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Assault on the teaching of History in Nigerian schools

By Michael Omolewa
10 February 2015   |   11:00 pm
Text of presentation made at the 2014 Conference of the History of Education Society of Nigeria held last December at the University of Ibadan  IT is an irony of history that as the nation marks this year as its first 100 years of living together as one country, it is at this very moment that…


Text of presentation made at the 2014 Conference of the History of Education Society of Nigeria held last December at the University of Ibadan 

IT is an irony of history that as the nation marks this year as its first 100 years of living together as one country, it is at this very moment that considerable concern is being expressed that History no longer exists as a core school subject in the country.

In this paper I shall attempt a study of how history teaching and learning has changed over the years from the time when it was a vibrant school subject to the time when it has become excised from the primary and secondary school curriculum and threatened at the tertiary level of education. I shall attempt to identify the circumstances that have led to the rise and decline of the study of the subject and seek to understand the factors that had given rise to the removal of the subject as a core subject in the school curriculum. I shall then draw some attention to the campaign for the restoration of teaching of history following the replacement of History (and Geography) with the brew known as ‘Social Studies’ and conclude with the repeating of the call being made by people from all walks of life for the restoration of history. 

  The study is also an exploratory attempt to identify the friends and enemies of the teaching of the subject. Thus we shall take note of the colonial authorities who encouraged the teaching of history at the primary and secondary schools and could be considered as friends while at the same time merely carrying out the colonial agenda of indoctrinating the young Africans through the kind of history that was being taught. At the same time we are drawing attention to some of the enemies that later supervised the removal of the teaching of history who may have been pressurised for whatever reason to act in the way and manner which they acted. In either case there will be the need to further identify those who were leading the attack against the teaching of the subject, the phases of the enemy attack against the subject, and the issues in contention and the outcome.

The utility of history as foundation for its teaching

Perhaps we should begin our discourse by drawing attention to the universal status of history teaching and learning and state that there has never been any controversy about the value of history for nation building or the development of an individual, his society or larger community. In the United Kingdom, for example, the teaching and learning of history had given tremendous pleasure to the likes of A.L.Rowse who declared that he had written the Teach Yourself History series “in the conviction that there can be no subject of study more important than history”[1] The appreciation of the status of history has also been shown in the observation by the Nigerian elder statesman, Nwafor Orizu, who asserted as far back as 1944 in his book titled ‘Without Bitterness’ that “Unless we know what we are and how we came about to be what we are, we shall certainly be unable to know where and how to go further” [2].  Professor Alice Jekayinfa, President of the History of Education Society of Nigeria, observes, “History as a discipline has been relegated in Nigeria whereas the discipline is the bedrock of any nation” [3]. She adds that History instils patriotism and nationalism in the minds of citizens of any nation [4]. 

    In a similar manner, Sir Sidney Philipson, a British administrator  and Chief Simeon Adebo, a seasoned Nigerian civil servant,  claimed in 1954 that “Every situation has its roots in the past and the past survives in the present; the present is indeed the past undergoing modification” [5]. We should add, as Andrew Caspari has done, that “by recognising what we hold in common we can begin to live in peace. We can all recognise our relationship to each other and to the past” [6]

  The assertions of Robin Walker further emphasises the importance of history. As he puts it, “History is a vast umbrella subject. It encompasses all disciplines, not just political and cultural history. It therefore includes literature, religion, the social and natural sciences, the arts, technology, and mathematics. To be ignorant of the political and cultural history of a people is also to be ignorant of the contributions of that people to all areas of intellectual activity” [7].  The importance of history has also been further demonstrated in the statement that without knowledge and keeping historical events and issues, there will be nothing to build on. History is the foundation of all things; everything has a history and knowledge is built always on examples of one past event or another, it is thus a reference point. The Holy Bible asserts that there is nothing new under heaven. It is therefore important to know the foundation of what is built as a guide to subsequent developments.

  This universal appreciation of history as a basic tool for development was shared by the African indigenous society which gave prominence to history learning and teaching. Thus professional historians such as the ‘griots’, and court historians occupied a special and widely recognised position in the society where they served as “educators of the public” [8].  J F Ade Ajayi observes that society ‘looked up to history for knowledge of the accumulated wisdom of the ancestors, the sense of values, the morality and the norms upon which society was founded’ [9]. Thus history occupied a unique position in traditional African society and that history was prominent as a subject in the preparation and training of the citizen. He adds that “historical information was imparted privately by parents, grandparents, heads of lineages, and others from the level of the nuclear family to the largest lineage group [10]. 

History teaching at the advent of Western Education and Colonial Rule

When the first schools were founded in Nigeria, by Christian missionaries, the traditional status of history as an important subject was retained and the teaching of history continued to be given adequate space in learning and teaching. However the content of history teaching was transformed. The Bible was an attractive source of history teaching in mission schools. The Holy Book had several historical accounts of creation and the wave of migrations of the people of Israel, called by God as His chosen people and the concept of history was also familiar to the Christian population. During the colonial period, the Education Ordinance made provision for the study of history, albeit English history. 

  The early educated elite challenged the absence of the study of African history in school curriculum. Thus, Samuel Johnson who later wrote the History of the Yoruba was not pleased by the arrangement in which ‘educated natives of Yoruba are well acquainted with the history of England and with the history of Rome and Greece but of the history of their own country they knew nothing whatsoever’ [11]. For that reason he wrote the seminal work on the History of Yoruba.

  The colonial officials however ensured that history was given ample time on the school Timetable. The subject was among those selected for examination by the British Examination boards that were invited to assess secondary school performance in Nigeria: the University of London from 1887, Cambridge University from 1910 and Oxford University from 1929. Examination questions were aimed to examine the student’s ability to explain policies, discuss events, describe major reforms, compare personalities, and identify major problems confronting leaders and countries and thus assist the learners acquire critical spirit. For example, the University of London Matriculation examinations for January 1890 included the following questions:

Was Mary Queen of scots justly or unjustly put to death? Give reasons for your opinion

What were the questions at issue between Charles 1 and his people which brought on the Civil War of 1642-1647?

   The University of London Intermediate degree in arts examinations for July 1948, attempted by Josiah Iyalla, candidate no 2865, Jonathan Iluyomade, candidate no 2862 and Jacob Ajayi candidate no 2840 also included the following questions:

The real turning-point in English history is not the accession of Henry VII, but the fall of Wolsey” Discuss this opinion

What success was achieved by Bismarck in his handling of the internal problems of Germany after 1870? [12]

   There were of course some cosmetic changes in the history syllabus but the broad outline of what was to be studied remained. For example when the Principal of the Government College, Umuahia, pleaded that the history syllabus for secondary and middle schools should go beyond the death of Queen Victoria, he explained that he was not proposing any significant modification in the course. As he put it:

   In respect of the two final years devoted to the British Empire, 1485-1901, I feel that, unless it is considered politically unwise to introduce our senior forms to knowledge of present day conditions, it is a mistake to stop history with the death of Queen Victoria. I must confess also, as an ardent belever (sic) in the League of Nations and of some form of International unity as the only chances of the continued existence of our present Order of Civilisation, to a deep dismay at being asked to confine historical instruction in the two final years of the middle School Course to the British Empire [13].

There was however little passion for the teaching of history especially as European teachers complained that African students found the subjects remote. As one of the teachers put it:

Boys…found it difficult to appreciate the character of Columbus, and how his personality affected his plans and achievements. ‘Obstinacy’, ‘over-confidence’, ‘a dreamer rather than a practical man’ were expressions from their textbooks new to their experience [14]

    It will be recalled that at the heyday of colonial rule there was little that the African did that was valued by the colonial masters. Thus the energy invested into learning the history of the occupying power was not appreciated. There was however a history teacher at King’s College, Lagos, who was reported by his student, Anthony Enahoro, as having whetted his ‘already keen appetite’ for politics by his teaching. As Enahoro puts it: “Our History mater, for reasons best known to him, decided to teach as if he was preparing us for political career rather than for examinations” [15]. Such was the influence and power of history in inculcating basic values of patriotism, inquisitiveness, courage and determination to pursue a chosen course of action.

Independence, the National Policy and the Aftermath of the Introduction of the 6-3-3-4 Educational System

History remained a favourite subject on the school curriculum at Independence in Nigeria. The Department of History, first of the University College, Ibadan and later of the University of Ibadan,   began to review the school curriculum to introduce aspects of Nigerian and African History. Working with the newly inaugurated West African Examinations Council, the Department also began to influence the school curriculum and introduce massive dosage of Nigerian and African history. The status of history as a school subject was not called into question. History as a subject also featured prominently at the Higher School Certificate (HSC) programme which sought to prepare students for admission to the universities. Thus by 1966, History was among the most favoured subjects at the HSC examinations, and in which the candidates excelled. While the ‘Principal Passes’ in English was 244, Latin 3, Geography 269, Mathematics 88 and French 19, History recorded 414 Principal passes, next only to Chemistry which had 601 Principal Passes. But even then while Chemistry had 307 failures, History and only 22 Failures while Mathematics had 57 Failures [16].  We should add that curriculum review was also done at the University level as the University of Ibadan developed a unique curriculum with emphasis on Nigerian and African history [17].

    However the course of the teaching of history was to be adversely affected by the events which followed the convening of the 1969 National Curriculum Conference, followed by the adoption of   a National Policy of Education, and the subsequent arrival of the 6-3-3-4 Education system [18]. The 1969 Conference which was expected to bring hope to the Nigerian educational system turned out to be the beginning of the decline of history teaching in Nigerian schools. In the end the curriculum reform which grew from that conference led to the reduction of the status of history. Eventually, history was expunged first from the primary and the junior school curriculum, and later at the senior school level.

The question that may be asked is how did this significant change happen? How could history be so conveniently expunged? Were the historians, including the history teachers at all levels of the educational system, the amateur and professional historians, so careless that they did not follow the events that were unfolding at the time and were they sleeping or simply caught unawares? What was the role of the general public to these developments? 

    It must be noted that many people were already consumed by the frequent changes taking place in the country at the time. Many were indeed clueless and unaware and did not really appreciate what was being done; while some were indifferent and not involved, and some were not willing to address the subject. Henry Carr spoke of the danger of indifference. At a speech, which he delivered on 9 Nov 1920 at the dinner given by the Reform Club of Lagos for members of the Phelps-Stokes Education Commission, Henry Carr spoke about what he described as “Hindrances to speaking the truth”: 

These hindrances are of a three-fold character. The first is that one fails to speak the truth, if one does not know it, and yet pretends to speak it; the second is that one fails, if one knows the truth, and does not wish to speak it; and the third and last is that one fails if one knows the truth, but does not know how to speak it. [19].

   The historic assault on history teaching can be traced to the assumptions of the American trained educators, the impact of the United States – assisted Ohio Project, the Ayetoro Project, the subsequent influence of the Comparative Education Studies and Adaptation Centre (CESAC),   and the contribution of the Nigerian Educational Research Council (NERC). All of these institutions, and programmes, supported by the increasingly powerful bureaucracy which emerged with the coming of military dictatorship led to the gradual exit of history from school curriculum. There is also the need to add the input of some powerful forces that were able to influence curriculum development either directly or by proxy. Historical scholarship will benefit from a further exploration of the impact that has been made by the seemingly faceless lobbyists and bureaucrats who may have been uncomfortable about the trend of knowledge availability about the course of the history of the nation and were resolved to put an end to the teaching of the subject.

   The new Curriculum saw the Introduction of the social studies and gradual elimination of history at the primary schools and the junior secondary schools. It eventually led to what Adeyinka describes as the “cramming into the second-tier Senior Secondary School of a history curriculum that ought to take six years to teach” [20]. Eventually the senior secondary schools were also affected.

    Nnadozie who does not share the argument that it was the introduction of social studies that led to the demise of history, has asked the pungent question: “If social Studies and History have different educational goals to achieve, why should history give way for social studies in the lower forms of secondary education?”[21]. It should be noted that the move for the excision of history had continued in spite of the provision in the National Policy on Education which provided for the teaching of history, stating that “ At the Senior Secondary School, there should be no social studies but Literature in English, History and Geography” [22]. The argument for the teaching of history is interesting since it is bound to involve references to the philosophy and the nature and essence of history on the one hand, as well as those of social studies on the other hand.

    One would not have suspected that the Curriculum Conference could have led to the elimination of history from school curriculum. For the convening of the Conference and the deliberations which led to the National Policy were being carried out at the time there was considerable respect for history and historians. For example, it was at this time that the Federal Government began to show considerable interest in the writing of the history of the Nigerian crisis including the civil war of 1967 to 1970, an aspect of Nigerian history. Thus the Federal Ministry of Information constituted the Commission on the History of Nigerian Crisis and appointed Professor J F Ade Ajayi, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos as chairman. Ahmed Joda, a very knowledgeable and influential civil servant and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Information located at the Independence Building Lagos, was a powerful supporter of the history project.

   This was also the period during which the Federal and State governments appointed frontline historians such as J F Ade Ajayi, E. A. Ayandele, Tekena Tamuno, Remi Adeleye, J.A.Atanda and others Vice-Chancellors, Ministers, commissioners, Board members and advisers. [23] The American professor Terence Ranger of the African Studies Center of the University of California in Los Angeles in his letter of 9 January 1973 to Professor complained that “one watches good historians being seduced into administration”. History had also found relevance globally at the international African Institute, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and the Africans Studies Centres. 

    At home in Nigeria, Professor Ade Ajayi sent in December 1972 to the National Census Office, copy of the publication “Population Census of Nigeria: List of Historical Events” following which “a short training scheme for the updating of the Historical Events were organised at the University of Ife and Ahmadu Bello University in 1973.The Nigerian National Museum Society, Jos, invited Prof Ajayi as Guest speaker at their anniversary meeting of 5 February 1973[24]. To confirm the continued appreciation of the role of history and historians, the Omo-Tako Descendants Union sent a manuscript entitled “The Orimolusi Chieftaincy: Its Origins and Evolution” to Professor Ajayi on 2 January 1972 as Professor of History for “criticism, correction and addition as you may find necessary” [25]. 

     It was evident that the demands on the historians to share their views with the general public were heavy to the extent that Professor  Ajayi  had to decline on 2 January 1973 the invitation from the Rev N.E. Ade Osisanya, the Principal of Ijebu Ode Grammar School, to give a Jubilee Lecture” [26]. Thus while some members of the public continued to appreciate the contribution of history to national and societal development and to enjoy historical essays and writings, some were also working at the background undermining the status of the subject.

There were also many people in the public that continued to show an intense interest in the writing of history. One of these was E.A.Dahunsi of the Bible Society of Nigeria, in Ogbomoso. In his letter to Professor J F Ade Ajayi of the Department of History, at the University of Ibadan on 7 April 1971, observed that:

Some years ago I wrote to you on the date of founding of the Baptist academy, Lagos on which you and other historian had quoted deferring dates. After the necessary research by Dr Ayandele, you indicated that the correct date was 1886 without indicating the source. This date is indeed correct. I have come to know two original sources; Samuel Harden in an address reproduce in the Yoruba Baptist year Book, 1915 and the Lagos observer, 1886.  [I have read the former account but not yet the latter] [27].

Dahunsi further added:

In background to the Names of Roads and Halls of the University of Ibadan by Dr Adewoye, the death of Atiba is implied to be 1858. This is probably erroneous. Atiba died on April 19, 1859 [Reid papers, according to Roberson]. R.H. Stone supports the 1859 date. Though stone is surprisingly lacking in historical dates in his book IN AFRICAS FOREST and Jungle, he says that the Alaafin died about the middle of his first year at Orile Ijaye [28].      

It should also be submitted that in spite of, or perhaps more appropriately because of,  the continued respect for history and historians, the powerful forces that were steadily keeping the study of history out of the reach of Nigerians, did not relent in their efforts. Thus history as a subject began to face a decline at the very height of its glory. Some of the brightest historians and the respected elders such as Ebiegberi Alagoa began to retire, Paul Mbaeyi, Kenneth Dike, and Adiele Afigbo died dedicated scholars and academics such as the veteran editor of the Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Tunji Oloruntimehin continued to watch as their subject began to face a decline. 

    It is important to note that in recent times, the younger and more vibrant historians have constituted themselves to a new outfit, the Organization for Historical Research and have launched a new offensive at saving the subject from complete annihilation in the educational system. The History of Education Society of Nigeria has also emerged to join, among other objectives, in the crusade for the revival of history teaching at all levels of education in the country. 

Towards a conclusion

There can perhaps be no conclusion at the moment as the battle continues to rage for the survival of history that has declined in status in the schools and the tertiary institutions. One can make the point that there is no doubt that considerable damage has been done to the Nigerian nation by the elimination of the study of history in schools. For example, the very action of the elimination of history from school curriculum has dwarfed the study of the subject in Nigerian schools. First the elimination sounds like a vote of no-confidence in the subject by those in authority and that very act was unlikely to be helpful to the promotion of the subject. There is also the fact of the natural reluctance of students to take up something entirely new at a later stage of their study. Thus the initial enthusiasm for its study at the tertiary levels has waned. Thus there are now fewer students willing to study the subject that had dramatically disappeared from the school curriculum. Today, few universities still have a dedicated Department of History, having amalgamated History with Strategic Studies, International Studies or Diplomatic Studies, partly due to Nigeria’s preference for style over substance, and partly to make the subject attractive to young undergraduates and thus address their career prospects.

  It seems that one way forward is to challenge the arguments of the American trained educators that the country would be better off under the introduction of social studies and civics education than under history. Already, Jekayinfa notes that

Nobody can school in the United States of America or Europe without having cause to study one thing or the other about their history. It is just not possible. One would either learn about the role of George Washington, the story of the civil war or the declaration speech. They will be proud to talk about John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and other great leaders of the USA because of their epoch making and heroic contributions to nation building [29].

It is also important to heed the warning of respected Nigerians such as Professor J F Ade Ajayi and important professional bodies such as the Historical Society of Nigeria about the danger of expunging history from the bringing up of the Nigerian youths. There are convincing arguments about the continued relevance and use of History in nation building and development. Ade Ajayi has made his position on this development entirely clear. At the tribute he paid to K. O. Dike on behalf of the Historical Society of Nigeria in October 1983, he drew attention to the danger posed by the absence of historical consciousness in Nigerian society: 

We have so little consciousness of a time perspective. We act and react as if there is only today, no yesterday, no tomorrow. We seem to care a little about the past, we have no enduring heroes and we respect no precedents. Not surprisingly, we hardly ever consider what kind of a future we are building for our children and our children’s children. We lack statesmen with any sense of history. Politics of the moment dominates our life, leaving no room for evaluating achievement or appreciating merit [30].

He also adds that the nation suffers with no sense of history. Its values remain superficial and ephemeral unless imbued with a deep sense of continuity and a perception of success and achievement that transcends acquisition of temporary power or transient wealth. Such a nation cannot achieve a sense of purpose or direction or stability, and without them the future is bleak.”[31]

     It is also imperative that the country’s historians should refuse to give up the just fight for the restoration of history in the school curriculum or be stagnant as stagnation would be suicidal. In a similar way, to give up fighting the just cause of the restoration of history to school curriculum would be humiliating. Jekayinfa has echoed the requests from institutions and individuals including the Historical Society of Nigeria that history be brought back to the schools, and that should be the fifth option that should be pursued by government and people of the country. As she forcefully argues, “in order for development to take place, there is an urgent need to imbue Nigerians with an enduring sense of History” [32].

      Historians and those who share their vision must avoid being irritated, disappointed or forsaken or be tempted to fight back perceived adversaries. Rather it is wise to continue to the continued relevance of the subject as demonstrated by Professor J F Ade Ajayi who worked with Peter Pugh on the history of the West African Portland Cement Company, titled Cementing a Partnership: the Story of WAPCO, 1960-1990; and wrote the History of the Nigerian Society of Engineers in addition to the completion of the biography of Samuel Ajayi Crowther after whom a University has been named. Similarly Professor Tekena Tamuno had attracted the Nigeria Since Independence History project and assembled Professors Atanda, Oloruntimehin, Omolewa, Osuntokun, Olusanya and others to join him explore the subject of the first twenty five years of Nigeria since Independence from the historical perspective. 

   A further step to take would be to continue to improve the quality of historical research, and review historical interpretations. For example it would be interesting to have a fresh look at some of the past issues that have generated considerable controversy. One of such issues is the impact of the amalgamation of Nigeria on the development of the nation. For example E.A. Ayandele, a respected historian has observed that Nigeria since Independence has produced politicians and not statesmen that are interested in assuring fairness and equity among Nigerians. He has thus drawn attention to the statement in 1947 at the Legislative Council by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, an indigene of Bauchi who became the first Prime Minister of Nigeria:

Since the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Provinces in 1914 Nigeria has existed as one country only on paper…We would like the world to know that in the Northern Provinces we have got our own leaders whom we have chosen ourselves, to be our rulers and voices. We do not want, Sir, our Southern neighbours to interfere in our development. If the Southern people feel they are representatives for what they are agitating for and demanding, well they must know that the case of the Northern Provinces is different…but I should like to make it clear that if the British quitted(sic) Nigeria now at this stage the Northern people would continue their interrupted conquest to the sea [33]

The extent to which the nation has been able to live together as one country should thus be of interest to historians. There are also topics that are crying for attention and able to generate historical research. For example the history of private institutions in Africa should be exciting especially as private universities preceded government intervention as demonstrated by the story of Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone, the first university of West Africa which was privately owned. Such studies may end up giving information on issues such as the strengths of private investment in education in terms of cost and efficiency. The study of history will also be able to explain why and how the society has degenerated to the extent that Nigerians exploit the cultural, ethnic, religious and other differences in the nation rather than celebrate the diversities. Historians may also consider the need to consider writing biographies of the past heroes have never got the recognition which they deserve.

• Michael Omolewa, Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), is Emeritus Professor of the History of Education at the University of Ibadan, and Emeritus Professor of History at Babcock University. He has served as Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Ibadan and former Chairman of the Committee of Deans of Education of Nigerian Universities. He is Life Patron of the History of Education Society of Nigeria