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Nigeria’s unending vilification of history in schools

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To date, controversy still surrounds the Federal Government’s decision to remove history from the country’s basic education curriculum in 2007, even when it was scarcely taught as a core subject, but predominantly buried amongst social studies lessons.

The removal, which became effective from the 2009/2010 academic session was premised on students shunning the subject, thinning job prospects for history graduates, and dearth of history teachers.

Not only has the subject’s removal widened the generational gap on students’ mental development, it has also disrupted the delicate process of nation building as taught by world history.

According to historians and educational experts, including Dr. Samaila Suleiman, of the Department of History, Bayero University, Kano, ever since the birth of history as an intellectual pursuit in the classical Greco-Roman tradition, it has encountered and endured manifold epistemological and social challenges. It has survived the naturalism of the scientific revolution; the cultural arrogance of the Enlightenment period, the nihilism of Postmodernism, and the bellicosities of Neo-liberal ahistoricism … In neo-liberal thinking, the value of knowledge is measured in terms of tangible deliverables. This is the governing philosophy of capitalist consumerism. With the ascendancy of science and technology as the only reliable ventures that could guarantee material prosperity, history and other associated disciplines are treated as “endangered species.”

Return Of History To Schools’ Curriculum
AFTER a decade’s hiatus from schools across the country, indications first emerged in May 2016 that the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government was taking steps to restore history as a subject in primary and secondary schools’ curriculum.

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Education Minister, Adamu Adamu, gave the first hint while responding to criticisms that trailed the removal of history studies from primary and secondary schools’ curriculum.

“Somebody, who doesn’t know his history is even worse than dead. So, this government is going to bring back history,” Adamu said when he appeared on the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) Forum, in Abuja, adding, “it would even be better if we study local history first. You have to know who you are before you can be anything in this world … I believe this government is going to return history to the curriculum,” he added.

Three years later, the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Mr. Sonny Echono, in June 2019, said that the Federal Government had directed all basic and secondary schools across the country to immediately implement the teaching of history as a standalone subject from the 2020/2021 session. This, however, is yet to be fully complied with.

Before making the pronouncement, Echono had earlier informed that the return of history to schools’ curriculum would be preceded by the training of all primary school teachers to deliver digital literacy.

“By the next academic calendar, history will be taught as a standalone subject… It is with immediate implementation. So, definitely for the next academic year, everybody will fall in line because we have already articulated the curriculum and the examination should be done along those lines,” he said.

Even before the ministry made all these plans public, the Nigeria Education Research and Development Council (NERDC) had, in 2017, announced that it was set to reintroduce history as a subject, beginning from the 2018/2019 academic session. This also never came to pass.

The NERDC Executive Secretary, Prof. Ismail Junaidu, who made the disclosure, informed that the curriculum was ready and would be a standalone curriculum that would be taught from primary one to JSS III, after the National Council on Education (NCE) had approved the reintroduction of the subject.

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The executive secretary, who said the NERDC had forwarded a sample of the new curriculum for history to the states to give them ample time to plan ahead of its implementation added that, “all states are expected to be sensitised and teachers trained on how to use the curriculum before the implementation can begin. We need to give the states ample time to put their houses in order before we start implementing the curriculum,” Junaidu had said.

Not a few were over-joyed over the planned return of history to schools. “It is a welcome development, which should be applauded. A country without a sense of history is a soulless country. It could safely be said that many of the challenges facing state and nation-building efforts in Nigeria are as a result of the neglect of history,” was how a professor of Legal History at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Dr. Akin Alao, expressed his delight at the development then.

He added: “History of inter-group relations in Nigeria has confirmed the extent of interactions among Nigerian ethnic groups, or nationalities long before the imposition of colonial rule. It would have been the duty of history as a subject in schools, to bring these truths to young Nigerians to influence their understanding of life and what roles they could play in cementing the relationship among groups. It would also have meant that young impressionable Nigerians very early in life develop positive self-concept and awareness that would be the basis for the emergence of an identity that will be truly national and well-conceived.

“History has values in developing the mind and there is no discipline without its own history, including medicine. What is required is the acquisition of the techniques of history. For example, a lawyer has to know, understand and consider the two sides of a coin to make a good case. A medical doctor needs the history of the patient and the ailment before he can have a successful diagnosis. An architect must have a sense of history to know what designs will meet specific needs. An administrator must be very familiar with the history of the people before he can administer successfully.”

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President Buhari’s Career Talk As A Dampener

Released students gather at the Government House with other students from the Government Science Secondary school, in Kankara, in northwestern Katsina State, Nigeria upon their release on December 18, 2020. (Photo by Kola SULAIMON / AFP)

ON December 17, 2020, President Buhari while addressing the 344 schoolboys of Government Boys Science Secondary School, Kankara, who were freed by their abductors after six days in captivity, stirred the hornets’ nest with a career talk, which many consider highly dispiriting.

After admonishing and dishing out what many consider as words of encouragement to the traumatised children, the president suddenly veered off into a dangerous lane, which many still consider shocking, especially coming from a nation’s leader.

Without recourse to the professional value of history, Buhari spoke glowingly about the futility of historical studies, compared to the schoolchildren’s chosen field of science, which he described as the bedrock of civilisational progress.

Said Buhari: “You children are very lucky. I am appealing to you to be very careful. Your success in future depends not on subjects like history or English, but science and technology because those are the category of people that are likely to stand a better chance of being employed in future. Therefore, you should, as much as possible, try to put this incident behind you, and face your studies to the best of your abilities.”

Many, especially educationists see the president’s career talk as a veiled attempt by him to commonise history as a subject, as well as an attempt to mislead unsuspecting pupils and their parents to think that they would only be successful if they ignore arts and pitch tent with the sciences.

As perplexing and bewildering as the president’s position appears, matters are made more complex when the reality is juxatopsed with Buhari’s shocking worldview, especially considering the fact that historians, have done well in the past, and some of them are still pulling their weight wherever they have served. Indeed, one of such, a first-class history graduate from Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, is the man who validated Buhari’s electoral victory in the 2019 general election, and a man who is the first to be reappointed as the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Yakubu had also excelled in office as a one-time executive secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund).

Taking a cursory look at the treatment of history in contemporary Nigeria, Dr. Suleiman, in an earlier article titled, “President Buhari, Kankara Boys and the Imperatives of History,” regretted that: “In postcolonial Nigeria, history, which should serve as the moral compass of the nation, has become a national liability. Those who choose this career path are doomed as less fortunate among their peers in the pure and, even, social sciences. This is the neo-liberal thinking that undergirds President Buhari’s needless admonition to the Kankara boys. As students of science, there was no need for the president to give them any career lesson on the “uselessness” of historical studies.”

He added: “One of the tragic cultural assaults committed against Nigeria is in denying Nigerians the opportunity to learn and appreciate the rich cultures and histories of the different ethnic groups that constitute the nation. Nigeria is gasping for air in the wake of the endemic crisis of nationhood and the poverty of historical consciousness, but President Buhari thinks that historians are liabilities to the nation. Nigeria needs more historians today more than ever before! What the country requires is a heavy investment in cultural engineering in order to create a shared narrative of unity that values and celebrates diversity as a national treasure.

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“What President Buhari told the Kankara schoolboys is capable of not only worsening the public misconception about the utility of history, but also emasculating the current drive towards the restoration of history at the basic education level and its disarticulation from the social studies curriculum. Historians, under the auspices of the Historical Society of Nigeria, have come along way in convincing the government to reinstate the teaching of History in Nigerian schools,” he stated.

Asked to shed light on the implications of undervaluing the importance of history, which Buhari’s career lesson clinically does, Suleiman, who is the Deputy Director, Aminu Kano Centre for Democratic Studies, Mambayya House, told The Guardian in an interview: “I think the president’s career lesson was unfortunate in a country that has stopped teaching history at foundational levels of its education. Although some have argued that the president was not qualified to comment on the value of history, I think we have every right to be concerned about negative repercussions of his vote of no confidence in history. He is the, at least, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, wielding excessive executive powers.”

On how confusing Buhari’s viewpoint on history was, especially coming from a leader, whose government recently approved the return of historical studies to primary and secondary schools, Suleiman said: “It was entirely needless and counterproductive for the president to make such a statement in the first place. What he said could undermine the current drive towards the restoration of history in the first nine years of the country’s education system. His stance on history could further denigrate the status of history and worsen the public misconception about the utility of history. However, I commend the administration for approving the return of history to Nigerian schools. Unfortunately, the teaching of history is yet to return to schools as school authorities are unnecessarily dragging their feet over the implementation of this important policy directive.”

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Historians’ Contribution To Governance, National Development
OVER the years, some well-placed members of the society, including political leaders have, by their actions and inaction, tried to underplay the importance of history and historians in the polity, even to the point of carrying about as though both are of no consequence to the country’s existence, and development.

Indeed, while leaders from other climes see the discipline as the bedrock of their nation, their peers in contemporary Nigeria have succeeded in relegating history to the background, paying scant heed to its importance in nation building, individual or societal development. Historians are not faring better as they are discountenanced in major decision-making.

Among those that have been drawing attention to the sterling role that historians have played in national development is Emeritus Professor of History, University of Ibadan, and Babcock University, Michael Omolewa.

“Historians have proved that their training in history has helped them understand governance and any other aspect of livelihood. Governments of the past have rewarded historians with positions in critical areas of administration, including the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, and the offices of vice-chancellors where historians occupied those at the universities of Lagos, Ibadan, Calabar, Jos, and so on,” he told The Guardian.

In the view of Dr. Suleiman: “Historical knowledge is a sine qua non for national development, as nations are products of their own history. History is the cornerstone of patriotic citizenship, and any nation that refuses to come to terms with its history is bound to repeat the follies of its predecessors. This is why Nigeria is moving in circles, or stuck in a tragic trajectory that has hamstrung her developmental efforts. The protracted absence of history at foundational levels, where the values of patriotism and national ideology are primarily inculcated in the young ones, amounted to a major institutional and cultural assault on the spine, which deprives young Nigerians of the opportunity to learn their country’s history, resulting in the emergence of a generation of Nigerians, which do not appreciate the importance of history to national integration and development.

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“The suspension of historical instruction in Nigerian schools has had profound negative repercussions on the teaching of history at the university level by cutting the supply of candidates to the universities. It also created a wide epistemological vacuum in Nigerian history, thereby inducing all sorts of divisive discourses – the use and abuse of history for ethnocentric, religious, regional, sectional and personal aggrandisement. Indeed, the Nigerian state has lost control as the official custodian of history.”

Without empirical observation, the uninformed may be tempted to believe that historians have not paid their dues, or contributed substantially to national development. But in putting things in perspective, Suleiman said: “I am glad that you acknowledged the fact that the notion that ‘historians have not paid their dues or contributed to national development’ is a view of the uninformed. The role that history and historians played in the emergence and development of Nigeria, as a nation, is well documented. During the struggles for independence, historians were in the forefront of decolonisation. They challenged the views of the colonial establishment about Nigerian history and advocated for self-rule.

“History offered the ideological validation for decolonisation. The National Archives, National Museums and the Historical Society of Nigeria were all founded through the efforts of historians such as, Professor Kenneth Dike. In the decolonisation project, the stakeholders of the Nigerian history project were committed to, and convinced about the utility of such ventures in the making of the new nation. The government provided the institutional support for the making of a national history, by establishing and funding museums, archives, universities, and research projects. The Historical Society of Nigeria was the first association of academics in the country. The association’s national conferences and academic publications have consistently focused on themes of nation building and national development. Even today, there are many historians who are contributing their quota to national development in different sectors of the economy. Therefore, Nigerian historians have paid their dues in the evolution of the Nigeria as a nation state. But history has been used and dumped by the state.”

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On how injurious attempts to commonise history as a subject could be to national development, and the consequences such could have on the upcoming generations, educational and leadership consultant, Toyin Sam-Emehelu said: “It will make the upcoming generation unpatriotic as they wouldn’t have any sense of attachment to their roots, hence underdevelopment will be the end result, especially as productive members of the nation would prefer to migrate to find greener pastures, as opposed to staying behind to contribute their quota to nation building.

“Also, children would have little or no ideas about the contributions of different historic personalities to the development of the nation, hence they may not see the need to take on the challenge of providing a better society for upcoming generations.”

Asked to proffer ways that educators could dispel harmful narratives that tend to suggest that humanities are waning in importance in contemporary Nigeria, Mrs. Sam-Emehelu, who is also the chief executive of Coreskills Developmental Services said: “Explaining the purpose and need of studying history is quite important as it enables students to learn the subject efficiently, just as it helps to dispel negative narratives. However, a greater responsibility lies on the shoulders of teachers to make the lessons more interactive and interesting. Only then can the students appreciate the purpose of the subject, and study its concepts with greater interest.”

Her views align with that of Omolewa, who is of the belief that the clear cases of failed states; the disruptions in societies, and incessant anti-social behaviours demonstrate the possible lapses in the growth of societies, where the humanities are sacrificed for studies in the sciences.”

Maintaining that “science alone can not save peoples and civilisations,” Omolewa in stressing the benefits of teaching and learning history in schools said: “The knowledge of the past, which is a prelude to the future is helpful to understand the present, and therefore assist in planning for the future.

“Adamu Fika who was once the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), said at the annual luncheon of the Barewa Old Boys Association, in Kaduna in 2011 that, ‘a large part of the problem confronting Nigeria in general is the result of an unpardonable ignorance of the past and an unjustifiable and unwarranted aversion to all the lessons and benefits the past has to offer,” he said.

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Insisting that “it was criminal, pathetic and tragic for history to be removed from schools’ curriculum at any time,” the emeritus professor, however, thinks that “we should commend the administration that returned the subject to the schools’ curriculum, where it has been since the coming of Western education in the 19th century.”

But are there dire consequences that await the country should it continue to treat history with kid gloves or neglect it as a course in schools, Omolewa responded in the affirmative. “Yes, of course, the process of nation building would be disrupted as world history has taught us.”

How To Spur Students’ Interest In History
ONE of the reasons advanced by the Federal Government for scrapping history was thinning job prospects for history graduates, and the dearth of history teachers. Asked whether parents and guardians should begin to amplify to their children and wards, the need to look elsewhere in order not to languish in the labour market years after graduation, Omolewa said: “Like many other subjects, there is paucity of job opportunities for history graduates. So, universities now encourage students to go entrepreneurial, and if possible, create their own jobs. The era of jobs waiting for certificates is over globally.”

But Suleiman has a different view regarding how disadvantaged or not that graduates of history are regarding jobs’ prospects.

He said: “There is a general feeling among the public that historians have no job prospects. However, this is a perception, and not always correct. There are many job opportunities for historians in both public and private sectors, and I know a lot of historians who are doing great in their various workplaces. Employers of labour value the skills and competencies that students of history acquire in the course of their study, including research and writing skills; data collection and analysis; critical thinking skill, among others. Historians can provide consultancies for institutions and individuals. I am currently serving as history consultant on the Medical History Committee of the Nigerian Medical Association, among other biographical projects on eminent Nigerians such as, His Excellency, Sule Lamido, and Ciroman Minna.”

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Be that as it may, apart from Nigerians having a proper sense of history of their origin, the learning of history, he added, “brings special benefits as products are able to understand and therefore appreciate the issues of nation building and the resolution of conflicts, among others.

“History is an important discipline upon which all other disciplines derive regular epistemological nourishment. It provides insights and instructions on human experience, that other subjects like social studies and civic education cannot offer. The utility of history goes beyond simply learning about people’s origins. When we study history, we learn to appreciate and tolerate our differences. History is important for both individual and communal identity. It is vital for cultural resource management and economic development by extension. Historical tourism, where tourists travel to explore the history and heritage of a place, is an important source of revenue in many countries. Alas, Nigeria’s disdain for history is responsible for the neglect and dismal performance of the country’s heritage economy,” Suleiman said.

“We live in a world where history is constantly threatened by neo-liberal forces seeking to dethrone society in favour of capitalist corporatism. History would survive this onslaught as it did other existential threats in the past. The government, as the primary custodian of history, should endeavour to prioritise historical studies. When the government values the teaching of history, I think the public will follow suit.

Michael Omolewa

“The Federal Government should match words with actions to ensure that history teaching does not only return to our schools, but also ensure that it is made compulsory at all levels of learning. This is important for citizenship education and our drive towards national integration and unity,” the university teacher stressed.

In recommending ways of getting students to embrace history as a subject considering its importance to the society, Mrs. Sam-Emehelu said: “History in itself is a very essential tool for learning about the past, children are always learning stories either from books, movies, podcasts, or music about the people and events that took place before they were born. The most interesting things that happen when children learn from the past is that they are able to improve the world, which they have inherited. It’s no news that innovation is a norm with children who have a peep into the past.

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“So, I would implore the government to make new policies that would rejig the teaching, and learning of history in our schools, especially from the elementary years.

“Second, since children learn more through experiential learning, excursions and field trips, historical monuments, venues, documentaries should be renovated and updated. Secondary school students would, most especially, benefit from such initiative, as this will help them to know more about their cultural heritage.

“Third, the government can encourage tertiary students who are studying history with interstate and international travels as this will boost the tourism sector if well channelled through entrepreneurship, and bespoke support through internship, and provision of job opportunities,” she said.

On how to make history interesting to pupils, especially since it was also scrapped as a result of lack of interest by pupils, the educational consultant who said that history gives children the opportunity to emulate great personalities, whose contributions have benefitted mankind, said that a number of factors must be taken considered.

“To make history attractive and interesting to pupils, history teachers and facilitators should focus on broad concepts and themes, and not dates and periods only; subject should also be made active through drama and role plays, while the scheme of work should be designed to cover what matters, or relevant not necessarily the whole content.

“Technology can also be infused in the teaching and Learning of history through virtual reality equipment, use of quick response (QR) codes and the likes, while movements and dance can also be integrated to appeal to kinesthetic learners. The use of collaborative discussion strategy is also one of the ways that children can be encouraged to fall in love with history once again.

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“Furthermore, bringing in primary sources, such as photos from the time period, and archival documents can make history seem more authentic to students, just as picture books also have their place, especially for nursery, primary and high school history classroom settings,” she explained.

“Historical fiction helps children engage and relate each day with written text, and make connections and inferences about the studying of people that lived in the past,” she noted, adding that “cross curricular links help to spark historical knowledge and help children make meaningful connections in their study of history.

“In the area of choice of assignment, it is also important that educators give assignments that have different choice options, as students feel more empowered about learning if given the chance to produce works of their choice, and the format for presentation. Providing choice about content and product are a great place to start.

“Additionally, pupils can be given the opportunity to collect materials from their immediate environment that connote history, a development that would transform the classroom into an interactive museum. Another most important tip of making history class very most interesting, is to make the content personalised for the students. This can be done, by relating the scenarios with the life of students’ parents, or grandparents.

Moreover, the teachers can also show pictures of some historical events, which they attended.

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