The reintroduction of history to secondary schools can kick-start national rediscovery, writes Monday Philips Ekpe

Even though history was officially terminated in Nigeria as a secondary school subject in 2007 during the final days of the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, and implemented two years later, its persecution had started way back. The 1969 National Curriculum Conference did not disguise its preference for some subjects and lukewarmth towards others. Then, in the late 1970s, the self-sabotaging idea to magnify the sciences at the expense of the arts began to gain more currency. There was talk of ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ subjects.

I was caught in the middle of the dilemma. Moving from Form Three to Four meant that students had to choose subjects that were directly related to their higher learning goals – commercial, sciences, arts, and so on – and, of course, those to sit for in the West African Examination Council exams. In the absence of proper counselling, I experienced a struggle, was torn between meeting growing societal expectations and following my own intuition. At the end, two things informed my choice of literature, government, history and others: one, fate; two, my primary school teacher had impressed it on me that I would do better in the future with words than figures.

The introduction of the 6-3-3-4 schooling system in the early 1980s didn’t help matters and further amplified the bias against core arts subjects like history. Last week’s reintroduction of history to our basic education curriculum after 13 wasted years is indeed a thing of nostalgia and personal joy. The Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, who lamented the other day about his inability to provide solutions to the numerous challenges facing his sector, can actually claim this moment as a worthy achievement. His order, first given in 2019, may still take root before he leaves office in May next year, especially if the 3,700 history teachers he has recruited for the first round of training make a good start.

Luckily, they have a rich heritage from which to draw enough inspiration and pride. Just to mention three of their most outstanding professional progenitors: Kenneth Dike, Saburi Biobaku and Ade Ajayi. Prof. Dike was the first indigenous vice chancellor of University of Ibadan (UI). Prof. Biobaku was the first African registrar of UI and, later, became the second vice chancellor of University of Lagos (Unilag). Prof. Ajayi, also a product of the Ibadan school of African history and thought, succeeded Biobaku at Unilag in 1972. All three of them were consummate history researchers, scholars, teachers and authors whose influence at the formative stages of the country’s university education cannot be quantified. Operating in an era saddled with tackling the remaining yokes of colonialism, they had their duty cut out for them. Central to that was the rekindling of the nation’s self-esteem and faith in local values. Digging deep into our past, therefore, became inevitable. For them, it was a historic duty they gladly embraced. If teaching and learning history then was a national imperative, it is even more so now. Whole generations which have greater access to foreign events and ways of life have been emerging and, sadly, the inherent dangers of the situation haven’t been identified, let alone confronted.   

To begin with, our rating of history as a subject reflects the deficit in our very understanding of what knowledge acquisition itself is. Simply put, it is the deliberate attempt to eliminate ignorance in whatever form, to unravel facts and truths, to discover latent phenomena and to invent. So, any genuine pursuit of these noble objectives would require acknowledgement of and respect for all fields or disciplines.

Virtually all progressive societies and nations fully grasp the holistic approach to scholarship. Check out the scientifically and technologically advanced countries. You can bet that most of them are also ahead in the areas we tend to trivialise, including history. One poser should agitate our minds: How far has Nigeria gone in practical terms with the science subjects it has glamourised over the years? Truth is, education operates very much like the human body. Some parts appear less useful but contribute nonetheless to the completeness of the individual. Together, they account for its overall functionality.  

Little time should be spent on jubilating over the bold decision to readmit history to secondary schools. More energies should be invested in making it an enduring and profitable reality. Where to start from is to fully digest what we stand to gain as a people. As a field that depends on credible evidence to interpret and reconstruct the past, history is well positioned to enrich our present conduct and guide our journey into tomorrow. The nationalists and patriots who fought and defeated colonial rule were armed with and proud of their traditional backgrounds. No efforts by their white tutors to skew their histories could dissuade them from squarely prosecuting their common objective. 

Today, history, if well taught, could be a ready tool for galvanising nation-building. Because of the overwhelming presence of deprivation, crimes and ever-narrowing opportunities, the tendency for the younger population is to conclude that the country has always been this way. It’s very important that they’re exposed to the numerous glowing aspects of Nigeria in both ancient and contemporary times. Unfortunately, as I write, many Nigerian youths think of the home of their forefathers as second hell. This notion has fuelled the growing ‘japa’ syndrome which envisions hope only in distant lands. We urgently need concrete steps towards self-definition and a sustainable national identity, objectives that would surely be enhanced by teaching the citizens at the early stages of schooling. It’s still possible to view Nigeria not from the point of view of disadvantages in relation to other nations. The task is worth prioritising and pursuing.

The reason for that submission can be found in the many socio-political difficulties we’re faced with now. A cocktail of entrenched misunderstandings, stereotypes and prejudices has conspired to undermine the moves to forge unity and cohesion among Nigerians. A major cause is inadequate or outright lack of insight into the developmental phases that have led to this point. No doubt, the vacuum created by the withdrawal of history contributed to this sorry, worrying state. If we’re going to make any meaningful progress, we must consciously try to avoid previous mistakes.

Education authorities at all levels need to work in concert to chart the way forward. With our very sensitive ethnic and religious sensibilities, requirements of tact and professionalism cannot be over-stated when the syllabus and contents of prescribed books are considered. At every strategic turn, various cultural and social interests must be represented. Historical details should not be garnished to the detriment of other parties. This can be achieved without employing revisionism and other jaundiced pedagogical instruments. Our historians now have a responsibility to lead the charge against false narratives. In so doing, like a clause in the ethical code for journalists, national interest should be in the front seat. After all, journalism is said to be history in a hurry.

Nigeria may well have arrived at the point where true corporate rebirth is possible. Extensive engagements with experts are needed to draw the roadmap for the coming revolution and carefully nurture it to fruition. Practicing and aspiring historians can hold their shoulders high as career prospects beckon. Beyond teaching, museums and other culture centres can now be better manned. Chieftaincy and land affairs will have more informed managers. Public and private archives can become fortified. Speaking opportunities where historical knowledge is showcased will abound. With more enlightened citizens, hope will rise for our national orientation and integration needs currently begging for attention. Endless possibilities, really.

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

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