
humanities and basic science. Why then did he single out sociology and
mass communication for particular attack? Is he nervous that our
Universities are turning out too many who are trained to probe and
document human behavior, existence and quality of life? Is he further
troubled by an overproduction of those who would be best placed to
communicate human rights abuse or similar occurrences to an otherwise
uninformed populace? If indeed there is disproportionate unemployment
among Nigeria’s mass communication and sociology graduates, there could
be a correspondingly high probability of them becoming freelance human
rights activists. Does the President see this as a bad thing? Does he
think of an unemployed computer scientist as more likely to spend his
free time harmlessly writing intelligible script for other scientists
(assuming of course that the poor chap has access to a computer). Is
there another reason for steering young people away from these areas of
study in particular?

The utility or otherwise of anything is directly related to the user. I
am told that farm tractors are very useful things. If one was parked at
my doorstep, entirely at my disposal, I’d give it away or sell it because
it is useless to me. I have never driven a tractor in my life and don’t
for the life of me know how. I’d rather have a sociologist any day. I
am sure that President Obasanjo, a seasoned agriculturist would be
unlikely to refer to a tractor as a “useless thing”. I therefore
understand his statement to mean that he has no use for people who obtain
degrees in sociology or mass communication. Of course, I don’t extend my
disrespect for tractors to imply that tractor manufacturers are wasting
resources or by suggesting that they turn out specialized biology
equipment, which I can use. Having the ability to think outside of my
box, I do realize that others will find tractors useful and indeed that
present-day human existence depends on them. I will also freely admit
that more people can use tractors than microscopes and it may be wise not
to shift the balance according to my whims. I am helped in my reasoning
by not feeling threatened by tractors. I have never suspected that they
will run me over or detract from my own importance or that tractor
manufacture stands in the way of microscope production.

If my fanciful speculations are on target, all who worry about the excess
of sociology and mass communication graduates can be rest assured that,
like graduates of every discipline, they are adaptable enough to acquire
a diverse range of technical skills in a few weeks or months. Young
people who are now in their second or third year of a prestigious
Sociology or Mass Communication program should be comforted in knowing
that people with a sound foundation in a “useless discipline” are doing
very well in technology and other sectors and that their numbers
potentially exceed those of computer scientists. (Incidentally computer
scientists and others with applied degrees tend to be less adaptable).
Indeed relatively sociology or mass communication graduates are engaged
in activities that could threaten anyone. And for those young people who
insist on directly applying the skills they acquired during their
undergraduate training in their professional careers, perhaps they would
consider sharpening their communication skills even further. Ultimately,
they could find themselves out-competing hundreds of hopeful applicants
for the enviable position of presidential speech-writer. I couldn’t help
but notice that the language in this morning’s Independence Day speech
was very well orchestrated. My sociologist friends may do better at
analyzing the content but even I could appreciate that the grammar, word
use and structure were a pleasure to listen to. Perhaps the work of a
well-trained and useful computer scientist.