Dr. Moses Ochonu
Rehabilitating a Bankrupt Rhetoric

The last few contributions on this important discussion have brought new perspectives to it-but only after having engaged in a needless rehabilitation of Mr. Obasanjo's illiterate, off-handed comment about the uselessness of certain disciplines.

I read a newspaper report and an OP-Ed piece with direct quotes from Obasanjo's proclamations and nowhere did I see the nuances now being retroactively projected onto his clearly stated position that certain courses (his examples were Mass Communications and Sociology but one may add History, Philosophy, Literature, and a plethora of courses in the humanities and the non-numerical social sciences) are useless. Absent from Obasanjo's declarations are the nuances that I have encountered in this discussion viz:

a) that he was merely expressing the importance of functional computer literacy, hence his particular reference to Computer Science as a counterpoint to the uselessness of the "useless" disciplines; and

b) that he was merely erecting a hierarchy of disciplinary importance vis-à-vis the limited resources for educational investments and the peculiar urgency of technological and scientific development in Nigeria.


If Obasanjo's rhetorical pontifications had included these nuances, they would have been out of place-unmatched and belied by his actions, since, as other contributors have stated, his government has done nothing to promote his declared disciplinary ideal-computer science education, nor has it made significant investments in science and technology education. Our scientific research institutes have been starved of funds, and hard working scientists and engineers have fled the rot at home for more encouraging climes.

But the fact is that Mr. Obasanjo never offered the above qualifiers, caveats, and nuances, which would have given his statement a veneer of intellectual respectability while mitigating the harshness of the responses that have greeted it. I am not suggesting that those who have offered the above reinterpretations of Mr. Obasanjo's statements and have used it as a premise to take the discussion to new, interesting territories seek to sanitize the "useless disciplines" comment. Or that they have not helped push the frontiers of this discussion. They have.

However, in introducing a largely speculative premise for Mr. Obasanjo's comments, they unwittingly lend an air of dignity to a comment so illiterate it is almost unworthy of serious attention. As others have opined, Mr. Obasanjo's statement is not a strange or isolated occurrence; indeed, it is a conception that has enjoyed a good reception in African elite circles and among the intelligentsia. So, there is really no need to try to embellish it. Let us let it stand in its crude emptiness.

No serious African intellectual or scholar will disagree with Prof. Assensoh's commentary about the need for computer literacy or with Prof. Ezekoye's argument that developmental pragmatism and our technological lag dictate that African governments invests more in the technical and scientific fields than in the social sciences and humanities. But no protocol of knowledge or discipline exists in isolation. Every form of knowledge, whether or not its benefits to society can be quantified or tangibly determined, exists within and enriches the large pool of knowledge that visionary states create to help sustain, develop, and humanize their societies.

I recall that during my undergraduate days, those of us who were humanities and social science majors were required to take a general class on science, technology, and society. The curriculum designers discerned wisely that we needed to be acquainted with the ways that the natural and applied sciences as well as technology shape, reshape, and affect our world, and how they are in turn shaped by society's evolving and shifting tastes, values, demography, and political processes. Engineering and science majors were required to take a general course in Nigerian culture, history, and politics because an engineer or scientist has to function within the constraints and parameters of human institutions, institutions which are shaped by a society's history, culture, and political organization and struggles.

Nowadays, there is a whole field of history that studies the evolution of scientific ideas, technological innovations and consensus, the impacts of technology and scientific knowledge on human history, and other related phenomena. Industrial sociologists and sociologists of technology have deepened our understanding of how scientific processes and technology-aided industrialization affect human societies, lifestyles, choices, and politics, and vice versa. The disciplines of science and technology have become better as a result of these humanistic and social-scientific interventions.

One of the biggest fallacies in today's discourse of disciplinary utility is the argument that advances crude instrumentality as the preeminent marker of relevance. At the heart of this bankrupt thinking is a numerophilic obsession-a blind, uncritical faith in the explanatory power of numbers, calculations, equations, models, graphs, and other instruments of statistical discourse. There is an assumption that human reality can be disciplined into a set of numbers and statistical expressions. Often, this assumption mirrors an intellectual laziness that is reinforced by an unwillingness to engage in the hard work of analyzing received information, including statistics and supposedly objective numerical representations; a refusal to participate in philosophical disputation through the tools of superior argumentation; and an aversion to good old academic debate. This, unfortunately, is the era of quantitative thinking; anyone who wields intimidating, even if incomprehensible and misleading, numbers is king, an infallible expert to be listened and deferred to.

Nowhere has this tendency been more exposed than in the catastrophic failures of the IMF and World Bank's statistically-animated modeling, calculations, and projections concerning African economies and these economies' responses to the so-called magic cocktail of privatization, liberalization, small government, retrenchment, reduction in government expenditure, and other orthodoxies of the Bretton Woods economic institutions. When the projections of Structural Adjustment were made, they were anchored on supposedly all-explaining statistics, numbers, models, and mathematical and econometric equations, all of which were divorced from the sociological, political, and historical realities on the ground in Africa.

One egregious and outlandish example of this naïve faith in numbers is the assumption made with the help of dubious but supposedly sacred statistic that African women produced 80 percent of African food! I have nothing against African women and I respect their toil and sacrifices, but how can such a statistic be true even by the most cursory of standards? None of the folks at the Bretton Woods and UN agencies which consume "statistical verities" on Africa questioned this fallacious, arithmetically impossible, historically untrue, and sociologically untenable statistic. Humanistic and Social scientific critiques of this and similar number games and calculations (upon which all kinds of outrageous projections were based) were dismissed by the economic experts who regard qualitative thinking as an indication of intellectual inferiority. The World Bank projections were equally critiqued with the invocation of the "human angle," the "political angle," and the "historical angle." All these non-numerical critiques were shoved aside in the haste to implement economic reform packages based on dubious statistics and numero-scientific calculations.

Look where we are today. SAPs have unraveled all over Africa with devastating consequences for African peoples. The all-knowing economists and their statistics and numbers have been confounded and embarrassed, all because they ignored the insights of historical, anthropological, and sociological knowledge, preferring to place their arrogant faith-and the fates of millions of Africans-in contrived numbers. The anthropologists and other humanistic intellectuals and experts who cautioned against hasty neoliberal reform; who called for a bottom up approach which understood and valued the social and political dynamics of African society; and who warned against ignoring the lessons of reformist projects in the past have now been vindicated.

This example is proof that epistemological arrogance is the height of myopia, and that what some forms of knowledge lack in practical or instrumental applicability they make up for in critical edge. Today, the World Bank has realized its mistakes and has changed course, albeit slightly. It now employs numerous anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, linguists, and mass communicators as analysts, program officers, and researchers. It has built a formidable humanistic think tank within its bureaucracy, which has now helped to reduce the reliance on crude, raw numbers, bringing much-needed sociological and anthro-historical perspective to the collection and use (or critique) of statistics.

This kind of disciplinary complementarity and epistemological intertwinements operate in creative tension to constitute the knowledge base of society. Such a knowledge base must necessarily be dense and rich. So, while one agrees that in terms of the allocation of limited educational funds, science and technology education should, as a matter of pragmatism, enjoy more patronage, the insinuation that the non-numerical social sciences and humanities are useless is preposterous.