Between higher order learning and technical skills


 By Abubakar Aliyu Liman


I will begin my argument on the dichotomy of ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’, which essentially recognises that knowledge is knowledge even if it is called any other name in any context. The difference of all forms of knowledge is however simply in methodology. A scientific knowledge is a research based knowledge that is legitimated by a recognisably acceptable criteria of verification and authentication. Until recently, there is ochestrated attempt to belittle university education in Nigeria in the pages of social and mainstream media. The whole thing is of course arising out of mischief, ignorance or even a clear misunderstanding of the dispute between ASUU and the Federal Government over the funding of public universities. 

The first sign of the denigration of the Nigerian university system comes from a nonedescript motley who have this habit of thinking that the fundamental function of a university is to solve the problems of society through research, not minding whether our universities are equipped to play that role or not. And as far as they are concerned, Nigerian universities are not performing that function. Perhaps, this assumption is arising out of total misunderstanding of the role of universities. Hence, the verbal altercations that ensued over the manner of knowledge that should be inculcated to university students in Nigeria. In their diatribe, these people are clearly advocating for what they are ferreting from half-digested Internet sources, that is, what they commonly referred to as knowledge relevant to the 21st century world.

The counter argument of two academics that are very visible in the social media suffice here to understand the argument of the proponents of skills teaching in our universities. The first response was made by Dr. Abdullahi Dahiru who in his Facebook posting has clearly set out to debunk the sheer fallacy that underscores the notion of the 21st century as a century in which knowledge can be “learnt, unlearnt and relearnt”, to regurgitate the incantation of the netizens of our digital culture. This has been turned into a clitche, and a buzz phraseology that they fashionably borrowed from the media propaganda tools of the hirelings of capitalist market credo. He then insisted that there is nothing as “certificates having less value than ‘skills’ in the 21st century or that certificates acquired from schools ‘expire’ or one doesn’t need to have higher degrees once he can have skills.” 

The second response was made by Prof. Ibrahim Bello Kano (alias IBK). Prof. IBK was compelled to make WhatsApp response to one Dele Owolowo who also responded to Prof. Tony Afejuku’s article in a Guardian Newspaper. Owolowo strongly thinks our universities should be imparting relevant skills to students as if that was the key role of a university. As usual, IBK has persuasively and convincingly argued that “Nowhere in the world is a university producing cars or refrigerators … Universities are there to produce knowledge or cutting edge research that could be used in a variety of ways, from technical and managerial areas to cultural and psychological-historical ones. If we insist on a backward linkage between universities and the economy, then the latter would just be spaces for managerial research or conduits for industry and private enterprise to use and discard”. This is indeed a very strong argument on the idea of a university!

The danger of insisting that universities should teach students technical skills is, to say the least, a call to destroy the essence of a university. A university is in this sense being turned into a polytechnic. This attempt is however counterproductive. A university must play its role as a centre of theoretical reflection, critical thinking and cutting edge research in basic sciences and arts. Universities should then not be turned into a hub for skills acquisition. Polytechnics are by their mandate the appropriate avenues for the dissemination of technical skills. The best that any serious government can do is to ensure that universities and polytechnics come together for a genuine pursuit of the industrial development of Nigeria. It must be reiterated at this juncture that basic research can always  be applied to different conditions, circumstances and possibilities. 

This debate on the question of knowledge and skills is however not new. It has all alone been there in the historical annals of our much coveted modern society. Indeed, it was started as far back as the Enlightenment period in Europe. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, and his disciple John Sturt Mills have, in their philosophical disquisitions on the principle of utility, aligned themselves to the pursuit of empirically verifiable knowledge based purely on scientific criteria. In short, Bentham and Mills have agreed that the knowledge that can applicably be considered relevant must contain some components of social utility.

This old argument was later reinvigorated by calls for synergy between a modern university system and industry to enhance productivity, efficiency, relevance and quality of material production. The debate was also rechoed in the second decade of the 21st century with the publication of a book titled, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (2013) by Andrew McGettigan, in which the relationship between university system and market was cemented. 

The idea of marketisation of the university system that started in Britain and United States with the imposition of Thatcherism and Reaganomics was in line with the public sector reforms against the welfare state. The economic reform policies endangered by Thatcherism and Reaganomics were against social sector spending, including the financing of public institutions that constituted themselves as obstacles to the creation of an unfettered space for full blown capitalist exploitation of resources and labour. Again, arising from those reforms most values were appropriated and subjected to the commodification and commercialisation mantra of the market forces. 

That is what the neoliberal economic gamble with university education is all about. It is about transforming our traditional reliance on value-free research in basic sciences and arts, which is ironically responsible for most great breakthroughs in scientific inventions and discoveries. In fact, most modern inventions and discoveries have come about simply as byproducts of research in basic sciences. Paradoxically still, most of the recorded pathbreaking researches are however not coming out of research in the applied sciences or applied arts fields like medicine, engineering, law and administration, etc. 

So, I sincerely wonder where the purveyors of capitalist skills acquisition education are getting their facts. Without doubt, the reemergent debate on knowledge and skills has come out of the momentous historical changes in the 21st century world of high technology through the rise of globalism, neoliberalism, unipolarity, corporatocracy and postmodern culture. Together these historical and cultural trends have created a situation in which the old certainties of the Enlightenment narrative have all been obfuscated and discarded.

High-tech inventions in the form of digital technology, new media devices and social media platforms have been streamlined as avenues for the promotion of the neoliberal ideology, values and the logic of capitalist globalisation. As it is, the neoMarxian notion of hyperrealism, a form of virtual reality in digital parlance, has become the new norm in which virtual university, virtual library, machine learning, smart classroom, system thinking, data science, artificial intelligence (IT) and robotics have now been summoned to replace human agency in its totality in our newer and braver world of scintillating unreality of the fleeting images of the ever illusive chimeras, a form of subliminally induced capitalist consumption habit to further emasculate uncritical hordes of ‘zombified’ humans.

That is also the reason why the relevance of our conventional universities is increasingly being questioned by the purveyors of the need to substitute conventional learning with machine learning, IT and robotics like Elon Musk and his ilk all over the place, who are these days promoting another false narrative in which they think in our brave digital era a university degree is no longer relevant.

Furthermore, Eugenicism, a bizarre science advocated by the masters of the universe, is, in my opinion, everywhere propping up the idea of posthumanism through a deliberate project of population control, man-machine cloning and euthanasia. All these cranky ideas are being popularised through the agency of genetic science and technology. 

In essence, the deployment of technology to replace human labour has created all sorts of cutting edge inventions and experimentations with nature and human body specifically. In this regard, there is the intensification of the exploration of the potential of the implantations of microchips in the human body and such other overarching genetic tinkering with natural order of things. These developments in the sciences have strengthened the hands of the globalists in their age-old bid to control the world by all means.

Therefore, considering the frequency in which the relevance of epistemic structures in our conventional universities is questioned, I sincerely think, we are merely coming to terms with the successes of projects embarked upon by global agencies for the perpetuation of western hegemony. In Africa it is the World Bank, the IMF and other multilateral agencies that are effectively doing the job. Their target, as you may be aware, is to arrest genuine development agendas in the postcolonial nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The bid to arrest development could as well be said to be responsible for the freezing, nay, literally bombing our nations back to Stone Age,  through the brazen efforts to hamstring any dream of industrial development based on higher order learning. 

Our policy makers have since been armtwisted as they railroad us to accept the abandonment of advanced higher order learning for the utilitarianism of skills acquisition. African leaders have been consistently told that Africa does not need abstract knowledge, critical thinking or higher order learning for its developmental needs. All that is required is basic skills for survival. Of course, any other thing can be done by experts and consultants supplied by those global agencies that have taken over the production of development policies and decisions in our countries, visibly through the World Bank and IMF loan traps. Indeed, our leaders were sheepishly browbeaten to accept the destructive trajectory of maldevelopment, and the underdevelopment of Africa as argued in the 1970s by panAfricanists.

The deliberate attempts to arrest African developments have started manifesting themselves with the idea of promoting mainly vocational and technical education schools for the production of semi-skilled middle level manpower, again from the mid 1970s. The whole thing was like a joke! The project was then extended to vociferous clamouring for the establishment of more polytechnics all over the place based on the argument that a country like Nigeria needs polytechnics more than universities for its development requirement. 

In the universities themselves, the first argument that was smuggled into the system was over the revaluation of the relevance of knowledge, which is then turned into ghettoised specialisations and hierarchies of value within the academia itself. First, it was said disciplines in the Sciences are better than disciplines in the Humanities. Eventually, the nurturing of such a false premise has led to the dichotomisation of university enrolment in Nigeria on the basis of 60:40 ratio between the Sciences and the Humanities. It didn’t just stop at that at all! 

This false narrative has also accentuated the bifurcation of theory and practice, knowledge and skills, which was then extended to the so called differentiation between basic sciences and applied sciences, as well as between basic arts and applied arts, and of course the prioritisation of the latter. That is by way of giving preference to the applied disciplines in the sciences and the arts over and above basic disciplines. 

Meanwhile, those hegemonic western nations that are forcing Africa to assimilate this erroneous thinking did not engage in that kind of politics of knowledge ‘hierarchiesation’ and ‘dichotomisation’ of disciplinary structures in the institutional precincts of the academia in their own countries in the manner they are now promoting it here in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. 

You may wish to know that disciplines in the humanities are a serious business in the western world. That is because development is in all ramifications about attitudinal change, civility and cultural refinement, which only the humanities offer. Development is not just about mere acquisition of material trappings of life as we are being made to believe.

All the same, we were made to uncritically swallow the blatant lie that prioritises technical skills over conventional university knowledge system hook-line-and-sinker. As a mattter of fact, the essence of all disciplinary structures, whether in the sciences or in the humanities, has been deliberately distorted in the face of an all out propaganda war to stifle the inherent duality of theoretical and practical approaches to human endeavours and anything that will promote any form of authentic reflection and profundity of critical thinking. As you may wish to know also, reflection is the key to any form of productive engagement.

Liman is a Professor of Comparative Literature and Popular Culture at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria.

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