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Tai Solarin, Unemployment Crisis and the Mayflower Concept

26 May 2013

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By Tunji Olaopa
No Nigerian could ever forget Augustus Tai Solarin: The gaunt-looking, tough, khaki-wearing disciplinarian, author, educator, humanist, social critic and former principal of Mayflower School, Ikenne as well as the inaugural chairman of The People’s Bank of Nigeria. When he died on July 27, 1994, he left a legacy of not only critical ideas about the Nigerian state and the prospects for its development, but also a huge repository of practical dynamics for transforming those ideas into a framework for national development and progress. We celebrate him as a hero whose unique contributions constitute a rich storehouse from which we can begin the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Nigerian national project.

One of the major recurring challenges of Nigeria’s development experience to date is the dimension to economic performance manifesting in mass unemployment and poverty. These are twin social phenomena that are related in terms of cause and effect as well as the impacts they inflict on the psyche and material wellbeing of teeming mass of Nigerians. As Solarin perceived it, the urgent imperative is to undermine this challenge through an active mobilisation of the workforce onto a sustained self-reliant economic development trajectory.

Most nations of the world today have indeed woken up to the significance of human resource management as a sine qua non for economic progress.  Bill Clinton puts critical words to its importance: “In the emerging global economy, everything is mobile: capital, factories, even entire industries. The only resource that’s really rooted in a nation—and the ultimate source of all its wealth—is its people.” The challenge therefore, which Solarin dedicated a whole lifetime to, is that of bridging the policy and educational chasm that produces unemployed and unemployable graduates and thereby build an enviable human capital profile which will serve as the fulcrum for socio-economic transformation.

Government therefore, according to Anthony Giddens, “has an essential role to play in investing in the human resources and infrastructure needed to develop an entrepreneurial culture.” Tai Solarin constitutes a national gadfly in this regard to sting the nation into awareness and sustainable activities. His strategy was both theoretical and practical: first to provide the intellectual foundation of the entrepreneurial culture he was advocating, and second to demonstrate the particulars of the theory and how they would integrate into the national dynamics of education, employment and wellbeing.

Going forwards, we need to face up with a few seminar questions. What do we teach in schools and colleges and how much of what is taught is used in daily life? Has the world not changed so dramatically in the last 20 years? Has our course content changed at the same pace? Who are the people changing the course materials and do they have real-life corporate exposure? This is not to say that we study only to get a job which should be the substance of another piece entirely and the thrust of the contribution of my little book The Joy of Learning. Even in our quest for knowledge-based learning, the question still remains one of whether our course materials contents do not fall short? By how much have we created a balance between educational focuses on knowledge and application in spite of our having come to the realization that knowledge is only one part of education with the 6-3-3-4 system decades ago, and that application is equally important.

What is needed therefore is proper education that would empower Nigerians to stand on their own feet. Self-reliance, as espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is an idea deriving from the need to motivate the individual to harness and unleash his/her potentials. Central to this idea is the profound principle that self-knowledge is the key to self-improvement and self-realization. And the objective of education is, therefore, to help a person achieve this self-realisation.

The unique contribution of Solarin to this Emersonian idea is the transposition of an entirely individualistic idea into a collective national imperative. In other words, for Solarin, there is a logical movement from liberating an individual’s potentials to liberating a nation’s development. After all, the nation is an amalgam of individual patriots bound together by national necessities. To make this transition, self-reliance requires the imperative of skill acquisition and the deployment of that skill for national growth. It is therefore very easy to follow Dr Tai Solarin from secular humanism through the idea of self-reliance to the imperative of education as the fulcrum that translates thought into action. And we are inexorably led to the uniqueness of the Mayflower educational experiment in Nigeria’s education history.

The establishment of Mayflower School in 1956 was the culmination of a long philosophical and educational journey since he returned to Nigeria from England and became the Principal of Molusi College. Mayflower is named after the historical Mayflower ship that brought the first batch of pilgrims to the present United States in 1620. Like the pilgrims, Solarin founded the school in personal rebellion against educational orthodoxy and in favour of an educational philosophy grounded in self-reliance, self-sacrifice, public service and technical vocation. The objective of Mayflower is aptly captured in Johann Pestalozzi, the Swiss educational reformer’s, words: “Not art, not books, but life itself is the true basis of teaching and education.”

The self-reliance principle, erected on the philosophy of secular humanism, demands the negation of the intrinsic dependence inherent in orthodox education which necessarily leads to the search for “white collar” employment. If education is essentially a problem-solving vocation, then it must enable the students to dirty their hands through technical skills, practical crafts and agricultural pursuits in preparation for the complexities of life and the imperative of national development. Mayflower, the students are not only raised on the principle of self-reliance, they are taught to direct their self-motivated energies towards the betterment of Nigeria. 

Today, in line with Solarin’s advocacy for technical education, there is an increasing emphasis on the imperative of what we now call technical and vocational education and training (TVET). This dimension of education prepares the individual for gainful employment through the acquisition of attitudes, understanding and knowledge in addition to practical skills relating to occupations in various sectors of economic and social life.

National service delivery performance trajectory is undermined today by chronic skills gaps of artisans making the nation a celebrated importer of middle-level skills in the midst of  unemployment at crisis level. Artisans, that is, people employed in one trade or another, have been regarded in any society as the mainstay of the economy. Indeed, besides the numerous initiatives to resolve structural issues that will unlock the national economy for full employment therefore, the lesson from Solarin’s Mayflower concept becomes relevant. Hence, the need for yet more fundamental restructuring of the school curriculum and the overall education, national qualification framework, employment and wage policies to re-profile skills-based training, certification and regulation to incorporate Emerson’s ideals and philosophy of self-reliance and skills acquisition among other such concepts and models. 

Tai Solarin’s educational experiment constitutes one of its kinds within the educational sector with reference to the connection between education and national development. It is not surprising, but a national imperative, for Solarin to have handed over the school to the government in 1976. Dr Tai Solarin is a hero not only because he deployed his beliefs and ideals towards the revival of the Nigerian dream, but essentially because, beyond the mere criticism of the Nigerian project and its weaknesses, in the words of Romain Rolland, the French writer, he did what he can. That is all that is needed, within the Nigerian context, to make anyone heroic…and a patriot.
–– Olaopa, Permanent Secretary Federal Ministry of Youth Development Abuja.  tolaopa2003@yahoo.com

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