Not all that glitters is gold: My quarrels with Nigerians’ denigrating humanities for science


By Umar Yandaki

On December 18th 2020, a day that would enter Nigeria’s very long annals – as it occasioned the release of the over 340 abducted #KankaraSchoolsBoys – we, students of history alongside other humanists witnessed yet, another ‘executive harassment’ too much to be allowed to escape our pens.

In a trending video which displayed how the released Government Science Secondary School, Kankara pupils were received by Katsina State Government, President Buhari appeared imploring the pupils not just to forget the trauma inflicted upon them by their abductors, but to concentrate more on their studies. In vernacular, Mr. President also stated thus: “Ba wanda ya karanta Tarihi ba ko Turanci; A’a wadanda sukayi kimiyya sune zasu fi samun aiki a na gaba”, (contextually meaning that one’s success in future depends not on subjects like HISTORY or ENGLISH but SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGY).

In Nigeria, this is not the first time that humanities/arts/liberal arts were nearly reduced to nothing to favor Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) via ‘executive utterances’, in key government-related development policies, or even within academic circles; and ludicrously so. During the early 1980s, for instance, a ‘Second Republic government in Kaduna State abruptly cut down by half, the scholarship awards of the arts students in the Universities and even increased the scholarship of the science students’. Later, especially from the 1990s, the managements of some Universities began sharing research funds to researchers on a 40/60 ratio in favor of STEM. Subsequently, even undergraduate admission space came to be shared along this ratio.

President Obasanjo (1999-2007) once held a similar view. According to Dr. Abdulbasit Kassim, Obasanjo in his meeting with Nigerians in the Diaspora Organization, stated thus: “some people came to me and they said they have two masters degree and yet cannot get a job. Then I asked what did you read and they replied Mass-Communication and the other one said Sociology. Then I told them, you are uneducated. You have to go back and be re-educated and create value for your skills.” Yet, on July 25th 2007, the Nigerian Tribune (p.8) conveyed an editorial reporting how the former Governor of Bayelsa State, Timipre Sylva stated that “courses being run by the Faculty of Arts of the Niger Delta University were of no relevance to the needs of a new Bayelsa State”.

Essentially, the form of knowledge dealing with the physical world through some systematic principles often aimed at outputs for practical purpose, as typified by Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Engineering, Computer Science, etc. are considered the vogue; and more so, at the peril of those disciplines studying the experiences of human-lived societies through intellectual exercises, such as History, Languages, Anthropology, Religious Studies, Sociology, Political Studies and Philosophy, among others. But why has this trend been so intermittent for quite some time? The answer lies within the often despised disciplines of humanities – history to be precise.

Back to History

Itself a colonial initiative realized in 1914, the Nigerian State suffered multiple bruises from colonialism at a very tender age. Of all the bruises, however, the most damaging and long lasting has been the colonial project that structurally robbed us the collective ability to think, to innovate and to chart for ourselves, an independent development initiative. At the peak of this project during the colonial period, its major driving force was cultural imperialism which was later, both accentuated and perpetuated by neocolonialism and globalization; and at all the times reared its ugly head through a major gateway – the education system imposed on us.

This (western) education system, highly systematic and organized to serve the needs of the major establishers and benefactors of the global system (i.e. the developed Western Nations), was anchored towards a central idea – that of universalism. Whether as humanities or STEM, the fields of study within our education system were – and are still being – fashioned as universal in outlook. No wonder, the validity of the purported decolonization of History in this as in other African countries is still being questioned by many interlocutors even among African historians.

It is through this universalism that the advanced, industrialized nations used varied methods through which they strategically conditioned our collective psyche to sense ‘wisdom’ in some logically structured systems, which animate global collaborations for collective human progress at the surface but deceitfully entrench imperial domination on us in the underground. In this parlance, we were not expected to disagree with the International Law, International Court of Justice, International Monetary Fund, World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, etc.

In a manner of international cooperation and globalization, we were also expected to look up to such things that are tied to internationalism for guidance in terms of music, holidays, medical check-ups, tourism, expert advise, technical assistance, loans, basic electronic appliances, and even the ‘good’ politics – universal democracy. Within this universal system, our expected role to develop and achieve excellence is simply to copy!

And carried away by how science and technology have since the Industrial Revolution been continuously simplifying human social pursuits across all imaginable divides, especially in the advanced nations – making them some kind of ‘heavens on earth’, our governments and their think-tankers began contemplating synonymity between science and development. Unfortunately, however, instead of them to think beyond the surface and chart some possible ways to exploit our indigenous ‘scientific’ potentialities as a people, our think-tankers (ignoring the fact that at a point in history, science was African as much as it was Arab or British), became blinded by the glitters of those ‘heavens on earth’; concentrating more on the superficialities – the glitters, splendors and luster of the final outcomes of science and technology rather than the actual toils that brought such scientific excellence and technological sophistications into existence.

As for the humanists, whose disciplines neither teach nor undertake hands-on training on how to construct roads or how to innovate machines, their vocations were considered as those being pursued for their own sake; and therefore, worthless. It is, therefore, not for nothing that history was once expunged from Nigeria’s education curriculum. It is also not for nothing that most government scholarships focus on STEM fields. But does the ‘glitters’ of science metamorphose it to ‘gold’ for Nigerians? This leads us to another aspect of this discourse.

That it Glitters Doesn’t Mean It’s Always a Gold

The flaw of choosing STEM to be the ‘sacred’ field of study in Nigeria lies in its very foundation; not just because the major focus was kept on the ‘glitters’ of the final outcomes of scientific excellence and technological sophistications, but because such ‘glitters’ were almost squarely pursued at the expense of other fields of study, particularly the humanities. Remember the quest for import substitution industrialization and the phony of technology transfer, especially during the early years after independence. Anyway, during those early Post-Colonial years, the arts and humanities were still held with some respect, and they produced scholars of continental and global repute.

As for the Nigerian ‘scientists’, themselves constrained by the lack of enough education and various other training facilities, as well as the inherent flaw of the education system, which encourages apemanship, mimicry and imitation (of the West), they are yet to lead any major scientific or technological breakthrough. Of course, a few promising Nigerian scientists there are, but most of them were either both trained and working outside this country, or at least made more impact in other parts of the world. As for those in Nigeria, they mostly devolve from young inquisitive and potentially innovative students, to full scale ‘scientists’, whose innovativeness have eventually been reduced by the tumultuous vagaries of this country to orchestrating how to guard their daily meals – sometimes, to whatever length, including succumbing to religious and ethnic passions.

Of course, one may argue that as it is, we in Nigeria are enjoying the dividends of even if it is imported science and technology. This, to be sure, is true. Thanks to the cars, ACs, phones, IT, etc, that we use on the daily. But how about the prices we are paying for importing science, when we are still inhumane? Think about the devastating effects of the auto-crashes we are grappling with or the effects of the proliferation of Small and Light Weapons on our collective security!

How for example, could one possibly rationalize the superiority of STEM over those of the humanities in a country where most citizens lack the commonsense to voluntarily adhere to traffic regulations (In many Nigerian cities where there are traffic lights, Police Officers would have to hold sticks guarding such traffic lights for citizens to abide by them) and where humanity is fast fading (un-thanks to the multiple incessant killings, kidnappings, etc)? Remember, it is through the humanities that human imaginations are stretched and fascinating ideas created. It is the humanities that build collective consciousness for a people and serve them with “priceless goods and spiritual services including morality, sense of direction, sense of right and wrong, patriotism, nationalism, redirection and even the phenomena of change and revolution”. The humanities, more than any other field of study explain living conditions of human beings as it pertains to politics, economy, etc, most satisfactorily. After all, ultimately, knowledge produced from all fields of study, whether arts or STEM are all aimed towards one ultimate goal – service to humanity. Once it derails from this, it is unworthy and may even be harmful.

People like Aliyu Dahiru Aliyu and Muh’d Kabir Dattijo would readily retort: that considering instances from the advanced countries in the Western world, Dr. Abdulbasit Kassim have from a global viewpoint, been preaching the same gospel – that of denigrating humanities for STEM. But to be fair to him, Dr. Abdulbasit was not preaching such a gospel. He was rather trying to alert us on what he considers as the reality regarding how some disciplines within the humanities are facing existential crises even in most advanced countries resulting from serious budget cuts from the government; and therefore, he is suggesting that we should deploy eclectic approach in dealing with the humanities. And on this, I agree with him because this is the 21st Century!

To survive in this competitive century, we must, in the style of Adamu Tilde, incorporate critical and analytical skills, computer skills, effective communication skills, creativity and collaborations into our mainstream disciplines. Once we add these to the mainstream knowledge in our disciplines and we expand into new frontiers, our disciplines, regardless of being arts or STEM, must be given their rightful places in the 21st Century academia. It was neither the knowledge of motion nor that of the position of the upper-limb in human anatomy that solely made Mechanical Engineering and Medicine to develop tangible outputs, for example; but the creativity, skills and collaborations that created cars and advanced remedies for human maladies, respectively.

So too, with the humanities; in Nigerian historical studies for instance, new ideas, such as Dr. Samaila Suleiman Yandaki’s ‘Economics of History’, which suggested that Nigeria’s history (through the country’s heritage sites and museums) is of ‘economic use as a tangible cultural capital, whose symbolic significance feeds into the real sectors of the economy – tourism, business, trade’, is beyond terrific.

If for instance, the Scottish heritage industry could be ‘worth £11.6 billion to the economy, and the cultural splendor of Scottish antiquities attracts most of the tourist visits to the country’, then how many much more money could the supposedly well-nurtured and aesthetically pleasing heritage sites and museums in a security-guaranteed Nigeria attract? Much more similar or even better innovations could be made within the same discipline and therefore, the fact that people are now studying for economics of return, should not pose an existential threat to the humanities.

Beyond most Nigerian historians’ empiricist stance, therefore, Nigerian historians must innovatively expand into Information Technology, Environmental Studies, Agriculture, Entrepreneurship, etc, to be taken serious. Of course, innovations seems to be harder within the humanities as they largely deal with human imagination; and more so because human thinking mostly operate in a rigid pattern. Many know that they need to open-up their thinking, but are not too sure of how to go about it. Critical and analytical thinking should, therefore, be requisite courses in humanities. But would ASUU strikes and mimicry even allow all these to happen?

Words for Buhari

President Buhari has not been fair to history in particular. More than it has done to any other Nigerian President, history contributed in bringing Buhari to power. But he betrayed history. The magnificent and indefatigable it is, however, history does not need anyone to defend it against Buhari. In some few years to come, it will surely revenge. As for the English language, he should know that, as we breathe, the STEM he is glorifying cannot be studied without English language. There are of course, people who call for the teaching of STEM in our local languages. While this may not be bad (that is if it is not too late), he should know that English is indisputably the global language of the sciences. As such, for any scientific breakthrough developed using languages other than English to be globally sensible, it must be effectively communicated in English language.

And this effective communication in English language is what many, if not most Nigerian ‘scientists’ sadly lack. When I sat for the United States-based GRE test last year, I noticed one thing: while Quantitative Reasoning constitutes the major nightmare of arts students, most of the STEM students I came across were, after months of preparations, still afraid of, and had their least scores in Verbal Reasoning. I have also heard the story of a 400 level first-class student of Physics who did not know what the word ‘Diaspora’ means.

Even in developed countries where some disciplines within the humanities are grappling with budget cuts, I doubt if History and English would ever be treated as worthless. If you are interested in measuring how advanced countries value history, just think about why the United States, a country that refused to offer respect or even basic humanity to African Americans is honoring black history in an extraordinary way.

The States still funds thousands of PhDs and other researches on African history. I am sure many American and European historians know much more about the people living in Nigeria than Mr. President does. Also, English language based tests (TOEFL and IETLS) are still basic requirements for international students’ admission into many Universities in the States and the United Kingdom, regardless of their fields of study.

In any case, as a student of history, I will continue to monitor the tenure of President Buhari to end, to see how many new technologies he will sponsor Nigerian ‘scientists’ to invent and how many Tankos, Garbas and Baloguns he will send to the moon.

Umar Yandaki writes from Sokoto and can be reached via

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