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Published On: Mon, Jan 28th, 2019

Rethinking humanities and the social sciences’ curricula

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By Tunji Olaopa

In an influential 1959 Redes Lecture titled ‘The Two Cultures,’ C. P. Snow, the British scholar, asserts that the intellectual life of the Western society was split between the sciences and the humanities (and, we may add, the social sciences—the HSS). That is not the real issue, though. Snow’s powerful thesis is that this unnecessary rivalry is the source of hindrance to the resolution of major problems in the world. The rivalry Snow was talking about goes beyond the normal disciplinary disdain the scientists have for, say, the literary scholar.
So, when asked if s/he has read Shakespeare, the scientist snorts and asks how Shakespeare’s sonnet or plays can contribute to the ongoing attempt at achieving nuclear fission for development purpose. And then the scientist counters further with the question of what the literary person knows about thermodynamics and the general law of relativity. And the predictable answer is equally that the second law of thermodynamics lacks the sublime elements that hold the society together in harmonious relationship. What is really troublesome, according to Snow, is the perceived incommensurability between the sciences and the HSS. He calls it ‘a gulf of mutual incomprehension’ that prevents legitimate and mutually productive conversations.
P. Snow himself was an accomplished scientist and novelist. He ought to know what is lost in terms of values when the rivalry is allowed to get out of hand. Now translate the terms of this ‘culture war’ into the context of disciplinary rivalry in Nigeria, and you ought to become immediately alarmed. When Snow was concerned about the lack of progress within the Western society, no one can begrudge his assessment of the situation. But a comparative analysis would reveal that Nigerian society and our development efforts are by far the worse for such a disciplinary opposition. While Snow saw the rivalry in terms of ‘culture war,’ it is appropriate for us to see it in terms of development stagnation.
And this inertia is motivated by the number of polarities that populate the Nigerian society—the false binary between the mental and the manual, the university and the polytechnic, the degree and the certificate, and between the sciences and the HSS.
Unfortunately, it seems not only that the Nigerian development architecture instigated these binaries, but the latter have equally reinforced Nigeria’s overall non-performance as a developing nation.
Development is about harnessing the critical mass of skills, intelligences and resources available to a nation towards economic and non-economic purposes. Each nation in the world goes about such development decisions in tune with its uniqueness and contextual variables. It is interesting that all over the world today, the humanities and the social sciences are facing some really serious threat to their relevance in the age of capitalism. In essence, the HSS are not regarded as any longer relevant within the productive template created by the capitalist economic model. And capitalism stands today as the singular motivator of curricular content. The most noteworthy example of this is the emerging STEM disciplines. STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—has been recognised, within the capitalist paradigm, as the emblematic development-oriented disciplines that any nation requires to jumpstart its national progress.
On the contrary, however, it would be a disastrous mistake for Nigeria, or any other African nation, to take the global siege against the HSS as validation for a similar action. There is a serious basis for this worry. The African policy architecture is critically afflicted by some kind of West-centric fixation that ensures that any policy direction initiated in the West gets replicated here and uncritically too. There are several such policies. We are living witness to the continuing economic effects of the Washington Consensus which those we are aping have since long abandoned.
Education and educational policy, for instance, becomes effective when they are configured within the contextual variables that make up any particular society.
This, in any way, does not preclude giving regular attention to global best practices that could help us rethink educational practices in terms of research, teaching and curriculum development. Yet no nation can afford to become a slave to global best practices. And in this case, the brutal rationalisation of the HSS out of development contention is not a best practice. Curriculum is critical, and that cannot be overemphasised. The calibration of social harmony as well as the instigation of the trajectory of human and national development all depends on the capacity a nation’s curricular template possesses to harvest HSS values.
The pertinent question here is: What led to the emergence of the HSS in the history of ideas? Answering this question poses a dilemma for Nigeria. This is because policy fiat has ruled the teaching of History out of the curriculum. Yet, in this instance, history has a significant lesson to impart that could orient national direction in educational matters. Essentially, history teaches that the curriculum of any educational system ought to be the very essence of cultural pragmatism. Nigeria is a complex postcolonial reality. It is really a surprise that we would ever imagine that it is solely the promotion of a scientific and technological education that could properly map such a complex national terrain. Nigeria is not just a nation of mineral resources, budgeting dynamics, infrastructural requirements and other scientific frameworks of development; it is equally a nation of people with various and varying attitudes and idiosyncrasies who could truncate any intricately developed plans. In fact, my experience as a civil service reformer is essentially that it is not the plans and visions that really matters. There is a surfeit of these. What does is the critical mass of people with the reform mentality who can participate in the process and push the reform to its logical implementation conclusion.
The HSS are founded on the analysis of the intricate basis of human cultural, psychological and physical relationships. And it seems to me that their curricular contents ought to flow seamlessly into the humans’ investigation of the complex physical universe, which is the domain of the sciences.
According to Ken Robinson, ‘School systems should base their curriculum not on the idea of separate subjects, but on the much more fertile idea of disciplines… which makes possible a fluid and dynamic curriculum that is interdisciplinary.’ It was this interdisciplinary deficit that C. P. Snow was lamenting in the Western society of the nineteen century. It is the same interdisciplinary deficit that stands solidly behind our development stagnation since the National Policy on Education (NPE) was crafted. Unfortunately, a document that ought to spell out Nigeria’s educational basis for national development is what constitutes its most significant hindrance.
And so, the NPE becomes the first source of legitimate worries and investigation. And the primary challenge would be that of how to forge a policy pathway towards a positive science and HSS co-evolution and curricular cooperation. In separating the sciences from the HSS, the NPE has facilitated an intellectual relationship that is at cross purposes with Nigeria’s development objectives. It is not just scientific and technological development Nigeria needs, but a holistic development framework It is almost certain, factoring in other nations experiences, that when we finally arrive at the scientific and technological El Dorado we are aiming for, we will still find ourselves at a zero point where we will then still need to answer some of those questions, and deal with some of those issues, we ought to have attended to at the beginning—those issues we really need to attend to right now; issues like how the HSS can meaningfully orient science and technology.
I am therefore of the opinion that curriculum matters, contrary to what the norm is, are too significant to be left to the government alone. It is now time to enlarge the space of participation with regard to what goes inside what we teach. Matters of educational policies, research and curriculum development are entirely left to the institutional discretion of the Nigerian Educational research and Development Council (NERDC). Broadening the scope of intervention and conversations to include other stakeholders would serve the purpose of meeting what Heidi Hayes Jacobs calls ‘a need for both timeless curriculum content and timely content.’
The HSS curriculum requires a massive dose of innovative reflection and rehabilitation. It requires a total restructuring of our mental model on the presumed division between the sciences and the HSS. That can only happen if we collaborate. Al Gore agrees: ‘We have to abandon the conceit that isolated personal actions are going to solve this crisis. Our policies have to shift.’ of Nigeria.

Dr. Olaopa is the Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy.

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